Interpreting the Theme
Before choosing a topic, you should read NHD’s Theme Sheet about ways to define and interpret a right and a responsibility. NHD suggests thinking about the question, "What are rights?" You may also want to think about how responsibilities connect to rights. "Learning about and explaining the correlation between rights and responsibilities might in fact help you become a better researcher and writer, in addition to deepening your understanding of your topic."1
To determine the historical importance of your topic, you must ask questions about time and place, cause and effect, change over time, impact and significance. It is not enough simply to describe an event or idea. You also must place your topic into historical context and describe why it was important or significant. Historical context refers to the social, political, economic, or cultural environment that allowed the situation to arise and occur. In other words, why did it happen? Historical significance relates to the effects or results of the situation. Without historical context, it is impossible to analyze the impact of an event.
How Old is Old?
You might be inclined to select an interesting right or responsibility that has been momentous in your lifetime—for example, the proprietary rights of Internet companies such as Napster and Facebook or recent legislation regarding marriage rights. However, the long-term impact of such recent innovations is not yet fully known. NHD states, "The general rule of thumb is, don't choose a topic less than twenty-five years [old] or until one generation has passed. Time gives historical perspective."2
When selecting your theme, your first choice might be a very famous person or event that obviously relates to the theme. Examples of well-used topics include the atomic bomb, rock 'n roll, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Pearl Harbor, and Jackie Robinson. But remember: judges appreciate when you have been creative and novel in choosing a topic, and they enjoy learning about lesser-known events and people of the past.