Interpreting the Theme
Before choosing a topic, you should read NHD’s Theme Sheet about ways to interpret a turning point in history. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the term as “a point at which a significant change occurs.” NHD suggests that “a turning point in history is more than just an important event that happened a long time ago. It is an idea, event, or action that directly, and sometimes indirectly, caused change.”1 The change may have been social, cultural, political, economic, technological, religious, or environmental in nature, and it may have subtle or dramatic. For example, the idea of the Atomic Bomb versus the explosion of the bomb had different consequences, but both prompted significant change.
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 turning point in history that has been momentous in your lifetime—for example, the impact of online social networking such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. 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
In selecting a topic relating to the theme, you may wish to focus on a very famous event, such as the Boston Tea Party or New Deal. 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.