2020: Breaking Barriers in History
Theme Narrative by Cathy Gorn, Ph.D., Executive Director
We have a new theme for National History Day (NHD) 2020—Breaking Barriers in History. At first glance it seems fairly straightforward; however, sometimes things are not always what they seem. Your first task is to think carefully and critically about what “breaking barriers” means before you choose a topic to research.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a barrier as “something material that blocks or is intended to block passage.” What comes to your mind when you think of physical barriers? Why are barriers built in the first place? Who builds them and what do they hope to accomplish?
Merriam-Webster also defines a barrier as “a natural formation or structure that prevents or hinders movement or action.” What natural barriers come to mind that made movement by people difficult? Rivers, mountains, oceans, deserts, jungles, and more have been barriers in history. How did people come up with ways to break, or perhaps more likely hurdle, such barriers? Why was that important and what were the consequences? How did breaking such barriers influence the development of your community?
The Dictionary also explains a barrier as “something immaterial that impedes or separates.” How is something a barrier if it is not a physical barrier? Think about ideas as barriers. In what ways might legislation create or break barriers? Consider the history of your community. How did legal decisions decide questions about social or racial barriers? Were such barriers broken? How and why?
For a barrier to be broken, it must exist in the first place—either naturally like a mountain or created by humans and societies. For example, why was the Berlin Wall built? To protect people? From what? To control people? Why? What impact did it have locally? How about globally? Why did the Berlin Wall come down—why was it broken apart? What impact did that have on people in Berlin and around the world?
So, barriers can be physical, natural, or ideological. When you think of barriers, it is common to assume a barrier is a negative thing—created by people and societies, keeping them from the freedom to move or think for themselves. But are all barriers negative? Let us turn this upside down. For more, click on PDF version.