2021 Theme Narrative:
Communication in History
During the 2020-2021 academic year, National History Day (NHD) students will explore topics relating to the theme Communication in History: The Key to Understanding. This theme asks students to consider how people exchange information and interact with each other. Students have the chance to explore how the methods and modes of communication have changed over time, and how they have shaped the present. Major inventions like the telephone, the telegraph, and the television stand out in our minds as obvious examples of how communication has changed over time. Yet, communication is more than just these inventions. It is about how words, thoughts, or ideas are exchanged throughout history. THE ACT OF COMMUNICATION Merriam-Webster defines communication as “a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.” History is filled with stories about people, groups, or nations either communicating or failing to communicate with each other. Before we can understand these stories, we must go beyond common definitions of communication and recognize the many ways people communicate. Only then can we begin to investigate the impact communication has had on social and political changes throughout history. Let us look at written communication. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1400s, making it easier to mass-produce the written word. Before that, manuscripts had been written by hand and were only available to the elite. How did the mass production of books and other printed materials help to shape society? Or, consider telecommunication. Students interested in global history might look to the spread of telecommunication lines across the globe. For instance, the development of Australia’s first international telecommunication system linked them to Asia in 1872. How did this development shape international diplomacy?
Students can also research the importance of the radio in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s. The radio provided a more accessible and less expensive way to get updates on popular culture, weather, and daily news. Some students might examine the radio’s role in promoting jazz in the 1920s. Others might explore President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats. How did President Roosevelt use the radio to communicate with the American people? Why was it important that he did so? Conventions, exhibitions, movements, and other public gatherings help people communicate ideas and opinions with each other. For instance, World’s Fairs (also known as World Expositions), in which nations showed off their most recent advancements, exploded in the 1800s. Visitors came from all over the world. Why might countries want to communicate their achievements? What specific ideas and information did the nations show the world, and why might that be important?
Another example is the use of conventions by social activists to speak out on topics like abolition, woman suffrage, temperance, and other social reforms. The Declaration of Sentiments address given at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention revealed that suffragists wanted equality and voting rights. How did the suffragists shape their arguments? Was the message they conveyed wellreceived, or did it lead to a broader discussion? Other students might look to Steve Biko’s speeches and his time with South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement in the 1970s. How did he communicate his demand for an end to apartheid and social unrest in South Africa? Language is a key way we communicate with each other. Immigrants to the United States often lived and worked in communities alongside others who spoke their native language. Why might they have chosen to do so? Did their language barrier make it harder for immigrants to communicate effectively and adjust to life in the United States? What restrictions have been placed on language in the past? Students might explore the ban on the native Hawaiian language following the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani in 1893. Why was the Hawaiian language banned? Did that action change the way native Hawaiians communicated with each other?
Language does not always involve the physical act of speaking. Developed in the early nineteenth century, American Sign Language (ASL) helped deaf individuals communicate. What barriers did hearing-impaired individuals experience before the use of ASL? Similarly, the written language of Braille has helped the blind community communicate. Who invented it, and why? Did it break barriers or create more challenges?
On a more personal level, students might explore letter writing. How were letters used as a means of communication? What did people write about in letters? Did they write to the government, family, or friends? How does the tone change based on the recipient or the topic? Students might explore letters written by women during the American Civil War and investigate what they wrote about. What was the purpose of the letters? To whom did they send these letters? Why did they feel the need to voice their thoughts during the American Civil War? Others might explore open letters like the one written by Émile Zola to protest the Dreyfus Affair in France (1894-1906). What consequences did Zola face? How did the event affect the country of France? Images and imagery, too, can communicate thoughts, opinions, or ideas. Portraits, photographs, and art convey meaning. Students might look to the cave paintings of earlier societies or the hieroglyphs and drawings created by Ancient Egyptians. What do those images convey about their society? Do they communicate what was deemed to be important whether it be about family, war, or society in general? Other examples might include satirical materials from England’s Punch weekly magazine. In 1906, Punch ran “In the Rubber Coils,” a political cartoon that depicted Belgium’s King Leopold II as a rubber vine coiled around a Congolese man. What is the image trying to convey to the reader about the relationship between Europe and Africa? How do images communicate people’s opinions on important political and social topics? How did political cartoons sway public opinion about support for antiimperialism measures?