At the end of his junior year, Taylor Barker saw a five-minute clip on the Colbert Report that inspired a history research-paper topic. Barker, 18 and now a senior at , recently won first place in the senior division of the research-paper category at the State History Day competition, which took place at the University of Minnesota.
“Some of the judges thought it was amusing that I got my topic idea from the Colbert Report,” Barker said. “It motivated me to investigate more.”
The Colbert Report featured Nicholas Thompson, author of The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War. (Thomson is also the grandson of Kennan, a noted diplomat.)
Barker’s paper, Debates of the Diplomats: Paul Nitze and George Kennan, described how two American diplomats who “shaped the outcome of American Cold War policy” with their radically different proposals, still have an impact on today’s foreign policy.
“It’s remarkable to see how [Kennan’s] perspective has lived on for years to come,” Barker said. “It’s really opened my eyes to see how Cold War policy has an affect on modern-day foreign policy, 20 years after the fact.”
Nitze’s idea was that the Soviet Union was “intrinsically evil,” Barker explained, and that the country would take on the United States with military force. Kennan’s idea was a “containment” policy in which the United States would oppose communists whenever they threatened to expand their influence around the world.
“We can see this debate play out today in places like Libya, Iran and Iraq,” Barker said. “This debate left its fingerprints on today’s policy, so it’s worth studying.”
State History Day
The State History Day, which took place May 1 at the University of Minnesota, had a theme this year called Debate & Diplomacy: Successes, Failures, Consequences. Barker had participated in State History Day in eighth and ninth grades, but this was his first year entering the research-paper category.
Another option is for students to enter the historical-performance category, in which they portray persons from history. In the past, Barker played James Madison, a delegate at the Constitutional Convention.
“It really bolstered my ability to do theater,” he said, adding that he is now involved with the Fridley High School drama department. “It taught me to perform in front of an audience for years to come.”
This year, Barker wanted to try a new category.
“I wanted to experience writing a college-level paper, before I actually set foot on college,” Barker said. “I figured the more experience I could get, it would pay off in the long run.”
Barker has already been taking online college classes through the University of Minnesota-Morris, for the Post Secondary Enrollment Options program (PSEO) in which eligible high school juniors and seniors can take college classes for high school and college credit.
He plans to attend the University of Minnesota-Morris and study an area involving history, with either a second major or a minor in political science.
Fridley High School history teacher Steve Holt encouraged Barker to consider doing a research paper this year. Holt teaches ninth-grade American history and eleventh-grade Cold War history.
With the support of Holt and ninth-grade language arts teacher Dan Terebayza, Barker analyzed historical documents with, Barker said, “very advanced writing that even college students have a hard time with.” Using the university’s inter-library loan system, Barker checked out materials from colleges around the state.
After gathering materials far and wide, Barker invested many months into figuring out which sources to use.
He said the History Day judges look for high-level historical scholarship and a person who is passionate and engaged in their topic. It took Barker six months to finish.
“There was lots of painstaking review and work,” Barker said. “Altogether, it turned out to be a very enriching experience.”
The final product was nine pages long, adhering to the 2,500 word limit. Along with the title page and the bibliography, the paper was 16 pages in length.
Holt and Terebayza helped Barker edit the many revisions of his paper, and gave him suggestions on how to improve it. It took weeks to make revisions.
“Without the help of those two men, I certainly would not have made it this far,” Barker said.
Although Barker knew he had a solid paper, he didn’t expect to win first place.
“I was pretty confident going into it, I knew I had done a lot of tough research,” Barker said. “It was still shocking to see how well I had done. Even after the award ceremony, it still hadn’t sunk in.”
Other Fridley High School projects received honorable mention at State History Day. All groups that received this award were in the senior group website category:
- Courtnie Dritz and Sarah Bensing: The Banning of Huckleberry Finn
- Ali Bennett, Mikaela Maier, and Matt Duehn: The Abortion Debate: Roe vs. Wade
- Angela Greiveldinger and Christine Hitomi: The Salem Witch Trials of 1692
Zineb Alfath, a sophomore at Fridley High School was also in the competition. Her project was called From Public Participation to Civil Disobedience: The 1974 Minnesota Powerline Controversy.
Barker is looking forward to improving his paper even more for the National History Day competition June 12-16 at the University of Maryland, College Park. The top two students from each category and each state are selected to compete at National History Day.
“I’m very confident I’ll be able to prove my topic’s relevance in history,” Barker said. “I have no doubt whatsoever that this is going to be a fun experience.”