…..enough time has passed for us to place the topic into historical context and determine its effect on the course of human events. Sounds easy, but it’s tricky.
What is “enough time?” There is no formula. Many teachers suggest that their students choose topics for study that are at least 20-25 years in the past. That works most of the time but does not account for events that happened maybe 10 or 15 years ago that, in fact, can be historically examined and significance determined.
The study of history is the study of the course of human events and society. It involves cause and effect, change over time and consequences. Historians look for impact which is determined by placing the topic into historical context–the political, cultural, economic, social atmosphere of the time–and consider the “before and after” of the event or individual’s contribution.
For example, a few years after the 9/11 attacks some students wanted to choose 9/11 for their History Day projects. They felt that they could explain the impact of the event and they were correct regarding initial and immediate fears, legislation, etc. But it was too soon to examine the “historical” or long-term impact–how did the responses change America? How did it impact elections, foreign affairs, the lives of everyday Americans? I think that’s doable now even though it’s only been 10 years. (And the fun aspect of studying history is that interpretations change with time as well; so it will be interesting to see how historians analyze 9/11 in another 10 or 20 years.)
The current events in the Middle East are another good test case. We cannot yet determine historical significance of the events in Egypt or Libya. We can say that Gaddafi was overthrown in Libya. But what historical impact has that had? We don’t know yet. In other words, “So what?” In which direction is Libya now going? What kind of government will the country have and what kind of impact will it have on the country and the rest of the world? It’s still too early to tell. We cannot yet answer the question, “So what?”
So, it’s not so much about how many years have gone by, but more about whether or not we can see significant change–not just immediate reaction.
Having said that, it’s fine to set an arbitrary time period of 20-25 years in the past for student researchers. It does make it a bit more clear for them.