Monday, May 25, 2020

INHERITED BIRTHRIGHT

I belong to the generation of patriots that fought World War II. On the occasion of Winston Churchill's death in 1965, I wrote (in Cornell's student newspaper) that those who came after us could not fully understand why we, who remember the great and terrible events of 1940-1941, should be so moved by his death; that they could not appreciate him as we did; that to them he was merely a name or, at most, a legendary figure, whereas to us he was, among other things, the embodiment of the greatest cause in our lives: the preservation of government of, by, and for the people at a time when it was most imperiled. We thought it altogether fitting and proper that (on April 9, 1963) he was made an honorary citizen of the United States. 

Britain had, of course, been fighting for more than two years by the time we went to war, and it is not to belittle her contribution to final victory to say that the war could not have been won without us; Churchill knew this and acknowledged it. We were "the arsenal of democracy"; more than that, we were, as Abraham Lincoln said-not boastfully but as a fact-"the last, best hope of earth." 


This was true in 1862 when Lincoln said it, as well as in 1941, and it is more obviously true today. Like it or not-and it is something of a burden, certainly a responsibility-America is to modern history as Rome was to ancient, and not only because we are the one remaining superpower. Modern politics began three hundred-plus years ago with the discovery or pronouncement of new principles, universal and revolutionary principles, respecting the rights of man. In 1776 we declared our right to form a new nation by appealing to these principles. Because we were the first to do so, it fell to us to be their champions, first by setting an example-this was Lincoln's point-and subsequently by defending them against their latter-day enemies, the Nazis and fascists in World War II and the communists in the cold war. Our lot is to be the one essential country, "the last, best hope of earth," and this ought to be acknowledged, beginning in our schools and universities, for it is only then that we can come to accept the responsibilities attending it. 


Our unique place in the world is recognized elsewhere, sometimes grudgingly or inadvertently. In 1987, the bicentenary of our Constitution, I was in Brazil, where the people had recently overthrown a military dictatorship and had begun the process of writing a democratic constitution. I had been invited to lecture on constitutionalism. At one place, a university in Recife, after I had finished my prepared remarks, someone got up and denounced, not me, but the local official who had who had sponsored my appearance. "Why," he shouted, "did you invite an American? What can they tell us about constitutions? They've had only one. Why didn't you invite a Bolivian? They've had a hundred!
I have enjoyed telling this story to students here, expecting them to appreciate it and hoping that they might even learn something from it. My hope is that they and their elders might learn something from this book, specifically, why this country deserves citizens who love and honor it, and are prepared to defend it. Political scientist Sheldon Wolin had this in mind when he pointed out that we are citizens not only in the formal or legal sense, but because we share a birthright "inherited from our fathers," a birthright to be cared for, improved, and passed on to future generations.

Walter Berns. Making Patriots (Kindle Locations 27-31). Kindle Edition.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

THE RIGHT STUFF

My God!—to be a part of Edwards in the late forties and early fifties!—even to be on the ground and hear one of those incredible explosions from 35,000 feet somewhere up there in the blue over the desert and know that some True Brother had commenced his rocket launch…in the X–I, the X–IA, the X–2, the D–558-1, the horrible XF–92A, the beautiful D–558-2…and to know that he would soon be at an altitude, in the thin air at the edge of space, where the stars and the moon came out at noon, in an atmosphere so thin that the ordinary laws of aerodynamics no longer applied and a plane could skid into a flat spin like a cereal bowl on a waxed Formica counter and then start tumbling, not spinning and not diving, but tumbling, end over end like a brick…In those planes, which were like chimneys with little razor-blade wings on them, you had to be “afraid to panic,” and that phrase was no joke. In the skids, the tumbles, the spins, there was, truly, as Saint-Exupéry had said, only one thing you could let yourself think about: What do I do next? 

 Sometimes at Edwards they used to play the tapes of pilots going into the final dive, the one that killed them, and the man would be tumbling, going end over end in a fifteen-ton length of pipe, with all aerodynamics long gone, and not one prayer left, and he knew it, and he would be screaming into the microphone, but not for Mother or for God or the nameless spirit of Ahor, but for one last hopeless crumb of information about the loop: “I’ve tried A! I’ve tried B! I’ve tried C! I’ve tried D! Tell me what else I can try!” And then that truly spooky click on the machine. What do I do next? (In this moment when the Halusian Gulp is opening?) And everybody around the table would look at one another and nod ever so slightly, and the unspoken message was: Too bad! There was a man with the right stuff. There was no national mourning in such cases, of course. Nobody outside of Edwards knew the man’s name. If he were well liked, he might get one of those dusty stretches of road named for him on the base. He was probably a junior officer doing all this for four or five thousand a year.

Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff (47-48). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. [1983] Kindle Edition.

Monday, May 11, 2020

WISDOM AND KNOWLEDGE

The policymaker undertakes multiple tasks, many of them shaped by his society’s history and culture. He must first of all make an analysis of where his society finds itself. This is inherently where the past meets the future; therefore such a judgment cannot be made without an instinct for both of these elements. He must then try to understand where that trajectory will take him and his society. He must resist the temptation to identify policymaking with projecting the familiar into the future, for on that road lies stagnation and then decline. Increasingly in a time of technological and political upheaval, wisdom counsels that a different path must be chosen. By definition, in leading a society from where it is to where it has never been, a new course presents advantages and disadvantages that will always seem closely balanced. To undertake a journey on a road never before traveled requires character and courage: character because the choice is not obvious; courage because the road will be lonely at first. And the statesman must then inspire his people to persist in the endeavor. Great statesmen (Churchill, both Roosevelts, de Gaulle, and Adenauer) had these qualities of vision and determination; in today’s society, it is increasingly difficult to develop them.

For all the great and indispensable achievements the Internet has brought to our era, its emphasis is on the actual more than the contingent, on the factual rather than the conceptual, on values shaped by consensus rather than by introspection. Knowledge of history and geography is not essential for those who can evoke their data with the touch of a button. The mindset for walking lonely political paths may not be self-evident to those who seek confirmation by hundreds, sometimes thousands of friends on Facebook.

In the Internet age, world order has often been equated with the proposition that if people have the ability to freely know and exchange the world’s information, the natural human drive toward freedom will take root and fulfill itself, and history will run on autopilot, as it were. But philosophers and poets have long separated the mind’s purview into three components: information, knowledge, and wisdom. The Internet focuses on the realm of information, whose spread it facilitates exponentially. Ever-more-complex functions are devised, particularly capable of responding to questions of fact, which are not themselves altered by the passage of time. Search engines are able to handle increasingly complex questions with increasing speed. Yet a surfeit of information may paradoxically inhibit the acquisition of knowledge and push wisdom even further away than it was before.

The poet T. S. Eliot captured this in his “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”: “Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Facts are rarely self-explanatory; their significance, analysis, and interpretation—at least in the foreign policy world—depend on context and relevance. As ever more issues are treated as if of a factual nature, the premise becomes established that for every question there must be a researchable answer, that problems and solutions are not so much to be thought through as to be “looked up.” But in the relations between states—and in many other fields—information, to be truly useful, must be placed within a broader context of history and experience to emerge as actual knowledge. And a society is fortunate if its leaders can occasionally rise to the level of wisdom.
 

Henry Kissinger, (9-9-2014). World Order (348-350). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Friday, May 8, 2020

THE ENGLISH SENTENCE

We were considered such dunces, [he recalls in My Early Life] that we could only learn English. Mr Somervell—a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great—was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing—namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practised continually English analysis. 

Mr Somervell had a system of his own. He took a fairly long sentence and broke it up into its components by means of black, red, blue and green inks. Subject, verb, object: Relative Clauses, Conditional Clauses, Conjunctive and Disjunctive Clauses! Each had its colour and its bracket. It was a kind of drill. We did it almost daily. 

As I remained in the Third Fourth (β) three times as long as anyone else, I had three times as much of it. I learned it thoroughly. Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary English sentence—which is a noble thing. And when in after years my schoolfellows who had won prizes and distinction for writing such beautiful Latin poetry and pithy Greek epigrams had to come down again to common English, to earn their living or make their way, I did not feel myself at any disadvantage.


Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill: Youth, 1874–1900 (Volume I) (Churchill Biography) (129). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

CARRIED AWAY BY HISTORY


“Getting Carried Away With History”
Marcia Reecer, American Educator, [AFT] Winter 1993/1994, pp. 19-23

“Wanted: Essays for a history quarterly devoted to the work of students.” Will Fitzhugh has been putting out calls like this since 1987 when he embarked on the first issue. One of the few magazines that prints only the work of students—and the only one that specializes in scholarly articles—the Review has published essays from as far away as Tasmania and Singapore, but most come from American high school students.

You might not know this if you picked up the magazine—or read it. It is all type, including the cover, and has the old-fashioned (some might say stuffy) look of a scholarly journal. But there is nothing stuffy about the articles. They are lively, straightforward explorations of ideas and events that obviously fascinated the writers. One of Will Fitzhugh’s favorite stories is about the officer of a foundation who, having turned down the Review’s application for financial support, glanced at one of the essays. Before he knew it, he had read the whole 150-page issue [386 pages in Summer 2020 issue].

Fitzhugh got the idea for The Concord Review when he was teaching history at Concord High School in Concord, Massachusetts. Every year there were a couple of students who really got into the long essays he assigned them. They caught fire, and for these kids, it was no longer a question of how many pages they were supposed to produce or the number of books required for their reference list. The subject took over, and the students were hungry to find out all they could. 

But when the essays came in, Will Fitzhugh was struck by how little he could do to recognize their excellence. Of course, he could give the writers As, and that was important, but it didn’t seem commensurate with what they had accomplished. There must be some other and better way to recognize this kind of achievement. Also, he reflected that if his students wrote essays like this, there must be lots of kids all over the country doing similar things. And so The Concord Review was on its way [1987]. The idea was neat and obvious—the way a lot of the best ideas are: Give high school students a vehicle for publishing their excellent history essays and an audience of their peers. 

What kinds of articles appear in The Concord Review, and who writes them? Fitzhugh asks for 4,000-6,000-word essays, but he has accepted ones that are shorter [and longer ones up to 14,000 words]…Essays are sent in by students from private and public schools (about fifty-fifty), and American history is the most popular subject. Some writers try to answer difficult questions about recent history. For example: Was the United States soft in its treatment of Nazis after World War II? What were the origins of U.S. involvement in Vietnam? Is U.S. immigration policy traditionally racist? Others go for constitutional issues or topics in social history, or the implications of historical movements or events. The essays vary in quality—the way they do in any magazine—but the general level is extraordinarily high. 

It is no surprise that The Concord Review has gotten a lot of praise. Al Shanker devoted two of his “Where We Stand” columns (New York Times) to it, and Will Fitzhugh has gotten warm letters from famous names in education like Theodore Sizer and Diane Ravitch as well as from teachers and students from all over the world. The Review has been called a hopeful sign—in the midst of much gloom—of what our kids can accomplish. And many people have noted its relevance to proposed education reforms. It is right in line with the idea of performance-based assessments. And, at a time when there is talk about setting standards for excellence by locking some people in a room and asking them to define excellence, The Concord Review demonstrates what high standards are in the most concrete way possible: It shows the kind of work that pre-college students can do—and are doing.

Perhaps most important is the assumption it makes about writing. Writing is, or is supposed to be, a way of telling an audience something you want them to know. But it’s all too easy for students to think of writing as an assignment, a sort of trick they perform for the teacher. In fact, the way writing is taught often encourages this attitude, and as John Bruer points out in Schools for Thought, his book on cognitive psychology and learning, even the best students often suffer from it. In making the assumption that students can produce serious and excellent pieces of writing based on intellectual work they have done, the Review demonstrates a simple and elegant way to get around the destructive practice of treating student writing like exercises.

But how relevant is all this to the real world of what goes on in most classrooms? How many American students write long essays? And if they did, how many teachers in this country would have time to grade the essays, much less supervise kids as they did the research and the writing? Unfortunately, there is a lot of substance to these questions.

The simplest response is that the thousands of students who take AP history every year are working to a standard comparable to the one represented by the Review, and every AP history class must produce essays as good as the ones Will Fitzhugh got from his students in Concord High School. Giving these kids a chance to read The Concord Review would show them what students their own age can do and give them a standard and a reward to aim for. 

To respond on a more fundamental level, The Concord Review may seem to have little relevance for the many students in our high schools who can’t even produce a good paragraph. But if we believe in high standards for all our students—not just the ones who are currently doing excellent work—the standard the Review sets has a great deal of long-term relevance.

In a speech given to the Urban League, its president, John Jacob, said that instead of lowering our ideas of what students can do, we must raise them and demand high academic performance of every student. Among the specific standards Jacob mentioned is that every African-American student, and in fact every student, be required to write a 25-page paper in order to graduate from high school. And Al Shanker sees The Concord Review as a possible catalyst in this effort. Why not, he says, organize large school districts to work toward producing special issues of the Review. This would take a number of years, but it would focus resources and attention where they’re really needed—toward getting students to work and think and write.

In the meantime (and to come back to planet Earth), The Concord Review is in financial trouble, despite its soundness and promise. Will Fitzhugh has never had the money to promote it properly. As a result, his subscription list is too small to support the magazine. And, though the number of teachers who know about the Review and use it as a teaching tool and submit their excellent student essays grows year by year, it is smaller than it should be. Will the magazine fold after this year? So far, Will Fitzhugh has found a way to scrape together the money for each issue, but each issue could be the last.

Fitzhugh remarks that we have many ways of rewarding and encouraging excellence in non-academic areas like sports but few in academic areas, and he likes to compare the idea behind The Concord Review to the Westinghouse science competition. Perhaps his magazine for kids who love history—and love to write it—will find a well-heeled corporation to offer it long-term support. Fitzhugh hasn’t given up hope, but a financial angel, however important, wouldn’t take the place of what he’s really after—a bunch of faithful subscribers and a flood of papers by kids who can hardly wait to tell other kids what they’ve discovered about Oliver Cromwell or the Harlem Renaissance or the sinking of the Titanic or glasnost or…
Marcia Reecer, Ph.D. [Bryn Mawr], is assistant director in the Office of the President of the American Federation of Teachers. She has been an elementary, high school and college teacher.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

PANDEMIC SCHOLAR

National Association of Scholars

Coronavirus and High School History


David Randall  April 5, 2020


NAS champions a proper education with a rigorous emphasis on writing and history—but we would never have dreamed to argue that it’s a good preparation for fighting the coronavirus pandemic. A bit of a stretch, we’d have thought. Special pleading; no one will believe us.


But then we checked in with The Concord Review.


The Concord Review, run by Will Fitzhugh, has dedicated itself since 1987 to training high school students to write lengthy, well-researched history papers, and to publishing the best of these papers. Fitzhugh and The Concord Review work nigh singlehandedly to repair a terrible gap in American high school education. Most high schools substitute fact-free “social studies” for history, and most of these social studies classes don’t assign long research papers to their students. High school students who arrive in college usually know little history, and even less of the basic skills of writing and research, without which it is impossible to even think about history in any rigorous manner. Students who study with and/or publish in The Concord Review are among the rare exceptions.


It turns out that The Concord Review doesn’t just prepare you for history classes, but for everything in life—including the coronavirus pandemic. Will Fitzhugh just received a lovely letter from a 2003 Concord Review author, Dr. Alex Peters.


Dear Professor Fitzhugh,


Almost 20 years ago, when I was in high school, you published my article on the Spanish Influenza in the Winter 2003 (Vol 14, Issue 2) The Concord Review. I went on to pursue an MD and am now a surgical resident at Weill Cornell Medical Center, having gained an MPH as well during a hiatus last year at Harvard. That 2003 paper remains one of my proudest achievements, and given the looming catastrophe facing New York, I refer to it frequently. Among one of my core conclusions was that lackadaisical politicians (in addition to overshadowing by the war efforts) resulted in downplaying of the pandemic in New York at the time. …


Thank you again for your faith in me way back then. You could not begin to imagine the positive impact that very first publication experience has had on me throughout the years.


Sincerely,
Alex Peters


At Peters’ request, The Concord Review has now posted and made freely available his 2003 paper. Everyone should read it.


Peters’ letter wonderfully makes the case for The Concord Review, for history education, and for intensive writing. They prepare you for anything—and the spark they give, the love of learning, matters as much as the array of skills they instill. They even prepare you for a coronavirus pandemic.


We’d make a larger argument at NAS—that the rigorous liberal arts education, which transmits the long conversation of Western civilization, is equally necessary for our citizens to prepare for any unexpected challenge. Dr. Peters’ letter is good evidence for that larger argument as well.


But that’s an argument to make at greater length another time. For now, we hope that readers appreciate just how much good work Will Fitzhugh has done at The Concord Review these thirty years and more—and how much good work Dr. Peters and his colleagues are doing at the hospitals around our country. 


David Randall is Director of Research at the National Association of Scholars
============================
Varsity Academics® is a registered trademark of The Concord Review, Inc. 730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24, Sudbury, MA 01776  [tcr.org]


Thursday, April 2, 2020

CHORUS

Henry V
Chorus

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man, 


And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

William Shakespeare. The Complete Works of Shakespeare
(Kindle Locations 48274-483036). Latus ePublishing. Kindle Edition.