Friday, August 21, 2015

BABETTE'S LUNCH


     You may have seen the movie, Babette’s Feast, about the Frenchwoman in difficult financial circumstances who has to leave Paris and seek lodging with two older sisters in a small village, for whom she agrees to cook. One of the sisters is patient enough to teach her how to soak in water the dried fish which is the staple of their diet, explaining kindly, while showing her the technique, “Soak, soak.”

    And you know that at the end it becomes apparent, thanks to the accident of Babette winning a lot of money in the lottery, that this boarder who has been trying in little ways to vary the diet of the sisters, has in fact been, in happier times, the head chef at one of the principal restaurants in Paris, famous for her dishes among those who know fine dining in that city of gourmands. 


    As she uses her winnings to prepare one last elegant meal that none of them will ever forget, we can’t help but be reminded of those early days, in which, without any comment, she accepted the instruction set: “Soak, soak...”


    I thought of this the other day when I read about students in summer programs at the Johns Hopkins Institute for the Advancement of Academic Youth in Baltimore. In The Boston Globe the article said: “Students from 21 states and 15 foreign countries—some as young as seventh grade—devour full-year high school courses in the arts, history, math, science and languages in only three weeks. For a rare few, a normal nine-month curriculum is absorbed in seven days.”


    These students are our Babettes, perhaps, and when they return to our regular classrooms, they will not be surprised to hear us say, in a nice way, “Soak, soak,” as we try to help them stand a two-semester curriculum that some might be able to master fairly easily in a week. 


    If the most gifted students can finish a full year’s high school course in seven days, and the next brightest in three weeks, we might wonder whether even some of our slower students are being unduly restrained in their seats by our need to fill 180 school days with something to keep them off of the streets and generally out of trouble...


    We could stand to admit that the ways in which we dumb down and slow down our curriculums in fact do a lot to cause the excess boredom, tardiness, absences, and even dropping out that we see too frequently in our high schools, not to mention the students who decide that they want to stay in school but, given the glacial mindlessness of the challenges presented to them, they can easily work 30 hours a week, get paid, and waste their money (and their time) on CDs, video games, clothes, cars, and shoes...


    How much are we doing to drive all of our students, not just the gifted (unusually bright) ones, to distraction because we have done so much to lower our expectations for them? The United States Marine Corps has, for many years, working with some of these same teenagers, managed to convince them that both the curriculum and the Drill Instructor merit their very closest attention and their very best efforts, and many high school coaches achieve a similar degree of focus among their charges.


    In our classrooms, however, most researchers now report finding disaffection, anomie, boredom, napping, efforts to change the subject, and other evidence of the absence of real challenge for our students. The teachers often do feel challenged, sometimes even overwhelmed, but that is not really the point of the exercise. 


    Albert Shanker liked to tell the following story about Jaime Escalante (The Best Teacher in America): It appears that after Mr. Escalante moved to Sacramento from East Los Angeles where he had made his name, the local press was very interested in the success of this teacher about whom a movie had been made. They were thrilled to find a ninth-grade girl who said he was a bad teacher. “Tell us!” said the media. And she reported that when she had a problem with something in algebra and went to him, he kept her after school for several days and brought her in on a Saturday morning. “And what happened!?” said the media. “Well, I finally got how to do it,” she said, “but he didn’t teach me anything. All he did was make me work!”


    How many Babettes do we face who would like us to make them work and let them shine?   


[Will Fitzhugh
fitzhugh@tcr.org]

Thursday, July 30, 2015

PHILOLOGICALISTICALISM


Education News, Houston, Texas


Philologisticalistic Experts (HS English Departments)


July 30, 2015 by Will Fitzhugh EducationViews Contributor

When it comes to Words, our High School English Departments are the Rulers. They dominate reading and writing, partly because the other departments—including the History and other Social Studies departments—don’t want to assign book reports or term papers and they certainly don’t want to read and grade them.


The English Word Experts are supported in this by the K-12 Literacy World, which never saw a student history research paper they could not ignore. Everywhere you look, reading and writing mean fiction, and for fiction, the Literacy World is adamant that the responsibility for that belongs to English (English Language Arts) Departments. 


College professors and employers, with near unanimity, complain about the nonfiction reading, research, and writing abilities of the young people they work with. Talking to the schools and/or the Literacy World about their concerns is just exactly like talking to a dead phone. They cannot hear what they are being told.


Students are not lobbying, in most cases, for the chance to write a serious 5,000-6,000-word term paper, and only later will they face the consequences of their lack of preparation. 


Since 1987, The Concord Review has published 106 issues, with 1,165 history research papers by secondary students from 44 states and 40 other countries. The average length of the eleven papers in the Winter issue last Fall was 7,500 words, with endnotes and bibliography. Some of those papers came from International Baccalaureate schools, which still require an Extended Essay for the full Diploma. Some came from private schools, where faculty (and parents) still expect students to write at least one serious term paper before college.


Many of the papers lately have been from an Independent Study, or from Summer programs, like the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute and the TCR Summer Program for high school students (www.tcr.org). But in general, our public high schools, in my experience, even including an exam school like Boston Latin School, not only do not assign serious term papers, they also do not even want students to see the exemplary work that has been published by their peers, so that they cannot be inspired by them to work harder on reading history and on writing research papers themselves.


Thanks to the Web, more and more students are finding such examples anyway, and they take advantage of them. (e.g. www.tcr.org) One example of hundreds:


————————-

   “Thank you so much for publishing my essay on the Irish Ladies’ Land League in the Spring issue of The Concord Review. I am honored that my writing was chosen to appear alongside such thoughtful work in your journal.

    “When a former history teacher first lent me a copy of The Concord Review, I was inspired by the careful scholarship crafted by other young people. Although I have always loved history passionately, I was used to writing history papers that were essentially glorified book reports. A week before a paper was due, I would visit the local university library, check out all available books on my assigned topic and write as articulate a summary as possible. Such assignments are a useful strategy for learning to build a coherent argument, but they do not teach students to appreciate the subtleties and difficulties of writing good history. Consequently, few students really understand how history is constructed.

    “As I began to research the Ladies’ Land League, I looked to The Concord Review for guidance on how to approach my task. At first, I did check out every relevant book from the library, running up some impressive fines in the process, but I learned to skim bibliographies and academic databases to find more interesting texts. I read about women’s history, agrarian activism and Irish nationalism, considering the ideas of feminist and radical historians alongside contemporary accounts.

    “Gradually, I came to understand the central difficulty of writing history: how do you resurrect, in words, events that took place in a different place and time? More importantly, how do you resurrect the past only using the words of someone else? In the words of Carl Becker, 


History in this sense is story, in aim always a true story; a story that employs all the devices of literary art (statement and generalization, narration and description, comparison and comment and analogy) to present the succession of events in the life of man, and from the succession of events thus presented to derive a satisfactory meaning.
 
    “Flipping through my note cards, the ideas began to fit themselves together in my mind. I was not certain, but there was an excitement in being forced to think rigorously; in wrestling with difficult problems I knew I could not entirely solve. Writing about the Ladies’ Land League, I finally understood and appreciated the beautiful complexity of history.

    “In short, I would like to thank you not only for publishing my essay, but for motivating me to develop a deeper understanding of history. I hope that The Concord Review will continue to fascinate, challenge and inspire young historians for years to come.”

Sincerely,
Emma Curran Donnelly Hulse
[North Central High School, Indianapolis, Indiana
and Columbia University]

===========

Let’s do make an effort to free our high school students from the English Department/Fiction-Only Monopoly, and allow them to be inspired, by the serious academic expository writing of their peers, to attempt real term papers themselves, before they go on, as most now do, to find themselves both unprepared and a Literacy Problem for their professors and their future employers.

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
www.tcr.org

Monday, July 27, 2015

TEMPORAL PROVINCIALS

He had a term for people like this: temporal provincials—people who were ignorant of the past, and proud of it. Temporal provincials were convinced that the present was the only time that mattered, and that anything that had occurred earlier could be safely ignored. The modern world was compelling and new, and the past had no bearing on it.

Studying history was as pointless as learning Morse code, or how to drive a horse-drawn wagon. And the medieval period—all those knights in clanking armor and ladies in gowns and pointy hats—was so obviously irrelevant as to be beneath consideration.

Yet the truth was that the modern world was invented in the Middle Ages. Everything from the legal system, to nation-states, to reliance on technology, to the concept of romantic love had first been established in medieval times. These stockbrokers owed the very notion of a market economy to the Middle Ages. And if they didn’t know that, then they didn’t know the basic facts of who they were. Why they did what they did. Where they had come from.

Professor Johnston often said that if you didn’t know history, you didn’t know anything. You were a leaf that didn’t know it was part of a tree.


Crichton, Michael (2003-11-04). Timeline: A Novel (p. 71).
Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
[Michael Crichton graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College. His MD was from Harvard Medical School]

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

MODERNIST HISTORY


Postmodernist history, one might say, recognizes no reality principle, only the pleasure principle—history at the pleasure of the historian. To appreciate its full import, one should see it in the perspective of what might be called “modernist” history, now generally known as “traditional” history.

Modernist history is not positivist, in the sense of aspiring to a fixed, total, or absolute truth about the past. Like postmodernist history, it is relativistic, but with a difference, for its relativism is firmly rooted in reality. It is skeptical of absolute truth but not of partial, contingent, incremental truths. More important, it does not deny the reality of the past itself. Like the political philosopher who makes it a principle to read the works of the Ancients in the spirit of the Ancients, so the modernist historian reads and writes history in that spirit, with a scrupulous regard for the historicity, the integrity, the actuality of the past. He makes a strenuous effort to enter into the minds and experiences of people in the past, to try to understand them as they understood themselves, to rely upon contemporary evidence as much as possible, to intrude his own views and assumptions as little as possible, to reconstruct to the best of his ability the past as it “actually was,” in Leopold von Ranke’s celebrated and now much derided phrase.

Like modernist literature and art, modernist history is an exacting discipline, requiring a great exercise of self-restraint, even self-sacrifice. The greatest of modernist poets, T. S. Eliot, once said, “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” And so it is with the historian, who strives constantly to transcend his own present in order to recapture the past, to suppress his own personality in order to give life to generations long dead. This self-sacrifice is all the greater because the historian is well aware that his effort will never entirely succeed, that the past will always, to some degree, elude him.


Himmelfarb, Gertrude (12-15-2010).
On Looking Into the Abyss: 

Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society
(Kindle Locations 2213-2228). 

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Monday, June 22, 2015

CONTENT IS HISTORY

Content is History

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review 

22 June 2015
 

Not too long ago, when people were talking about putting content back into education, so that we would have "content-based" education, I remember wondering at the time, "Who took the content out of education? When did this happen? After it was removed, what was left?" With the new APUSH standards, I now have a better answer to the last question. Skills have taken the place of content. Content, after all, can be such a pain. What if someone asks you something and you don't know what they are talking about? Now you can just say "I was educated in critical thinking skills, and we moved far beyond content in my day." Another advantage is that with the content largely removed, the hard work of choosing what the content of a curriculum should be no longer needs to be faced (addressed).

A couple of years ago, at a Pioneer Institute conference in Boston, David Steiner, then the Commissioner of Education in New York State, responded to a question about History in the schools by saying, "History is so politically toxic no one wants to touch it." This may in part be a legacy of the anti-American UCLA National History Standards back in the day, and the vigorous fight over them, but now I think we are facing a deeper fear of knowledge itself, not just a fear of Historical knowledge.

Who can say any more what History students should know? Doesn't every group, every family, ever person even, have their own History? And aren't they important? So how can we be so discriminatory as to choose to teach some History and not some other History?

Beyond that, the deconstructionists have taught us that we can know nothing anyway, so why try to teach History? I had an amusing experience as a high school History teacher once. I had been saying that I thought we ought to be teaching important events, the accomplishments of great individuals, the pursuit of truth, and like that. My department chairman, a philosophy teacher, later came over to me and said, in the most compassionate way possible: "You know, Will, there is no Truth." This took a while to sink in, and it was only later that I thought I should have said to him: "Is that True?!?"

Trotsky said that you may not be interested in War, but War is interested in you. That might be said of History as well. David Coleman and company are trying their darnedest to turn History in the schools into exercises of the New Criticism, so that, laying aside any Historical context, it becomes possible (and desirable) to study Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, and other passages from History [no one is suggesting that high school students read an actual complete History book—except me], not for their meaning, impact, or relevance at the time, but rather for their tone, metaphor, simile, diction, and other categories of literary criticism. These techniques can be applied, and, it is argued, should be applied, to any Historical document, to relieve students of any need to know any Historical facts, and enable them to enjoy their exercise of the technical skills of New Critical Literary Analysis.

Kieran Egan of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC, in Children’s Minds, Talking Rabbits & Clockwork Oranges, [Teachers College Press, 1999] wrote that: “When history becomes an agent of socializing, it begins to develop a different aim from that which distinguishes history as an academic discipline. The aim of history as a discipline is to come to understand the past on its own terms and, in its uniqueness, as far as possible. However difficult, or indeed impossible, the ideal achievement of this aim, it is what the discipline of history is about...We can’t do anything to history, except not use it....”

So David Coleman et al, taking this as advice not to use history, as it were, decided to limit our students’ knowledge of the History of their country with APUSH, and to mix what they do offer with a general bashing of western civilization, but in spite of their best efforts to perpetuate student ignorance and to teach them to be ashamed of their own country, History isn't going to go anywhere. We are not working for Big Brother, yet.

Often people find that they are more interested in History as they have lived through more of it, and that will not change. The new APUSH standards may sustain the ignorance of many students for a little longer, and may lead many to think, for a while, that they should despise this country, but that effect will wear off as they experience more of life. The College Board can do quite a bit of harm, of course, but it will not last. Curiosity, and History, and even Patriotism (remember that?) will yet have their day here...

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

STANDARD-BEARER FOR ACADEMIC WRITING

EducationNews.org; Houston, Texas
Interview with Michael Shaughnessy



Samantha Wesner, 21 May 2015

1) Samantha, could you first tell us a bit about yourself, your education and experiences?

I grew up attending public schools in Texas and, after age ten, New York. I learned to read at age four and read rapaciously as a young kid. I read much less after entering a high school whose good academic ratings hinged on a rigorous math and science program. The U.S. history research paper I describe in my guest blog post here was a game-changer—it made me re-evaluate what I, a high school student, wanted to do and could do. In college, I majored in history with a studio art minor, and took enough French to be able to read primary source documents for a senior thesis on Enlightenment France. While a student, I worked at Houghton, Harvard's rare book library. I also worked in publishing before coming to The Concord Review.

2) I understand that you have taken over the editorship of The Concord Review. However did this come about?

I was keen on finding a job where I could do meaningful work, preferably at the intersection of history, publishing, and education. So The Concord Review seemed a good fit. When the job interview ended, I walked away with a copy of the journal in hand. The eleven student essays inside were wonderful. The mission of the Review—to recognize exemplary student work and to promote the history research paper—was beyond exciting for me, a young graduate whose high school history research experience had been formative. I have since become the journal's managing editor while Will Fitzhugh remains its editor.

3) The Concord Review has, for years, produced some of the finest writing from high school students from around the world. How do you hope to keep up the fine work of Will Fitzhugh?

Will Fitzhugh has done incredible work, not least in seeing the need for The Concord Review and establishing it as the standard-bearer for academic writing in high school. The Concord Review invented the niche it occupies in publishing and education. To our knowledge, it is the only journal of its kind in the world. We currently have a steady flow of submissions. Will has curatorial prerogative—after an initial screening, he selects eleven exceptional essays for each issue from a pool of hundreds.

Part of what I personally would like to do is simply to get the word out so more students know of the opportunity. I am confident that there are students out there who might take on the challenge of an in-depth research paper if they knew about The Concord Review. And the experience of seeing an extensive project through to fruition is invaluable to a student whether or not the result is published.

4) On to the writing issue—why is there so little writing expected in the high schools across America?

Writing is not easy. It is time-consuming; it requires focus, effort, and mental stamina. It's also not instantaneously gratifying. Probably one of the most tired clichés out there at this point is that the internet is responsible for shorter attention spans and weakened abilities to focus in those of us who grew up in a digital age—myself included. Whether or not that is true, the rise of 140 characters, Buzzfeed-style lists that staid news organizations have begun to emulate, tl;dr mentality, etc. make your average 6,500-word Concord Review essay look not only prodigious, but academic beyond reach. There’s also a perception that history and academic writing are not as crucial to a student’s so-called career-readiness or even college-readiness as are other fields and skills.

The intractable problem of time and resource allocation is another important factor. Many teachers are already struggling under a heavy load, some with more than 100 students to teach. Many simply do not have the time to read, grade, and give feedback on extensive research papers. Moreover, there is so much history to cover that it’s hard to squeeze a long assignment in without short-changing curricular obligations. Even a writing assignment that receives no written feedback, however, has enormous educational value. And depending on the school district, there might be a space for a research paper if, say, school ends in late June while AP history tests are scheduled for early May. Still, this obstacle is a significant one and cannot be ignored.

5) Even more bluntly, why is there so little writing in colleges and universities?

I don’t think I know enough about the state of writing in colleges and universities to offer an informed answer. I do know, however, that writing experience is cumulative. The more writing students do in high school, the better prepared they are to tackle college writing assignments. So it follows that if writing assignments have fallen out of favor at the high school level, college freshmen are less prepared for college-level writing. Perhaps colleges adjust their course offerings accordingly, or perhaps students are less inclined to take classes in which major term papers will be assigned.

6) I think this is blatantly obvious, but why is a Power Point or Prezi Presentation no substitute for a well written, well researched term paper?

Presentations and papers exercise different skill sets. Both have the potential to prompt deep thinking on a historical subject. In my opinion, having to write a paper often encourages a greater degree of understanding of a topic than creating a powerpoint presentation does. Writing forces the transformation of nebulous thoughts, arguments, and interpretations into coherent sentences in a way that a typing out a bullet point next to an image doesn’t.

A paper takes time to craft. Writing slows things down to a pace at which connections and insights have more of a chance to present themselves. It can keep a student honest about what he or she really understands. A student in the middle of a research paper might think: Hmm, I can’t formulate this sentence in a way that sounds clear. Maybe I’m not understanding this issue as well as I need to. In a powerpoint scenario, the same student might just type out a few words and be done with it. The difficulties would come later, during the presentation, at which point there’s no chance to go back to the research phase and learn more. In writing, thoughts have to go from half-formed to fully-formed.

7) Let's divide up writing and researching. How can schools develop better writers, and how can the schools develop better scholarly researchers?

In terms of research, I would advocate library-class partnerships. Students should have at least a class period devoted to learning about the research tools they can access at the school library, including digital resources. A standard list of resources can give students something to grasp when they’re starting their research. Students should also learn about Chicago or Turabian citations, since if they submit to The Concord Review, or take a history class in college, that know-how will be important. It can be as easy as showing students the Chicago-Style Citation Quick Guide—available for free online at: www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html.

As for writing, there is no substitute for practice. But at least a baseline of writing instruction is crucial in that it provides a vocabulary with which to talk about writing—thesis statements, introductions, conclusions, body paragraphs, and the rest. Examples of other students’ writing, whether by way of peer review or sample essays (those published in The Concord Review, for example), are also useful. They can help a student feel less alone in what is a often a solitary endeavor.

8) Where can people get more information? Do you have a web site?

Anyone interested in The Concord Review should stop by our site, www.tcr.org, or find us on Facebook. Will Fitzhugh and I also welcome inquiries by email or by phone: fitzhugh@tcr.org; samantha@tcr.org; (978) 443-0022.

If you’re interested in reading the journal or using it with students in the classroom, we offer online and print subscriptions. Our subscribers receive 44 fascinating, in-depth, historical monographs per year, on topics ranging from the Greek lawgiver Solon to the Savoy Ballroom. Individual essays can also be ordered through our website (www.tcr.org/bookstore). Of course if you know a history teacher, be sure to let him or her know about this opportunity for his or her students. And if you are a history teacher, encourage your students to research, write, and submit their history research papers to us!

Monday, May 18, 2015

WE DON'T WANT TO KNOW YOU


WE DON’T WANT TO KNOW YOU

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
18 May 2015

Three times a year, The Boston Globe (in the Athens of America) has a 14-16-page Special Supplement celebrating local "scholar-athletes" with pictures and brief write-ups. These are high school students who have taken part in soccer, tennis, golf, football, swimming, baseball, basketball, softball, wrestling, and what-have-you, and done well by various measures. Their coaches, too, get their pictures in the paper and sometimes a paragraph of praise. In addition to these supplements, hardly a day goes by during the school year when some high school athlete, team, coach or event doesn't get "covered" by The Boston Globe. A local philanthropic group has recently raised several million dollars to promote sports in our public high schools.

As we all know, sports involve students, parents, boosters and the like, and they build teamwork, discipline, character, equality (of a sort), ambition, competition, and attendance. Parents do not need to be dragged to games the way they do to school meetings or Parents' Night to talk to teachers. In many cases, they pay fees to allow their youngsters to participate in sports, and some even raise money as boosters for trips to games, tournaments, etc. Community involvement is fairly easy to get in sports, and there are very few edupundits who find work advising schools and communities on how to get parents and other community members involved when it comes to school sports. I know of no new initiatives or workshops to teach parents how to get involved in their children’s sports programs. Athletes also enjoy rallies, cheerleaders, and coverage in their high school newspaper as well.

Not long ago a young student basketball player in Massachusetts, 6'10" and very good at his sport, "reclassified" himself (changed from a Junior to a Senior?), so that he could choose among the many colleges whose coaches want him to come play at their institutions. His picture not only appeared several times in his local school newspaper, but also showed up several times with stories in The Boston Globe (the Sports Section is one of only four main sections in the paper each day). Apparently we want to know who our good high school athletes are, and what they are achieving, and what they look like, etc.

There is another group in our high schools, which might be called not "scholar-athletes," but perhaps "scholar-scholars," as their achievements are in the academic work for which, some believe, we build our schools with our taxes in the first place. But we tell those "scholar-scholars" that we really don't want to know them. Their work does not appear in The Boston Globe. Their pictures and stories do not appear in the three-a-year Special Supplements or in the daily paper (there is no "academics" section in the paper of course), or even in their local high school newspaper.

Whenever the subject of students who do exemplary academic work in our schools comes up, our cliché response tends to be that "they can take care of themselves." But if we don't seem to feel that good high school athletes should have to get along in anonymity, why do we think that anonymity for our best high school students will serve them (and us) well enough, in our education system, and in the country, which is in a serious fight to stay up with other countries who take their best students and their academic achievement very seriously indeed.

Sometimes when I mention that it might serve us well if we gave some recognition to our best high school "scholar-scholars" people say that I must be "against sports." I am not. I am just critical of the huge imbalance between our attention to athletes and what we give to scholars at the high school level. 100 to zero doesn't make the best balance we can achieve in recognizing them, in my view.

Of course, I am biased, because for 28 years I have been publishing exemplary history research papers by high school students (so far 1,154 papers from 44 states and 40 other countries) in a unique quarterly journal, and none of them ever gets mentioned for their history scholarship in The Boston Globe. Folks tell me this practice is not limited to the Athens of America, of course.

If we are worried about the performance of our student athletes, then the relentless coverage of their efforts might seem justified. I know we are worried about the academic achievements of our public high schools, yet when scholar-scholars in the high schools get published in The Concord Review (and then go on to Stanford, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton—as about 30% of our authors do), or get to be Rhodes Scholars (as several have), they don't get mentioned in The Boston Globe. Actually one author, Jessica Leight, from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, did get her picture in the paper when she got her Rhodes Scholarship, after being named Junior Eight Phi Beta Kappa and graduating summa cum laude at Yale, but no mention was made of her Emerson Prize-winning paper on Anne Hutchinson, which was published in that unique international quarterly journal when she was still in a local public high school.

So let's do continue to praise our local high school athletes and their coaches. But isn't it time at long last now to think about the message such publicity sends to our diligent and successful scholar-scholars and their coaches (I mean their teachers—who are also ignored) about what we value as a society? Why has it been so important all these years to send them, when they are doing not only what we ask them to do in school, but well above and beyond what we have expected, the message that, sorry, but "We Don't Want to Know About You"?