Wednesday, November 11, 2015


"The State of the Term Paper"  
January 16, 2002, pp. 35, 37

Education Week (Commentary)

by Will Fitzhugh, 

Editor, The Concord Review

It seems likely that the history research paper at the high school level is now an endangered species. A focus on creative writing, fear of plagiarism, fascination with PowerPoint presentations, and too little time to meet with students to plan papers and to read them carefully when they are turned in, along with the absence of a concern with term papers in virtually all the work on state standards, means that too many students in high school in the United States do not get to do the reading or the writing that a serious history paper requires. As a result, students come to college with no experience in writing papers, to the continual frustration of their professors, and employers of college graduates, for instance at Ford Motor Company, have now had to institute writing classes for them before they can produce readable reports, memos, and the like. 

A few years ago, the Fordham Foundation did a study of the state English and social studies standards across the country, and term papers were not included in any of them. The Pew Charitable Trusts have funded the Standards for Success program, which is working on high school/college articulation of standards and expectations and term papers are not included. The American Diploma Project in Washington, DC, now working to define academic expectations among high schools, colleges and employers, has also not found a place for history research papers yet in its deliberations. One problem, of course, is that serious term papers cannot be assessed in a one-hour objective test.

In the early 1980s, when I was teaching United States History to Sophomores at the public high school in Concord, Massachusetts, each student had to write a biographical paper on one of the presidents. One boy managed to get JFK, and I loaned him a copy of Arthur Schlesinger’s One Thousand Days. He took a look at that large book and told me, “I can’t read this.” I said, “Yes, you can,” and for some reason he did it. Five or six years later, out of the blue, he called me when he was a Junior at Yale. He said he wanted to thank me for “making him” read that book, as it was the first serious nonfiction book he had ever read and it did something for his confidence that he was able to do it. Of course he had made himself read it, but it points up one of the advantages of the history term paper. Such an assignment is often the first time a high school student finds out she/he can read a nonfiction book on something important.

I used to be an alumni interviewer for Harvard College, and once I was asked to talk to a boy at one of the local suburban high schools. I interviewed him and asked him, among other things, what he thought he might major in. He said history. He did not know anything about me other than that I was an alum, and I had said nothing about my own interest in history. But when he said this, I asked him what was his favorite history book. It became clear that while he had good grades, AP scores and the like, he had not read anything but the textbooks as he went along in history, and no one had ever handed him a history book and encouraged him to read it. It seems likely that he never had to do a serious history paper either, or he would have had to read a history book or two.

Victor Henningsen, head of the history department at Phillips Academy at Andover, said (quote from Education Week article “Respected Journal Rates Student History Papers” 3/14/2001)...“There’s no substitute for the thrill that comes from choosing a topic of your own, and wrestling with a mass of evidence to answer a question that you’ve posed to craft your own narrative and your own analysis. We’ve been teaching kids to write research papers here for a long time. Kids don’t remember the Advanced Placement exam, but they do remember the papers that they’ve written, and so do I.”

Since 1987, I have been the editor of The Concord Review, a quarterly journal of history research papers by high school students. We have published 528 [1,176 in 2015] papers (average 5,000 words with endnotes and bibliography) [2015 averaging 7,400 words] by students from 42 [44] states and 33 [40] other countries. During that time, out of some 22,000 public and private high schools in the United States we are sent about 600 essays a year from which we publish eleven in each of four quarterly issues. That means that more than 21,000 high schools do not send even one history essay for consideration. While this does not prove that good long history essays are not being written at those schools, which may not know about The Concord Review, it is not an encouraging sign, in my view.

 I have only anecdotal evidence for what teachers are expecting in their high school history classes instead of research papers. I met once with the head of a history department at a public high school in New Jersey, who is very active in the National Council for History Education, and I asked him why he never sent in papers from his best students. His reply was that he didn’t have his students do history research papers any more. He had them do PowerPoint presentations and write historical fiction instead. I asked the now retired head of history at Scarsdale High School in New York why, when he had three subscriptions to The Concord Review, he still never sent any papers to be considered. He said that he didn’t assign history research papers any more, but after the AP History exam he held the Trial of James Buchanan for his part in the coming of the U.S. Civil War, and then had the students write their responses to that instead. A valedictorian (first in her class) at a high school on Long Island wrote me, when I published her essay on the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, to say that she felt weak in expository writing, because, in her words, “I attend a school where students are given few opportunities to develop their talents in this field (it is assumed students will learn how to write in college).”

I feel quite confident in saying that on the college side there is the expectation that students will learn at least the rudiments of a research paper while they are still in high school, and college humanities professors are routinely surprised (slow learners) when they find that this has not happened for their students.

Creative writing now rules at the high school (and earlier) levels in many cases. The director of the Expository Writing Program at Harvard College has said she thinks in fact that high school students do not get enough chances to write about their feelings, relationships, anxieties, hopes and dreams and that they really shouldn’t be pushed to work on history research papers until college. The National Writing Project at Berkeley, which teaches hundreds of teachers how to write about themselves each year, teaches a postmodern approach to what they call “literatures” (their quotes) and never comes within a mile of considering that students could use some work on their research skills or their nonfiction expository writing.

I have actually seen what high school students can do, and it is more like the following excerpt from an essay published in the journal (more examples are at (2015 current average length 7,400 words):

This passage concluded an essay written by a Junior in a public high school. She went on to major in civil engineering at Princeton, got a Ph.D. in earthquake engineering at Stanford and is now an assistant professor of engineering at Cornell:

                 “As is usually the case in extended, deeply-held disagreements, no one person or group was the cause of the split in the woman suffrage movement. On both sides, a stubborn eagerness to enfranchise women hindered the effort to do so. Abolitionists and Republicans refused to unite equally with woman suffragists. Stanton and Anthony, blinded for a while by their desperation to succeed, turned to racism, pitting blacks and women against each other at a time when each needed the other’s support most. The one thing that remains clear is that, while in some ways it helped women discover their own power, the division of forces weakened the overall strength of the movement. As a result of the disagreements within the woman suffrage movement, the 1860s turned out to be a missed opportunity for woman suffragists, just as Stanton had predicted. After the passage of the 15th Amendment, they were forced to wait another 50 years for the fulfillment of their dream.”

 The final point is that high school kids are fully capable of writing long serious history papers and they will get a lot out of doing so, both in reading nonfiction and in learning to write nonfiction. These days too many students are not being given the chance, and colleges continue to have to do what they see as remedial work in nonfiction expository writing.

Varsity Academics® is a registered trademark of The Concord Review, Inc.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2015


Studying History through the lens of The Concord Review research papers

I homeschool my son in California.  Our family has been reading and enjoying The Concord Review (TCR) History research papers for nearly two years now. This year, my son (who is a History buff) asked if he could use TCR for his History studies.  I was surprised at first but quickly realized that this would help him customize his study.

The Concord Review has published more than 1,000 serious History research papers, on a very wide variety of topics, by high school students from 44 states and 40 other countries since it started in 1987.

During the summer of 2015, I started looking at the myriad History study choices we had in the form of TCR research papers from various time periods of History. My son picked his top ten favorite research papers from the truly amazing TCR list and we were ready to roll.

Instead of learning History by Empire or Nation or even time period, my son wanted to conduct a comprehensive study by reviewing TCR articles in addition to reading the primary sources mentioned within the TCR research papers.

For my part, I chose to support his love for History by pairing his beloved TCR papers with podcasts, documentaries, museum visits etc.

I do not know how this experiment will play out but I do know that it is entirely kid-driven and we’re both excited to dive into it wholeheartedly. If you would like to contact me about this exciting TCR-focused course of study, please feel free to email me at

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Will Fitzhugh for his enthusiastic support and commitment to TCR. [;]

Arvinder Oswal

Wednesday, September 9, 2015



Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
9 September 2015

The College Board and Atlantic Magazine, recently joined their forces to lower standards for academic expository writing in the English-speaking world. Although their efforts did not match in scope and daring those of groups like InBloom, Amplify, and others, they persuaded 3,000 secondary students to meet their contest guidelines. They asked for papers of less than 2,000 words, on a single document, and published the “winner,” a piece from a student in New Zealand on the benefits of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech for better relations with the Maori.

High School students interested in being published in The Concord Review—the only journal in the world for the history papers of secondary students—must understand that their serious academic history research papers could not meet the guidelines for The College Board and Atlantic Magazine. Essays in the Fall 2015 issue, for example, (#106), averaged 7,400 words in length, with endnotes and bibliography, not on one speech, but on dozens of sources—books, articles, and others. Their topics included the Tape v. Hurley case in California, Abraham Lincoln’s changing attitudes about Christianity, Margaret Sanger’s fights with feminist groups of her day, Augustus’ imperial cult in Rome, varying identities among the Manchus in the Qing Dynasty, the records of women in combat in ancient Greece and China, relations among Nietzsche, Wagner and Mahler, the influence of Friedrich Hegel, Footbinding in China, the denial about AIDS in the South African government, and the development of the Socialist Parties in France.

Clearly, they were not limited to a single document or prevented from writing a paper longer than 2,000 words, as The College Board and Atlantic Magazine demanded for their submissions. Some years ago one of The Concord Review’s authors wrote:

"I am extremely honored in having my paper on Chinese Communism published in the The Concord Review. I truly thank you for providing the wonderful opportunity and motivation for students like me passionately to pursue research and history.

"I wrote this paper independently, during my own time out of school. My motives for doing so were both academic and personal. Although history has always been my favorite subject, I had never written a paper with this extensive research before. After reading the high quality of essays in The Concord Review, I was very inspired to try to write one myself. I thought it was a significant opportunity to challenge and expand my academic horizons. Thus during the summer before my Senior year, I began doing the research for my own paper.]

"Choosing the topic of Chinese Communism was not difficult. As I briefly mentioned in my biographical information, my own Chinese heritage greatly influenced me to study this subject. My own family past has been touched by the often scarring effects of Communism. For instance, my paternal great-grandmother—the wife of a landlord—was a victim of the Communists’ “authorized” land redistribution. Like many members of China’s property classes, she and my grandmother were thrown off their land and survived the next few years by begging on the streets. From the chaotic Cultural Revolution to the outrageous Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, I have often been told firsthand of the devastating effects of Communism. From all of these background experiences, a singular and upsetting question emerged in my mind: if Communism has had so many damaging effects on the Chinese people, why and how did it succeed in taking over the country in the first place? As in many cases, only the past provided the answers. It was the determination to find them that empowered me to write this paper.

"Furthermore, by choosing a topic so intimate to my own family background, I was able to experience history on a new and more exciting level. Exploring places and events which once had involved my own ancestors gave history an almost magical sense of life and vivacity. All in all, writing this paper has definitely been a rewarding experience in every way. By exploring China during the 1930s and 1940s, I am now better able to understand and bond with my grandparents (who have been constantly impressed—and a bit surprised—that their American granddaughter can tell them the exact route of the Long March).

"Next year, I will be attending Columbia University as a John Jay National Scholar—an honor given to incoming students who demonstrate a variety of achievements and independence in thinking. I plan to major in Economics-Political Science and/or East Asian Studies. Given Columbia’s excellent humanities departments, I cannot imagine a better choice for me. Needless to say, I am very excited about starting my college career, one that will no doubt be happily filled with many history classes and continued research."

Fortunately, this young lady was better prepared for college because she did not have to shrink her research and her academic expository writing in history to the dumbed-down requirements of The College Board and Atlantic Magazine. Nevertheless, by asking for and publishing the short paper they made their “winner,” these two organizations have only limited the academic horizons of the many secondary students they have been able to reach with their “contest.” Other students have been able to read, see, or hear of The Concord Review, and they know there is a place with the high academic standards that more than 1,000 of their peers from 41 countries have met since 1987, and quite a few of them still decide that they would like to meet those standards for themselves.

Will Fitzhugh

Friday, August 21, 2015


     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]

Thursday, July 30, 2015


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 ( 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. 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.”

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

Monday, July 27, 2015


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


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.