Monday, March 22, 2010; Madison, Wisconsin

Meaningful Academic Work

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
23 March 2010

In Outliers [2008], Malcolm Gladwell writes [pp. 149-150] that: “...three things—autonomy, complexity and a connection between effort and reward—are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying...Work that fulfills these three criteria is meaningful.” (emphasis in the original)

One of the perennial complaints of students in our schools is that they will never make use of what they are learning, and as for the work they are asked to do, they often say: “Why do we have to learn/do/put up with this?” In short, they often see the homework/schoolwork they are given to do as not very fulfilling or meaningful.

In this article I will argue that reading good history books and writing serious history research papers provide the sort of work which students do find meaningful, worth doing, and not as hard to imagine as having some future use.

In a June 3, 1990 column in The New York Times, Albert Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote:

“...It is also worth thinking about as we consider how to reform our education system. As we’ve known for a long time, factory workers who never saw the completed product and worked on only a small part of it soon became bored and demoralized, But when they were allowed to see the whole process—or better yet become involved in it—productivity and morale improved. Students are no different. When we chop up the work they do into little bits—history facts and vocabulary and grammar rules to be learned—it’s no wonder that they are bored and disengaged. The achievement of The Concord Review’s authors offers a different model of learning. Maybe it’s time for us to take it seriously.”

His point has value twenty years later. Even the current CCSSO National Standards recommend merely snippets of readings, called “informational texts,” and “literacy skills” for our students, which, if that is all they get, will likely bore them and disengage them for the reasons that Mr. Shanker pointed out.

Students who read “little bits” of history books have nothing like the engagement and interest that comes from reading the whole book, just as students who “find the main idea” and write little “personal essays,” or five-paragraph essays, or short “college” essays, will have nothing comparable to the satisfaction that comes from working on and completing a serious history research paper.

Barbara McClay, a homescholar from Tennessee, while she was in high school, wrote a paper on the “Winter War” between Finland and the Soviet Union. In an interview she was asked why she chose that topic:

“I’ve been interested in Finland for four years or so, and I had read a book (William Trotter’s A Frozen Hell) that interested me greatly on the Winter War; after reading the book, I often asked people if they had ever heard of the Winter War. To my surprise, not only had few of them heard about it, but their whole impression of Finnish-Soviet relations was almost completely different from the one I had received from the book. So there was a sense of indignation alongside my interest in Finland in general and the Winter War in particular: here was this truly magnificent story, and no one cared about it. Or knew about it, at least.

“And it is a magnificent story, whether anyone cares about it or not; it’s the stuff legends are made of, really, even down to the fact that Finland lost. And a sad one, too, both for Finland and for the Soviet soldiers destroyed by Soviet incompetence. And there’s so much my paper couldn’t even begin to go into; the whole political angle, for instance, which is very interesting, but not really what I wanted to write about. But the story as a whole, with all of its heroes and villains and absurdities—it’s amazing. Even if it were as famous as Thermopylae, and not as relatively obscure an event as it is, it would still be worth writing about.

“So what interested me, really, was the drama, the pathos, the heroism, all from this little ignored country in Northern Europe. What keeps a country fighting against an enemy it has no hope of defeating? What makes us instantly feel a connection with it?”

Perhaps this will give a feeling for the degree of engagement a young student can find in reading a good nonfiction history book and writing a serious [8,500-word, plus endnotes and bibliography] history research paper. [The Concord Review, 17/3 Spring 2007]

Now, before I get a lot of messages informing me that our American public high school students, even Seniors, are incapable of reading nonfiction books and writing 8,500 words on any topic, allow me to suggest that, if true, it may be because we need to put in place our “Page Per Year Plan,” which would give students practice, every year in school, in writing about something other than themselves. Thus, a first grader could assemble a one-page paper with one source, a fifth grader a five-page paper with five sources, a ninth grade student a nine-page with nine sources, and so on, and in that way, each and every Senior in our high schools could write a twelve-page paper [or better] with twelve sources [or better] about some historical topic.

By the time that Senior finished that paper, she/he would probably know more about that topic than anyone else in the building, and that would indeed be a source of engagement and satisfaction, in addition to providing great “readiness” for college and career writing tasks.

As one of our authors wrote:

“...Yet of all my assignments in high school, none has been so academically and intellectually rewarding as my research papers for history. As young mathematicians and scientists, we cannot hope to comprehend any material that approaches the cutting edge. As young literary scholars, we know that our interpretations will almost never be original. But as young historians, we see a scope of inquiry so vast that somewhere, we must be able to find an idea all our own.

In writing this paper, I read almanacs until my head hurt. I read journal articles and books. I thought and debated and analyzed my notes. And finally, I had a synthesis that I could call my own. That experience—extracting a polished, original work from a heap of history—is one without which no student should leave high school.”

This paper [5,500 words with endnotes and bibliography; Daniel Winik, The Concord Review, 12/4 Summer 2002] seems to have allowed this student to take a break from the boredom and disengagement which comes to so many whose school work is broken up into little bits and pieces and “informational texts” rather than actual books and term papers.

If I were made the U.S. Reading and Writing Czar at the Department of Education, I would ask students to read one complete history book [i.e. “cover-to-cover” as it was called back in the day] each year, too. When Jay Mathews of The Washington Post recently called for nonfiction book ideas for high school students, I suggested David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback, for Freshmen, David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing for Sophomores, James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom for Juniors, and David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas for all Seniors. Naturally there could be big fights over titles even if we decided to have our high schools students read nonfiction books, but it would be tragic if the result was that they continue to read none of them. Remember the high school English teacher in New York state who insisted that her students read a nonfiction book chosen from the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, and a big group of her female students chose The Autobiography of Paris Hilton...

When I was teaching United States History to Sophomores at the public high school in Concord, Massachusetts in the 1980s, I used to assign a 5-7-page paper (at the time I did not know what high schools students could actually accomplish, if they were allowed to work hard) on the Presidents. My reasoning was that every President has just about every problem of the day arrive on his desk, and a paper on a President would be a way of learning about the history of that day. Students drew names, and one boy was lucky enough to draw John F. Kennedy, a real coup. He was quite bright, so, on a whim, I gave him my copy of Arthur Schleshinger, Jr.’s A Thousand Days. He looked at it, and said, “I can’t read this.” I told him he could...And, he took it with him and wrote a very good paper and gave the book back to me. Several years later, when he was a Junior at Yale, he wrote to thank me. He said he was very glad I had made him read that first complete history book, because it helped his confidence, etc. Now, I didn’t make him read it, he made himself read it. I would never have known if he read it or not. I didn’t ask him.

But it made me think about the possibility of assigning complete history books to our high school students.

After I began The Concord Review in 1987, I had occasion to write an article now and then, for Education Week and others, in which I argued for the value of having high school students read complete nonfiction books and write real history research papers, both for the intrinsic value of such efforts and for their contribution to the student’s preparation for “college and career.”

Then, in 2004, The National Endowment for the Arts spent $300,000 on a survey of the reading of fiction by Americans, including young Americans. They concluded that it was declining, but it made me wonder if anyone would fund a much smaller study of the reading of nonfiction by students in our high schools, and I wrote a Commentary in Education Week [“Bibliophobia” October 4, 2006] asking about that.

No funding was forthcoming and still no one seems to know (or care much) whether our students typically leave with their high school diploma in hand but never having read a single complete history book. We don’t know how many of our students have never had the chance to make themselves read such a book, so that when they get to college they can be glad they had that preparation, like my old student.

As E.D. Hirsch and Daniel Willingham have pointed out so often, it takes knowledge to enrich understanding and the less knowledge a student has the more difficult it is for her/him to understand what she/he is reading in school. Complete history books are a great source of knowledge, of course, and they naturally provide more background to help our students understand more and more difficult reading material as they are asked to become “college and career ready.”

Reading a complete history book is a challenge for a student who has never read one before, just as writing a history research paper is a challenge to a student who has never been asked to do one, but we might consider why we put off such challenges until students find themselves (more than one million a year now, according to the Diploma to Nowhere report) pushed into remedial courses when they arrive at college.

It may be argued that not every student will respond to such an academic challenge, and of course no student will if never given the challenge, but I have found several thousand high school students, from 44 states and 36 other countries, who did:

“Before, I had never been much of a history student, and I did not have much more than a passing interest for the subject. However, as I began writing the paper, the myriad of facts, the entanglement of human relations, and the general excitement of the subject fired my imagination and my mind. Knowing that to submit to The Concord Review, I would have to work towards an extremely high standard, I tried to channel my newly found interest into the paper. I deliberately chose a more fiery, contentious, and generally more engaging style of writing than I was normally used to, so that my paper would better suit my thesis. The draft, however, lacked proper flow and consistency, and so when I wrote the final copy, I restructured the entire paper, reordering the points, writing an entirely new introduction, refining the conclusion, and doing more research to cover areas of the paper that seemed lacking. I replaced almost half of the content with new writing, and managed to focus the thesis into a more sustained, more forceful argument. You received that final result, which was far better than the draft had been.

In the end, working on that history paper, [“Political Machines,” Erich Suh, The Concord Review, 12/4, Summer 2002, 5,800 words] inspired by the high standard set by The Concord Review, reinvigorated my interest not only in history, but also in writing, reading and the rest of the humanities. I am now more confident in my writing ability, and I do not shy from difficult academic challenges. My academic and intellectual life was truly altered by my experience with that paper, and the Review played no small role! Without the Review, I would not have put so much work into the paper. I would not have had the heart to revise so thoroughly; instead I would have altered my paper only slightly, enough to make the final paper a low ‘A’, but nothing very great. Your Concord Review set forth a goal towards which I toiled, and it was a very fulfilling, life-changing experience.”

If this is such a great idea, and does so much good for students’ engagement and academic preparation, why don’t we do it? When I was teaching—again, back in the day 26 years ago—I noticed in one classroom a set of Profiles in Courage, and I asked my colleagues about them. They said they had bought the set and handed them out, but the students never read them, so they stopped handing them out.

This is a reminder of the death of the book report. If we do not require our students to read real books and write about them (with consequences for a failure to do so), they will not do that reading and writing, and, as a result, their learning will be diminished, their historical knowledge will be a topic for jokes, and they will not be able to write well enough either to handle college work or hold down a demanding new job.

As teachers and edupundits surrender on those requirements, students suffer. There is a saying outside the training facility for United States Marine Corps drill instructors, which says, in effect, “I will train my recruits with such diligence that if they are killed in combat, it will not be because I failed to prepare them.”

I do realize that college and good jobs are not combat (of course there are now many combat jobs too) but they do provide challenges for which too many of our high school graduates are clearly not ready.

Some teachers complain, with good reason, that they don’t have the time to monitor students as they read books, write book reports and work on serious history research papers, and that is why they can’t ask students to do those essential (and meaningful) tasks. Even after they realize that the great bulk of the time spent on complete nonfiction books and good long term papers is the student’s time, they still have a point about the demands on their time.

Many (with five classes) now do not have the time to guide such work and to assess it carefully for all their students, but I would ask them (and their administrators) to look at the time put aside each week at their high school for tackling and blocking practice in football or layup drills in basketball or for band rehearsal, etc., etc., and I suggest that perhaps reading books and writing serious term papers are worth some extra time as well, and that the administrators of the system, if they have an interest in the competence of our students in reading and writing, should consider making teacher time available during the school day, week, and year, for work on these tasks, which have to be almost as essential as blocking and tackling for our students’ futures.

Monday, March 15, 2010


"Equally important, the published essays can let youngsters see what other students their own age are capable of and what they themselves can aspire to.

The Review also has a vital message for teachers. American education suffers from an impoverishment of standards at all levels. We see that when we look at what is expected of students in other industrialized nations and at what they achieve. Could American students achieve at that level? Of course, but our teachers often have a hard time knowing exactly what they can expect of their students or even what a first-rate essay looks like. The Concord Review sets a high but realistic standard; and it could be invaluable for teachers trying to recalibrate their own standards of excellence."


Albert Shanker, President
American Federation of Teachers
55 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001

June 7, 1993

Samuel M. Grupper
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
140 South Dearborn Street
Suite 1100
Chicago, Illinois 60603-5285

Dear Mr. Grupper,

I’ve admired the soundness and clarity of Will Fitzhugh’s vision about education ever since I happened to see one of the early issues of The Concord Review. I’ve also thought Mr. Fitzhugh an excellent and obvious choice for a MacArthur fellowship, and it’s a great pleasure to support his candidacy.

One of the premises of The Concord Review is that, once youngsters have gotten immersed in a subject and, in some sense, made it their own, they will be able to produce excellent writing on the subject. Many teachers have found this to be true. But Will Fitzhugh decided that young writers needed and deserved more of an audience than their teachers. Whey not give them what adult writers have—an audience of their peers?

The result is a journal that is wonderful in itself—sound, well-written, full of vitality. (Will Fitzhugh tells a story about a foundation official who had just turned down his request for a grant. The man glanced at an essay in a copy of the Review Fitzhugh had sent him and didn’t stop reading until he had finished the issue.) But the journal is more than a good read.

Will Fitzhugh sees publication in The Concord Review as a kind of prize—a recognition of excellence and a validation of intellectual achievement—that could be for young historians what the Westinghouse [Intel & Siemens] Science Competition is for young scientists. Equally important, the published essays can let youngsters see what other students their own age are capable of and what they themselves can aspire to.

The Review also has a vital message for teachers. American education suffers from an impoverishment of standards at all levels. We see that when we look at what is expected of students in other industrialized nations and at what they achieve. Could American students achieve at that level? Of course, but our teachers often have a hard time knowing exactly what they can expect of their students or even what a first-rate essay looks like. The Concord Review sets a high but realistic standard; and it could be invaluable for teachers trying to recalibrate their own standards of excellence.

Let me say that I think The Concord Review could be especially useful to poor and disadvantaged children and their teachers. Last year, I was privileged to hear John Jacob, the president of the National Urban League, talk about how poor black children, in particular, need to be held up to higher academic standards. Jacob believes that, instead of lowering our sights, we must raise them and demand high academic performance. Among the specific standards he suggested was that every African-American child—and in fact every American child—write a 25-page paper in order to graduate from high school. I think Jacob is right. I also think The Concord Review could be a vehicle for raising the sights of disadvantaged children and their teachers. And I plan to work with leaders in one or more of the American Federation of Teachers’ urban locals to help set up special issues of The Concord Review for their cities similar to the special International Baccalaureate issue the Review recently published.

I’ve been speaking of “can” and “could” because Will Fitzhugh has always operated the Review on a shoestring. He began it with his own money, and ever since that ran out, it’s been a scramble just to find the funds to print the next issue. So he’s never had the resources to promote the journal or develop its possibilities. As a result, it does not have the wide audience it deserves and needs in order to do the work I have been talking about. But that, I hope, is where the MacArthur Foundation comes in.

I know that you support people, not projects, but in this case that’s a distinction without a difference because the Review embodies Will Fitzhugh’s idea about how to get students thinking and writing. In supporting him, you would be helping a person who is building what should and can become a national education treasure.

Will Fitzhugh is also an ideal candidate for your generosity because, even though what he wants to do is solid and important, he hasn’t been successful in getting the kind of foundation support he needs. The typical refusal indicates that he doesn’t fall within the foundation’s guidelines. This may mean he’s ahead of his time, but that will be scant consolation if he has to give up his work for lack of money.

I am enclosing two [New York Times] articles I have written about The Concord Review, as well as a letter to Lynne Cheney, written when she was head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a recent letter I sent to over 2,000 presidents of AFT locals. They will give you a fuller idea of why I think Will Fitzhugh’s work deserves your support. I hope you will be able to give him the help he needs.

Please contact me if there is anything more you would like to ask me.

Albert Shanker
American Federation of Teachers

Monday, March 8, 2010

Education Week Commentary


by Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review

4 October 2006

The Boston Globe reported recently [2006] that Michelle Wie, at 16, in addition to getting out now and then for a good game of golf, not only speaks Korean and English, but has also taken four years of Japanese, and is starting Mandarin Chinese. She is planning to apply early to Stanford. I would venture the opinion, however, that in her high school, not only has her academic writing been limited to the five-paragraph essay, but it is very likely that she has not been assigned a complete nonfiction book and will not be given such an assignment at any time in her high school years.

For the last two years, and especially since the National Endowment for the Arts’ large study of the reading of fiction in the United States, by young people and others, I have sought funding for a much smaller study of the assignment of complete nonfiction books in U.S. public high schools. This proposed study, which Diane Ravitch has called “timely and relevant,” has been turned down by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a number of large and small foundations and institutes so far.

I have a fair amount of anecdotal evidence, even from people who would be quite shocked to hear that high school English departments are no longer assigning any complete novels, that they understand (and accept) that nonfiction books, for instance history books, are not being assigned at all.

One partner in a law firm in Boston, who went to Phillips Academy in Andover several decades ago, commented that there was no point in such a study because everyone knows there are no history books assigned in schools. Even at Andover in his day, he had only selections, readings and the like, never a complete book. A Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, sometimes thought of as a conservative place, told me, when I commented that I couldn’t find anyone who agrees that our high school students should read one book, that “The only hope is parents introducing their kids to reading, and that’s a mighty slim hope.”

For the last two decades, I have been working to encourage the writing of history research papers by our high school students, but it has become apparent to me that one of the many problems in getting students to undertake such a task is that so many do not read any history, and so have nothing to write about. But as I began to try to find out about the reading of nonfiction books, I have found more and more apathy and acceptance of the situation in which as long as the English department controls reading and writing in our schools, the reading will be fiction, and the writing will be personal, creative or the five-paragraph essay.

Now consider the fact that while most of our high school students are not fluent in English and Korean, and are not studying Japanese or Mandarin, tens or hundreds of thousands of them are expected to manage Chemistry, Calculus, and Physics. I don’t understand the view that reading a good history book is more difficult than Calculus, but there it seems to be.

Why is this important? ACT found this Spring [2006] that 49% of our high school graduates (half of the 70% who do graduate) cannot read at the level of freshman college texts. Common sense, buttressed by such work as that of E.D. Hirsch, Jr., for instance in his most recent book, The Knowledge Deficit, would lead to the assumption that perhaps the reason so many students need remedial work in college (65% of those in Massachusetts’ community colleges and 34% of those in Massachusetts’ four-year colleges, according to The Boston Globe), and the reason so many do not return for their sophomore year, may be because they have never faced a nonfiction book before, and they may have so little knowledge that they do not know what their professors are talking about.

These days, of course, there is a great deal of attention given to many educational issues, and one of the current Edupundit maxims is that the most important variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality. So lots of attention and many millions of dollars go into teacher training, re-training, professional development, and the like.

I believe the truth is otherwise. The most important variable in student academic achievement is student academic work. Those who concern themselves with teacher quality only assume that better teachers will lead to more student academic work, but if they would care to look, the examples of the lousy teacher with the diligent student who does well, and the superior teacher with a student who does no academic work, are everywhere to be found.

Ignoring academic writing and the reading of nonfiction books at the high school level can only prolong, it seems to me, the high levels of remediation and failure in college that we already have. I hope that it may soon become possible to discover if our high school students are indeed discouraged from reading a history book and from writing a serious term paper, and that then we might turn more of our attention to asking for the student academic work that alone can lead to the academic achievement we all wish to see for our students.

The Concord Review, 730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24, Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776 800-331-5007

Monday, March 1, 2010


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
1 March 2010

In gymnastics, performances are judged not just on execution but also on the degree of difficulty. The same system is used in diving and in ice skating. An athlete is of course judged on how well they do something, but their score also includes how hard it was to do that particular exercise.

One of the reasons, in my view, that more than a million of our high school graduates each year are in remedial courses after they have been accepted at colleges is that the degree of difficulty set for them in their high school courses has been too low, by college standards.

Surveys comparing the standards of high school teachers and college professors routinely discover that students who their teachers judge to be very well prepared, for instance in reading, research and writing, are seen as not very well prepared by college professors.

According to the Diploma to Nowhere report issued last summer by the Strong American Schools project, hundreds of thousands of our High School graduates [more than a million each year], with their diplomas and college acceptances in their hands, are surprised, embarrassed and depressed to find that, after getting As and Bs in their high school courses, even in the “hard” ones, they are judged to be not ready for college work and must take non-credit remedial courses to make up for the academic deficiencies that they naturally assumed they did not have.

If we could imagine a ten point degree-of-difficulty scale for high school courses, surely arithmetic would rank near the bottom, say at a one, and calculus would rank at the top, near a ten. Courses in Chinese and Physics, and perhaps AP European History, would be near the top of the scale as well.

When it comes to academic writing, however, and the English departments only ask their students for personal and creative writing, and the five-paragraph essay, [and college admissions people ask for 500-word "college" personal essays], they are setting the degree of difficulty at or near the bottom of the academic writing scale. This standard kind of writing might be the equivalent of having our math students blocked from moving beyond fractions and decimals.

Naturally, students who have achieved high grades on their high school writing, but at a very low level of difficulty, are likely to be shocked when they are asked to write a 10-20-page research paper when they enter college. They have never encountered that degree of difficulty in their high school careers.

It would be as if math students were taking only decimals and fractions, and then being asked to solve elementary calculus problems when they start their higher education.

I was shocked to discover that even the most famous program for gifted students in the United States, the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, which began as a search for mathematically precocious youth, and has very challenging programs for bright students in the summer, when it comes to writing, has sponsored a contest for “Creative Minds” to have students do “Creative Nonfiction.” This genre turns out to be like a diary entry about some event or circumstance in the author’s life, together with their feelings about it.

This may fit very well with the degree of difficulty in many if not most high school English classes, but, even if it is done well (and wins the contest, for example) it falls very short of the expectations for academic writing at the college level.

My main experience for the last thirty years or so, has been with high school writing in the social studies, principally history. I started The Concord Review in 1987, as the only journal in the world for the academic papers of high school students. My expectation was that students might send me their 4,000-word history research papers, of the sort which the International Baccalaureate requires of its Diploma students.

I did receive some excellent IB Extended Essays, and I have now published 890 papers by secondary students from 44 states and 36 other countries, but as time went by, the level-of-difficulty in submissions went up, as did the excellence in their execution.

These students who sent me longer and better essays, did so on their own initiative, inspired, by the chance for recognition, and the example of their peers, to raise the degree of difficulty themselves, even as each set of gymnasts, divers, and ice skaters do for the Olympics every four years. I began receiving first-class 8,000-word papers, then 13,000-word papers from high school history scholars. The longest I have published was 21,000 words, on the Mountain Meadows Massacre in Utah in 1857, by a girl who had also taken time to be a nationally-ranked equestrian, an activity which also features a degree-of-difficulty measure. Students like the ones I publish find themselves mobbed when they get to college, by their peers who have never had to write a research paper before.

We now require too few of our high school students to read nonfiction books—another failure in setting an appropriate degree of difficulty—and we set the degree-of-difficulty level far too low when it comes to academic writing. We should consider giving up this destructive practice of holding the performance of our students to such a low standard, one that disables too many of them for early success in higher education. Lots of our high school students can and will meet a higher standard, if we just offer it to them.