Monday, November 29, 2010

From Hong Kong

Hong Kong

23 November 2010

Mr. Will Fitzhugh


The Concord Review
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776 USA

Dear Mr. Fitzhugh,

Please accept my essay submission: “Matteo Ricci and the Jesuit Mission in China: 1583-1610.”

I’m a Junior at the Chinese International School ( in Hong Kong. CIS is a K-12 bilingual English-Mandarin school. I am fluent in both languages, and am now pursuing the IB Diploma. I intend to edit this essay and submit it as my IB extended essay.

My favorite subject is history, and my teacher, Mr. Christopher Caves, supervised the writing of this essay. Allow me to explain how I decided upon my subject. Last spring I was on holiday in Beijing with my family and we visited a special exhibition at the Capital Museum honoring the life of Matteo Ricci. He was the Italian scholar and priest who led the pioneering Jesuit mission to China in the late 16th century. There are Jesuit schools and colleges in Hong Kong and Macau named after Ricci, but I confess I did not know anything more about him. It turns out that this year marks the 400th anniversary of his death, and the exhibition was a showcase of his intellectually astonishing life. The exhibition was stunning. On display were a number of his books written in Latin, Portuguese, and Chinese; his journals; scientific and musical instruments he brought to China from Europe; and copies of some of the incredible world maps he created. As my essay explains, Matteo Ricci was the first major conduit connecting China to the West, and he left an indelible mark on both worlds in terms of a mutual appreciation for culture and civilization.

By chance, my mother had read Jonathan Spence’s wonderful book, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, and I read it soon after returning from Beijing. I was enthralled at the breadth and depth of Ricci’s intellect, and his devotion to his mission. I was also amazed by his mastery of Chinese. I have found it a difficult language to learn, so I can only imagine what it was like for him to master the Confucian classics four centuries ago. Blood, toil, tears and sweat. I felt deeply humbled.

The large-scale world maps he started producing in 1584 are amazing. He cleverly put China in the middle of the world to please the Ming Emperor Wan Li. Attached are copies of a few (reprinted with permission) which give you a glimpse of his genius.

I thank you for giving high school students like myself a chance to pursue our passions in depth. This process of research, discovery, organizing thoughts and references, and continuous redrafting has made me much more appreciative of historical scholarship. Regardless of whether my essay is selected, I hope you enjoy reading it and learning about this fascinating man, whose life and work have opened up my eyes to the beauty of the humanities across cultures.

Sincerely yours,
Caitlin Lu
Class of 2012
Chinese International School (Hong Kong)

Monday, November 15, 2010


There are many suggestions that the best teachers have an obligation
to teach in the worst schools. Perhaps they would be more likely to do so
if they were granted a few privileges, such as the peremptory
challenge available to lawyers in court trials....


Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review

15 November 2010

The conductor pauses, waiting for the coughing to die down before he raises his baton. The surgeon looks over her team, making sure all are in place and ready to work, before she makes the first incision. The prosecuting attorney pauses to study the jury for a little while before making his opening statement.

All these highly trained people need certain conditions to be met before they can begin their vital work with the necessary confidence that it can be carried out well. If the audience is too noisy, the conductor must wait. If the team is not in their places, the surgeon will not begin. If the members of the jury have not been examined, the attorney will not have to present his case before them.

Only schoolteachers must start their classes in the absence of the calm and attention which are essential to the careful exchange of information and ideas. Only the schoolteacher must attempt the delicate surgery of attaching knowledge and removing ignorance, with no team to help. Only schoolteachers must accept all who are assigned to the class, without the benefit of the peremptory challenges the attorney may use to shape his audience, and give his case the benefit of the doubt.

The Sanskrit word for a teaching, sutra, is the source of the English word, suture, and indeed the stitching of learning to the understanding in young minds is a particularly delicate form of surgery. The teacher does not deal with meat, but with ideas and knowledge, attempting to remove misconceptions and provide truth. The teacher has to do this, not with one anaesthetized patient, and a team of five, but with twenty-five or thirty students and no help.

Those who attend concerts want to be quiet, so that they and their fellows can hear and appreciate the music. Those who come in for surgery want the doctor to have all the help she needs and to have her work under the very best possible conditions, because the outcome of the operation is vital to their interests. The legal system tries to weed out jurors with evident biases, and works in many ways to protect the process which allows both the prosecution and the defense to do their best within the law. The jury members have been made aware of the importance of their mission, and of their duty to attend and to decide with care.

Students, on the other hand, are constantly exposed to a fabulously rich popular culture which assures them that teachers are losers and so is anyone who takes the work of learning in school seriously. Too many single parents feel they have lost the power to influence their offspring, especially as they become adolescents, and many are in any case more concerned that their youngsters be happy and make friends, than that they respect and listen to their teachers, bring home a lot of homework, and do it in preparation for the serious academic work that awaits them the next day.

Students are led to believe that to reject authority and to neglect academic work are evidence of their independence, their rebellion against the dead hand of the older generation. We must of course make an exception here for those fortunate children, many but not all Asian, who reject this foolish idea, and instead apply themselves diligently to their studies, grateful for the effort of their teachers and for the magical opportunity of 12 years of free education.

But what they see as a privilege worthy of their very best efforts, many other students see as a burden, an wanted intrusion on their social and digital time of entertainment. A study of the Kaiser Foundation last year found that the average U.S. student spends more than six hours each day with some form, or combination of forms, of electronic entertainment, and the Indiana Study of High School Student Engagement studied 80,000 teenagers and found that 55% spent three hours or less each week on their homework and still managed to get As and Bs.

We hear stories about the seriousness of students in China and India and South Korea, but we are inclined to ignore them, perhaps as the Romans discounted rumors about the Goths and the Visigoths until it was too late. We hear about our students doing more poorly in international academic competitions the longer they stay in school, but we prefer to think that our American character and our creativity will carry us through somehow, even as we can see with our own eyes how many of the things we use every day are “Made in China.”

Part of the responsibility lies with our teachers in the schools, overburdened and unappreciated as they are. Their unions fight for better pay and working conditions, but say nothing about their academic work. Teachers, too, like lawyers, should demand peremptory challenges, so that they can say they will not be able to teach this one and that one, without damaging the work of the whole class. They, as much as the surgeons who are cutting meat, must be able to enforce close attention to the serious work of suturing learning and minds in their classes. And like the conductor, they must be given the attention that is essential if the music of their teaching is to be heard and appreciated. Teachers who do not demand these conditions are simply saying that their academic work is not important enough to deserve such protections and conditions, and as a result, parents and students are encouraged to see it in the same light.

Friday, November 5, 2010


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.”


In a June 1993 letter to the MacArthur Foundation, Albert Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote:

“...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.”

Monday, November 1, 2010


October 21, 2010

The Concord Review has, over the years, deeply engaged and inspired hundreds of high school students to conduct research and then to write full-length, thoughtful and publishable essays of the highest quality.

I commend your dedication to this effort.

Carole M. Watson
Deputy Chairman
National Endowment for the Humanities
Washington, DC