Monday, August 29, 2011


New York Times
; The Opinion Pages

Are Research Papers a Waste of Time?
Room for Debate, Will Fitzhugh

Has the Internet made research papers a useless exercise for college students? Is there a better way to assess knowledge?

Knowledge and the Individual
Updated August 28, 2011, 05:45 PM

Will Fitzhugh is the founder of The Concord Review, since 1987 the only journal in the world for the academic research papers of secondary students.

The Internet can supply information—tables, charts, lists, graphs, facts—but that information is manufactured. Knowledge has to be handmade by each individual; the Internet cannot supply it.

If students abandon the research paper, they will miss the only discipline that can reveal to them the accuracy and integrity of their own thoughts.

To make knowledge, which is the foundation of learning, it is necessary to apply thought to information, to think about the facts that have been gathered, and this is work only an individual can do. Reading books can help a person discover how others—with more information, experience and wisdom—have thought about a subject, but there is no better way to comprehend, consider and digest information for oneself than to write a serious paper.

A research paper can show the student whether he or she has really understood as much as he or she supposed about a subject. The exercise of writing helps a student to organize and examine the information gathered in a careful way.

Sir Francis Bacon wrote in 1625 that “Reading maketh a Full man, conference a Ready man, and writing an Exact man.” If students abandon the research paper, they will miss the only discipline that can reveal to them the accuracy and integrity of their own thoughts. The Internet can be a supermarket of information to assist such efforts, and books and fine teachers can also help, but the real effort of acquiring knowledge belongs to the student, and there is, at least in the humanities, no better work for the student to undertake than a serious research paper.

Friday, August 26, 2011


This situation will persist as long as those funding programs and projects for reform in education pay no attention to the actual academic work of our students...


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review

26 August 2011

It is settled wisdom among Funderpundits and those to whom they give their grants that the most important variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality.

However, a small number of dissenting voices have begun to speak. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, in Academically Adrift have suggested that (p. 131) “Studying is crucial for strong academic performance...” and “Scholarship on teaching and learning has burgeoned over the past several decades and has emphasized the importance of shifting attention from faculty teaching to student learning...”

This may seem unacceptably heterodox to those in government and the private sector who have committed billions of dollars to focusing on the selection, training, supervision, and control of K-12 teachers, while giving no thought to whether K-12 students are actually doing the academic work which they are assigned.

In 2004, Paul A. Zoch, a teacher from Texas, wrote in Domed to Fail (p. 150) that: “Let there be no doubt about it: the United States looks to its teachers and their efforts, but not to its students and their efforts, for success in education.” More recently, and less on the fringe of this new concern, Diane Ravitch wrote in Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010) (p. 162) that “One problem with test-based accountability, as currently defined and used, is that it removes all responsibility from students and their families for the students’ academic performance. NCLB neglected to acknowledge that students share in the responsibility for their academic performance and that they are not merely passive recipients of their teachers’ influence.”

There are necessarily problems in turning attention toward the work of students in judging the effectiveness of schools. First, all the present attention is on teachers, and it is not easy to turn that around. Second, teachers are employees and can be fired, while students can not. It could not be comfortable for the Funderpundits and their beneficiaries to realize that they may have been overlooking the most important variable in student academic achievement all this time.

In February, when the Associated Press reported that Natalie Monroe, a high school English teacher in Pennsylvania, had called her students, on a blog, “disengaged, lazy whiners,” and “noisy, crazy, sloppy, lazy LOAFERS,” the response of the school system was not to look more closely at the academic efforts of the students, but to suspend the teacher. As one of her students explained, “As far as motivated high school students, she’s completely correct. High school kids don’t want to do anything...(but) It’s a teacher’s give students the motivation to learn.”

It would seem that no matter who points out that “You can lead a student to learning, but you can’t make him drink,” our system of schools and Funderpundits sticks with its wisdom that teachers alone are responsible for student academic achievement.

While that is wrong, it is also stupid. Alfred North Whitehead (or someone else) once wrote that; “For education, a man’s books and teachers are but a help, the real work is his.”

As in the old story about the drunk searching under the lamppost for his keys, those who control funds for education believe that as long as all their money goes to paying attention to what teachers are doing, who they are, how they are trained, and so on, they can’t see the point of looking in the darkness at those who have the complete and ultimate control over how much academic achievement there will be—namely the students.

Apart from scores on math and reading tests after all, student academic work is ignored by all those interested in paying to change the schools. What students do in literature, Latin, chemistry, history, and Asian history classes is of no interest to them. Liberal education is not only on the back burner for those focused on basic skills and job readiness as they define them, but that burner is also turned off at present.

This situation will persist as long as those funding programs and projects for reform in education pay no attention to the actual academic work of our students. And students, who see little or no pressure to be other than “disengaged lazy whiners” will continue to pay the price for their lack of education, both in college and at work, and we will continue to draw behind in comparison with those countries who realize that student academic achievement has always been, and will always be, mainly dependent on diligent student academic work.

“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


NY Times Op-Ed: "Education Needs a Digital-Age Upgrade,"
by Virginia Heffernan, in a review of Now You See It by Cathy N. Davidson, co-director of the annual MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions. 7 August 2011

"The new classroom should teach the huge array of complex skills that come under the heading of digital literacy. And it should make students accountable on the Web, where they should regularly be aiming, from grade-school on, to contribute to a wide range of wiki projects...."

I am not surprised that after the MacArthur Foundation put $50,000,000 into the study of Digital Learning (not learning just with one’s digits, of course) they discovered that using digital technology to enhance learning is a super-duper idea.

But I worked for the North American Aviation Space and Information Systems Division, on the Apollo Program,
which was somehow managed by engineers with computers only as powerful as iPhones are now, and who, with their pocket protectors and slide-rules, had sat patiently in rows in old-fashioned classes at MIT and Caltech, and learned the “huge array of complex skills” (of which Ms. Davidson speaks) that they needed to know to get men to the moon and back, and that includes the test pilot/astronauts who were also pocket-protector-wearing students who sat in rows learning aeronautical engineering, when they were not writing out their flight plans with a ballpoint pen.

The tens and tens of billions of dollars that have been spent on computers and software for education, and the hundreds of thousands (or millions of dollars?) spent on advertising for that stuff, coupled with a despair of ever raising the academic achievement of kids who skip classes and fail to do any of their homework, have deluded Digitopundits into a flight of digitalistical fantasies of wonderful changes which will relieve us of the hard work of teaching math, grammar, rhetoric, patience, self-discipline, history, attention, persistence, and all the other basic tools of learning a civilization requires, whether in the 18th century, the 19th century or the 21st century.

I find all of this drooling over the changes for education which technology will bring in some digitalistically magical mystery way to our tasks as parents and teachers to be a waste of time, money, and thought.

Pardon my age, but if 65 percent of jobs in the future will have new names, they will all still require basic literacy, patience, honesty, responsibility, probably some knowledge of math and science, an ability to listen and to follow instructions, etc. In short, nothing new.

I don’t forsee the day when “witty and incisive blogs” will be able to take the place of writing legislation, annual reports, history books, judicial opinions or any of the other vital tasks of a literate society.

This is all the malady of surrender to trendy digitalism that promises an escape from the hard work and necessary standards for literacy in our civilization.

If we can't do a good job of educating students, they seem to feel, then we should just jettison the effort and have lots of fun with Facebook and Tweets instead. So the standards for learning join those for modern art, showing that junk is, really, all we should hope to create.

Samuel Johnson and George Orwell would turn over in their graves at junk like this:

"Ms. Davidson herself was appalled not long ago when her students at Duke, who produced witty and incisive blogs for their peers, turned in disgraceful, unpublishable term papers. But instead of simply carping about students with colleagues in the great faculty-lounge tradition, Ms. Davidson questioned the whole form of the research paper. 'What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school—the term paper—and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?' She adds: 'What if ‘research paper’ is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?'”

Will Fitzhugh