Wednesday, March 28, 2012


History Matters! Volume 20, Number 3 November 2007
National Council for History Education, Inc.
Ideas, Notes and News About History Education

History Research Papers
by Will Fitzhugh

Editor’s Note: [Joe Ribar] Few people have read more research papers written by high school history students than our author, Will Fitzhugh. He has made the celebration of scholarly work by high school students his life’s work. His message is that students can do the hard work of serious historical research and writing if they are expected to do it by teachers who challenge them. Furthermore, he knows that when young people tackle the challenge, they will come to take great pride in having done it in the same way that high school athletes take pride in doing the hard work of running, jumping, and hitting involved in meeting the challenges of football, basketball, or track. Will’s ideas will be valuable not just to Advanced Placement teachers, but to all who teach history.

High school history teachers know that having their students do research papers will encourage them to read more history on their own and will help them a lot in learning to think more clearly and to write better as well.

But many believe they are too busy to give their students this challenge. After all, the Advanced Placement program, unlike the International Baccalaureate with its required Extended Essay, does not call for a research paper in addition to the exam. Many may assume that Advanced Placement history teachers do not assign serious history research papers. But in fact, quite a few do.

How can they manage that, with all the other work they have to do in preparing their students for the AP exams? I believe they have a secret: they have the students do almost all of the work.

If students can spend the first semester reading on a topic or two of their own choosing in history, with one or perhaps two brief talks with their teacher while they do it, then by the end of the semester they are much more likely to have chosen a topic they can see their way to working on during the second semester.

My first point is, then, that students should do most of the work and that they should choose their own historical topics.

Next, I would urge teachers, especially those who have not had the experience of writing a serious history research paper themselves, to stop worrying about techniques of writing. The more a student reads history, the more likely they are to find something to write about. The more they think about what they are reading and learning, the better they will write about it. And if they read their paper aloud to a friend, they will discover all sorts of things about it that they would like to improve.

...The best writing emerges from a rich store of knowledge which the author is trying to pass on. Without that knowledge and the motivation to share it, all the writing techniques will not make much difference...

By the time they hand in the first draft of their paper to the teacher, it should already have some historical substance, and show the benefits of both thought and some re-writing. At that point, the teacher can make intelligent comments, for instance about other sources on the topic, and on sections of the paper that don’t make as much sense as they could. The teacher can suggest toning down any purple rhetoric that adorns the paper and pass along E.B. White’s immortal advice: “Omit needless words.”

The hardest part for the teacher whose students are writing 5,000-word history research papers will come at the end, when they have to be read and graded. When I was teaching, I used to call in sick at the end of term when the papers came in, but there are no doubt other strategies to use.

The benefits for students are enormous. They will have taken a history topic and made it their own, which is something they will take pride in, and which is wonderful preparation for college. For teachers, the benefits will come from a class full of students who have studied some history on their own, and, having come to understand one part of history in some depth, they will be more understanding of and interested in all the other historical topics the teacher must present. Without such an experience, too many students will go on to higher education lacking some valuable tools: how to read a nonfiction book; how to research a topic; and how to write (and re-write) a serious, non-fiction, expository paper.

Finally, I know it will be terribly tempting to seek out techniques of the writing process and the like, but I believe that such mechanics are poor substitutes for the hard work of reading that must go into preparing any serious history research paper. The best writing emerges from a rich store of knowledge which the author is trying to pass on. Without that knowledge and the motivation to share it, all the techniques will not make much difference.

Of course, good academic writing requires re-writing, but the motivation and energy needed for that re-writing are much more likely to come from the student’s desire to communicate the interesting history he or she has discovered in the research.

Who am I to talk about all this? I was a social studies teacher at the high school in Concord, MA, for ten years, but more to the point, in the last 20 [35] years I have published 792 [1,011] history research papers by high school students from 35 [39] countries, both public and private school students. These papers average 5,500 words, with Turabian [Chicago] endnotes and bibliography, and many of them have come from AP history classes.

One public high school student from Indiana wrote me that: “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...As I began to research the Ladies’ Land League, I looked to The Concord Review for guidance on how to approach my task...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...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.”

It is one of the oldest clichés, of course, but students really will rise to the challenge, and although it can be very hard work—especially for students who have never done a history research paper before, and for teachers who have not assigned one—writing such a paper will deliver much satisfaction and pride, and I can also guarantee you that after the first year you do it, other students will hear about it. They will anticipate your history class with some dread but also with great expectations about what they will accomplish, doing history papers on their own for your class.


Laura Arandes , who arrived at Harvard college as a Freshman a few years ago, had gone to a public high school in California where she never wrote more than a five-paragraph essay. When she got to Harvard she was shocked at how poorly prepared she was. She wrote to me:

“I had never written more than five paragraphs for any essay or paper in my entire academic career prior to entering university…Now, I tell you, I wrote one fine five-paragraph essay, but…no one ever thought to mention to me that college papers would be vastly different from the little expository essay with its introduction, conclusion and five body paragraphs.
I thought a required freshman writing course was meant to introduce us to college paper-writing…in reality, the course was a refresher for most of the others students in the class. At a high-level [university], too many of the students come from private schools that have realized that it would be an academic failure on their part to send their students to college without experience with longer papers, research environments, exposure to non-fiction books, and knowledge of bibliographic techniques…It is a failure…being perpetrated by too many public high schools across the nation.

It took me two years to gain a working knowledge of paper-writing…where I was constructing arguments and using evidence to support them…I am about to graduate with a GPA much lower than it should be and no real way to explain to graduate schools and recruiting companies that I spent my first semesters just scraping by.

This lack of forethought on the part of high school educators and administrators is creating a large divide among college graduates…Modern public high schools have an obligation not to simply pump out graduates at the end of the year, but also to prepare them for the intellectual rigors of college.”


Will Fitzhugh is Editor and Publisher of The Concord Review, a quarterly journal of scholarly history papers by secondary students. He also founded The National Writing Board, a unique independent assessment service for the history research papers of high school students. NWB reports can be used with their college applications. Both of these initiatives can be found at his website: Will can be contacted via email at:

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Teach by Example [Q.E.D.]

Writing a paper for the Review was a completely new experience for me. Suddenly, there were no word limits and no guidelines to dictate what my paper had to look like; these guidelines had previously determined every paper that I had written in past history classes. I was free to pursue whatever aspect of my topic that I wanted to whatever extent that I wanted. It was liberating, but also incredibly intimidating. At first, I admittedly felt lost and even scared about where I was supposed to take my paper.

Begin forwarded message:
From: Janet Chen
Date: March 16, 2012 11:27:57 AM EDT
To: Will Fitzhugh
Subject: Re: Concord Review Authors

Dear Mr. Fitzhugh,

Thank you for taking the time to consider my essay on the unauthorized disclosures of the Pentagon Papers. If you have the time to read this email, I would like to provide you with some background information on the process that I underwent while researching this paper. I am currently a Junior attending (public) high school in Boulder, Colorado. I initially wrote a much shorter version of this essay for my U.S. history teacher, Mrs. Leigh Campbell-Hale.

The process of researching and completing this paper took two years. In 2010, I decided to study the Pentagon Papers because at the time when I was selecting topics, the Wikileaks incident was all over the news. I became fascinated by the leak of information, the current presidential administration’s handling of it, and the public controversy that the leak ignited. One trend that I noticed throughout many of the news articles that I followed was comparison between the current Wikileaks disclosures and the historical leak of the Pentagon Papers. Fascinated, I thought that a closer study of the historical Pentagon documents might provide me with answers to some of the current questions that I had about contemporary leaks.

I came upon President Nixon’s telephone transcripts by accident; initially, I had not intended to focus upon that aspect of the leak. However, reading the transcripts made me realize that there were a lot of discrepancies between what my secondary sources were telling me (that is, what historians previously believed about the leak) and what the transcripts actually show. I began to realize that because there was new evidence that historians previously did not have the opportunity to consider, this topic demanded a reassessment.

I’d like to thank The Concord Review for pushing me beyond my academic boundaries. After my teacher read the much shorter version of my paper, she suggested that I submit a longer one to The Concord Review. Writing a paper for the Review was a completely new experience for me. Suddenly, there were no word limits and no guidelines to dictate what my paper had to look like; these guidelines had previously determined every paper that I had written in past history classes. I was free to pursue whatever aspect of my topic that I wanted to whatever extent that I wanted. It was liberating, but also incredibly intimidating. At first, I admittedly felt lost and even scared about where I was supposed to take my paper.

In the shorter version of this essay, I relied heavily upon my secondary sources and I did not pursue the primary source telephone transcripts to the extent that I should have. I used various excuses to justify this to myself—the word limit wouldn’t have allowed me to fully analyze the transcripts; moreover, the transcripts didn’t seem to fit the guidelines that my teacher had asked for. However, the truth was, I didn’t think that I had the intellectual capability to take on such a challenging academic task. Directly analyzing primary materials and drawing original conclusions (instead of relying upon secondary material) was something that my teacher called “real history”; I was convinced that only “real historians” and graduate level students were capable of doing that kind of research. However, after reading the essay in the Review about Andrew Jackson and his Indian removal policy, I realized that I had been mistaken. Suddenly, none of my previous excuses seemed legitimate. That weekend, I made calls to the National Archives and the National Security Archives to obtain all of President Nixon’s transcripts from that time period. I also emailed and called the historians whose works I had previously referenced in my research. I interviewed these scholars to find out more about the processes that they underwent in their research; I also discussed what they thought about the new evidence that had come out and how that new evidence could be used to revise the conclusions that they had come to years ago.

In retrospect, this has undoubtedly been the most demanding academic endeavor that I have ever undertaken during my high school years. More importantly, however, it has also been the most fascinating academic work that I have ever had the opportunity to engage in. I have learned so much not only about history and the Pentagon Papers, but also about my own critical thinking process and capabilities. Thank you again for taking the time to consider my essay, and thank you (and The Concord Review) for giving me the opportunity to go beyond my previous academic boundaries.


“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®

Saturday, March 17, 2012

THE MUDPIE CURRICULUM; Houston, Texas; Madison, Wisconsin


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
March 15, 2012

What happened on the Ides of March? Oh, something historical, I suppose—it doesn’t matter. But I want to take note of the huge breakthrough that is the introduction of nonfiction informational texts [sic] into American high school classrooms.

According to Education Week this week, “employers and college instructors found students weak at comprehending technical manuals, scientific and historical journals, and other texts pivotal to their work in those arenas.” So the decision was made to break the fiction monopoly in American high school classrooms, so that our high school graduates might have some knowledge of something or other when they move on to work or college.

To help me envision this huge change, I have tried to imagine a parallel educational universe, where, for example, high school students might read two or three complete history books each year, write a 5,000-word history research paper each year, and do their reading of novels on their own outside of school. But a problem in this universe would arise if college instructors and employers discovered that they knew nothing about science and/or technology.

So, perhaps like ours, their mammoth Educational Leviathan would move into action in that “dull, heavy, busy, bold and blind” way that ours does, to introduce those subjects into the schools. Of course they couldn’t jump right into math, chemistry and physics, any more than ours could jump into actual history books when considering nonfiction informational texts.

So they would have to start at the beginning, perhaps with curriculum development, assessment strategies, and teacher professional development programs to prepare for a unit in, perhaps, “small drying earth mounds.” This could introduce students to the ideas of water and earth and the processes of wetting and drying, and later perhaps the flaking of dried earth under pressure (aka “The Mudpie Curriculum”).

After a number of innovative units like this one, the curriculum could gradually venture into the ideas of preparing meals as a kind of chemistry, the bouncing of balls as a start on the idea of quantum physics, and of course the introduction of counting on fingers and toes as a start on advanced calculus.

As with our parallel ventures into nonfiction informational texts, the progress of students in science and math would be slow, easily blamed on demographics and insufficient funding for education, and students would graduate with only a smattering, if that is not too strong a word, of the rudiments, if that is not too strong a word, of math and the physical sciences. But the educational establishment in that other universe could honestly claim to have started to remedy the problems caused by the absence of science and math in the schools, and student ignorance in those areas.

Back in our universe, the nonfiction informational texts are planned to include, in addition to the all-important bus schedules, “brochures, catalogs, menus, and other text types” so that students and their parents can not, in all fairness, say that they had never seen any nonfiction offered in our schools.

Nevertheless, our nonfiction equivalent of that parallel universe’s breakthrough Mudpie Curriculum would leave our students in the future in the same spot they are in now, never having read a single nonfiction book in high school, knowing no more history than they did in the second grade, and completely unprepared for college nonfiction book reading lists, not to mention college term papers (also nonfiction).

But we would have been true to our anti-academic, anti-knowledge, anti-intellectual educational traditions, and we would once again have successfully defeated an attempt to introduce significant amounts of knowledge for our students into the schools and once again prevented them from acquiring any worthwhile degree of academic competence.

We will be criticized of course, but that will be, as usual, water off a duck’s back, and after all, it cannot be denied that we were asked to provide nonfiction informational texts and we provided them. Perhaps bus schedules, brochures and menus are not everyone’s idea of worthwhile nonfiction informational texts, but we made a start, and no doubt succeeded in blocking the introduction of complete history books into our nation’s public high schools for perhaps another generation. So don’t say we did nothing for all that extra money!

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Writing Tips for the Gifted Student

Will Fitzhugh,
The Concord Review

Perhaps the first caution to note on this subject is that when giving advice to the gifted, it is wise to remember that they are gifted, and should not be loaded up with unnecessary advice. In fact, my own first preference in encouraging gifted students to do academic expository writing (e.g. history research papers) is to give them the papers of other gifted students to read. This way the goal becomes clear in a way that it often does not when one starts with buckets and bags of technical advice on “How To Write a Paper.”

One problem is that by the time one has gone through all the advice about footnotes, endnotes, bibliography, plagiarism, etc., any motivation to write a paper will very sensibly have evaporated, in all likelihood.

Like other people, gifted students like to see if there is any point in doing something, in this case, writing a long serious academic research paper. I believe that the point is best illustrated by showing them what the finished product looks like, and, by having them read some exemplary papers by their peers, showing them how very interesting serious history can be, even to people their age.

To follow my own advice, and to do unto you as I would have you do unto gifted students, allow me to place a sample of such writing here (from a 6,904-word paper written by a New York ninth-grader who later graduated from Harvard):

“Within this nineteenth-century intellectual context, Cesare Lombroso’s work greatly influenced how Europe’s criminologists and jurists perceived criminals. L’Uomo Delinquente (“The Criminal Man”), published in 1876, was the most influential of his many publications. It was so popular and well regarded that it grew from two hundred pages in its first edition to over three thousand in its fifth. A later work, Le Crime, Causes et Rémédies, ‘Crime, Its Causes and Remedies,’ published in 1899, was also highly influential. By the 1880s he had gained world renown through his studies and theories in the field of characterology, the relation between mental and physical characteristics, criminal psychopathy, the innate tendency of individuals toward sociopathy and criminal behavior. Lombroso’s conclusions stimulated debate among academics, lawyers, judges, prison directors, all those interested in public policy, as well as the general public. In fact, criminal anthropology, the field Lombroso created, received such attention that it was the focus of an international conference every four years for over three decades before World War I.

Extraordinary amounts of documentation in the form of pages of statistics and illustrations strongly influenced readers to believe “that many of the characteristics found in savages and among the coloured races are also to be found in habitual delinquents.” Lombroso used statistics so well that many scientists accepted his conclusion that criminality is biological. Although Lombroso’s theories have now been discredited, they had mass appeal at the turn of the century.

While his ideas were widely popular, Lombroso’s many credentials helped to establish his influence with professional colleagues. Cesare Lombroso, born on November 6, 1835, in Verona, Italy, studied at the universities of Padua, Vienna, and Paris (1862-1876). In 1876 he became a professor of psychiatry, forensic medicine, and hygiene at the University of Pavia. Moving to the University of Turin, he held professorships in psychiatry from 1896 and in criminal anthropology from 1906. He also directed a mental asylum in Pesaro, Italy. Lombroso died on October 19, 1909, in Turin, Italy.

Originally, Lombroso became involved with the classification of criminals after being assigned to do a post-mortem on a criminal named Vilella, who had died in the insane asylum in Pavia. While examining Vilella’s skull, Lombroso discovered an abnormality common to lower apes, rodents, and birds. Lombroso named this abnormality the “median occipital fossa.” Later, Lombroso recognized the importance of his discovery...”

And for those of you who got interested in the story, as I did when I was publishing this paper, here is the conclusion:

“Lombroso may have been refuted by science, but his influence on popular culture remains.

Why does this pseudo-science from the nineteenth century remain so powerful at the end of the twentieth century? Lombroso gave society a visual key for identifying people it feared. It is likely that Lombroso’s descriptions caused “nice people” to avoid tattoos, gentlemen to be either clean-shaven or to have well-kept beards, and good citizens to avoid obviously excessive drinking. Perhaps part of the 1960s antagonism to the hippie movement came from Lombrosian antagonism to unkempt hair and tattoos, especially on women. These were also easy visual signals to identify “bad” people. Even today, people want easy visual keys to identify villains. For instance, after Littleton, many school districts have banned the wearing of black trenchcoats, as if trenchcoats have anything to do with murder. Lombroso’s influence remains because people look for easy answers to complex problems.

Darwin’s The Origin of Species had an extraordinary effect on nineteenth-century attitudes toward man, society, and science. His empirical model required observations over many examples to test hypotheses and to come to validated conclusions that support overall theoretical claims. While Darwin’s work has become influential for many modern sciences from biology to geology to physics, Lombroso’s is no longer considered valid. On the other hand, the questions Lombroso sought to answer—and those which arose from his studies—remain very modern concerns. As Tolstoy wrote in Resurrection in 1899:

‘He also came across a tramp and a woman, both of whom repelled him by their half-witted insensibility and seeming cruelty, but even in them he failed to see the criminal type as described by the Italian school of criminology....’

'He bought the works of Lombroso, Garofalo, Ferri, Liszt, Maudsley, and Tarde, and read them carefully. But as he read, he became more and more disappointed...He was asking a very simple thing: Why and by what right does one class of people lock up, torture, exile, flog, and kill other people when they themselves are no better than those whom they torture, flog, and kill? And for answer he got arguments as to whether human beings were possessed of free will or not. Could criminal propensities be detected by measuring the skull, and so on? What part does heredity play in crime? Is there such a thing as congenital depravity?'

It is a hundred years since Tolstoy’s hero posed these questions, a hundred years in which we have sought ways to use science to identify criminals and prevent crime. Our understanding of science has dramatically increased and Lombroso’s fame has largely died, but answers to these questions remain just as pressing.”
(endnote citations removed—Ed.)

In my view, the chances of getting a student to write to a history/story/analysis like this, by starting with the mechanics of the well-written essay, are slim to less than slim. I can’t see any historian beginning any history with a study or review of the techniques of the properly-constructed history book.

This is not to throw out those babies of some instructional value with all the bathwater of pedagogical technique. Of course it is important for students to have an outline, take notes in their readings, construct their endnotes and bibliographies in the accepted (Chicago) manner, and so on.

It is my contention that, in order to inspire students to do the hard work of research and writing necessary to produce a good, scholarly, readable history paper, one should start by encouraging them to read history, perhaps starting with some of the better work of others their age who have written successful history papers already.

It seems to me that the step of having students read history to find out how interesting it can be, and the next step of having them read about a topic in history on which they think they might want to write a paper are the most important ones.

After the motivation to read and report on some historical topic is in place, and a strong first draft is written, then the gods of Rhetorical Correctness can descend and do their duties. But it is not possible to repair a paper written with little research and no enthusiasm, using writing pedagogy alone.

I once talked to a Teachers College expert on reading and writing about the importance of content (knowledge, subject matter, et al) in writing, and she, who had been called, in a national publication, “The Queen of Reading and Writing,” said to me: “I teach writing, I don’t get into content that much.” Here beginneth the death of academic expository writing in the schools.

Educators in the United States talk a lot about “critical thinking,” but I, along with others, believe it is easier to learn and practice thinking of any sort if there is something to think about. If the student has almost no knowledge, then they have almost nothing to think about. When it comes to writing a research paper, if the student has learned a lot about their subject, then when they see whether they have done a good job of presenting what they have learned, that will inspire them to think more about it, and to re-write their paper so it does the job they wanted to do better.

Another difficulty in the United States is that reading and writing in the schools is almost universally in the hands of the English Department, and that means the reading will be fiction and the writing will be personal, creative, or the five-paragraph essay. This set of practices tends to shrink the educators’ vision of the capacities of high school students, so when they see the sort of writing in the following excerpt (from a 7,900-word paper by a New York tenth-grader who later graduated from Harvard and Cambridge), they regard it as the work of some freak and decide it surely has no bearing on the level of expectations in writing they have for their own students:

“Keynes also discusses in The General Theory the danger of excessive saving (which he had emphasized earlier in his Treatise on Money). If an individual saves a greater amount than can be invested by businesses, he or she is failing to return income to the community and the result will be a contraction of the incomes even further. Because of the marginal propensity to consume, everyone else’s savings will also contract. The result will not even be a gain in total savings. Because savings and investment are carried out by different groups in our society, it is often possible that individuals will save more than can be invested. Therefore, thriftiness could lead to a decline in total savings.

The discussions in The General Theory of the marginal propensity to consume, the multiplier, and savings all point to the fact that investment must be increased to increase income and employment. According to Keynes, investment is determined by two considerations—the expected yield of the investment and the rate of interest on the money borrowed for the investment. Economists before Keynes (and also Keynes in his Treatise on Money) believed that excess savings will bring down interest and encourage investment. But Keynes makes the crucial observation that a shortage in investment will cause a decrease in income and, because of marginal propensity to consume, a decrease in savings, which will raise interest rates and further discourage investment. If there is insufficient investment, people will not be able to save as much as they had in the past; in fact, they will begin to use up their past savings. Because of this, even before The General Theory, Keynes advocated the reduction of interest rates by the government to both reduce savings and raise investment. But for Keynes, in The General Theory, even that reduction of interest rates would not be enough to reduce savings or stimulate investment sufficiently. According to Keynes, if certain conditions exist, especially in a depression, a reduction in interest will have little effect on savings. If there was a rise in liquidity preference (people’s desire for cash), such as might be brought about by falling prices, savings would not be reduced no matter how low the interest was. And decreased interest rates would not have a great effect on investment because of the second consideration that affects investment—expectation. The expected yield of the investment is extremely unpredictable. Keynes said of the factors that influence output and employment, “of these several factors it is those which determine the rate of investment which are most unreliable, since it is they which are influenced by our views of the future about which we know so little.” Keynes’s conclusions that neither interest rates nor expected proceeds could sufficiently encourage investment led him to his final conclusion that unemployment could exist at equilibrium—unemployment would not fix itself, and government intervention was necessary to increase employment.

In The General Theory, Keynes contrasts his main arguments with the traditionally held “classical” beliefs. The General Theory is filled with passages in which Keynes shows the inadequacies of what he calls the “postulates of the classical theory.” According to Keynes, “the classical economists” is a name traditionally given to Ricardo, James Mill, and economists before them. Keynes, however, says that he has also come to call more recent economists who “adopted and perfected the theory of Ricardian economics” classical. These economists include John Stuart Mill, and closer to Keynes’s time, Alfred Marshall and Arthur Pigou. Unlike some heretical economists of the past, Keynes had been brought up on classical ideas and had, in fact, remained consistent with them in most of his writings before The General Theory. Keynes’s father, John Neville Keynes, was a noted economist at Cambridge University. And when Keynes attended King’s College at Cambridge, he was a student of Marshall and Pigou, whom Keynes included in his definition of classical economists. Thus Keynes was doubtless taught classical theory from his childhood through the time that he was a student...” (endnote citations removed—Ed.)

It should be said again that these are quite brief excerpts from history papers of 6,000 to almost 8,000 words by students in the ninth and tenth grades. I have published 791 (1,000) such papers by high school students from 35 (39) countries in the last 20 (25) years, and these students have greatly exceeded the expectations I started with in 1987. However, if I had decided to publish the standard five-paragraph essays or the short little “college essays” required by college admissions officers, naturally I would never have discovered what high school students could do.

Which leads me to state another caution when dealing with gifted students. It is important not to try to decide in advance what they are capable of doing. If, in the case of history research papers at the high school level, the choice of topic is left up to the student and there is no specified length, the result will be, in my experience, a huge variety of interesting and serious historical topics, and the longest paper I have published, by a twelfth-grader in this case, was a bit over 22,000 words.

Educators who are accustomed to defining assignments in advance might want to consider my experience, especially when suggesting work for gifted students. Of course, 22,000-word papers take much longer for the teacher to read and comment on, but we might want to make assignments that test the academic efforts and capacities of students rather than choosing them for their demands on us.

Another thing to keep in mind about these gifted students, while we wonder how much to teach them about outlining, note-taking, endnotes and bibliography, is that these are the same students who are taking honors physics and chemistry and preparing for Calculus BC exams. They are not stupid, and they can pick up what they need to know about endnotes et al, in a few moments, especially if they have models in front of them.

They do not need a semester of Writing Techniques Instruction before they pick a topic and start reading about it. We must remind ourselves not to load them up with our own limitations. In addition, they are quite capable of asking questions to find out what they need to do when presenting a research paper. They have been doing that (asking questions), often to the irritation of the adults around them, since they were little kids, after all.

It is also important, at least when working with gifted high school students doing history research papers, to stay out of their way.

“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
Consortium for Varsity Academics® [2007]
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®

Saturday, March 3, 2012


GM’s Education
Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
3 March 2012

In the Winter of 1959-1960, before I went into the Army, I worked at a Gulf Station (now gone) in Harvard Square. The owner of the franchise at the time refused to service VWs and other foreign cars because he said they were just a fad. At about the same time (before we had decided to put a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth), General Motors and other American car manufacturers had the attitude that the public would buy whatever vehicles they wanted to make.

Fast forward to the present, and, to a great extent American educators now believe that employers will hire whoever they give diplomas to. But foreign cars were not a fad, and employers in the second decade of the 21st century often do not want to hire the graduates of our high schools because they are not well-educated and they require quite a bit of not just on-the-job training, but basic remediation before they can become good employees. There are hundreds of thousands of American jobs which cannot be filled by Americans because they are not able to do them.

General Motors and its American peers, after many decades and many billions of dollars in losses, did wake up, and American cars are starting to compete again. Sales and profits are growing, after a long dry spell.

There is insufficient sign that American educators realize the crisis they are facing. After reading Marc Tucker's Surpassing Shanghai, the strongest impression with which I came away was that in this country we are not really serious about education. Now, how can that be, when we have recently spent, as Susan D. Patrick reports, $60 billion on technology for the schools and we are completely awash in edupundits, reform initiatives, school improvement programs, federal initiatives, and professional development? Aren't we doing all that could possibly be required to compete with our peers in other countries?

No, we aren't. To take one very crucial first step as an example. In Finland, Singapore, and other successful educational systems, nine out of ten people who want to be teachers are not accepted for training. They want only the best, sort of the way we do when we select and train Navy SEALS. But in this country, just about anyone who thinks they want to try teaching can be accepted into the profession, even when we find that 50% leave within five years.

In South Korea, the country nearly shuts down the day of the very very important high school graduation exam, while in this country we really don't think there should be one. We claim that anyone and everyone should go on to college, whether they have any chance of knowing enough or studying enough to reach graduation or not (and most don't). We are being told that everyone who goes to our high schools should also go to our colleges, and our colleges should graduate them, whether they know anything or can do anything or not. They may be uneducated, but, by golly, they will be our college graduates!

How can I say such things, when there are so many diligent people trying to raise educational standards in so many states and so many school districts across the nation? Let me suggest one test. Where is there one public high school in the United States which has said, we will give up our sports and other extracurricular programs entirely until we can make sure that our graduates are truly well-educated and as competent as the best in any other country in the world?

This would be considered not an example of real seriousness, but an example of egregious folly and near-insanity, by our sports fan parents and alums, and immediate plans would follow for the termination of any educator who suggested it, while arrangements were being made to ride them out of town on a rail.

We love our academic mediocrity, because there is so much of it, and it is so very difficult to give up. We do not just have an obesity problem physically in the United States, we have too may fatheads who are addicted to educational junk food, and even in the face of innumerable fad diets, we just refuse to trim ourselves or raise our student accomplishments in education to current international educational standards.

I believe we can do it. We got 12 men to the Moon and brought them back, even during the decade of our American Red Guards yelling and screaming and trying to shut down our universities, with the help of an excited media cheering section.

But of course we cannot make sure all our high school graduates are well-educated, employable, and capable of completing a serious college program if they choose to do one, if we do not take education more seriously than we do now. And we need to start by paying more attention to what other countries are already doing if we are to make the necessary changes in good time.