Monday, April 23, 2012

HISTORY BOOKS?; Madison, Wisconsin; Houston, Texas

History Books
Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
23 April 2012

I majored in English literature at Harvard, and had such wonderful professors as B.J. Whiting for Chaucer, Alfred Harbage for Shakespeare, Douglas Bush for Milton, Walter Jackson Bate for Samuel Johnson, and Herschel Baker for Tudor/Stuart Drama. In my one year at Cambridge after graduation, I had the benefit of lectures by Clive Staples Lewis, F.R. Leavis, Joan Bennett, and R.T.H. Redpath.

But in high school and in college I didn’t read any history books and I didn’t think twice about it. Many years later, when I was asked to teach United States History at the high school in Concord, Massachusetts, I panicked. I read Samuel Eliot Morison’s Oxford History of the American People to get started and I have been reading history books ever since (thirty years), but I never knew enough history to be as good a history teacher as my students deserved.

Since 1987, (I left teaching in 1988) I have been the editor of The Concord Review, the only journal in the world for the academic papers of secondary students, and we have now published 1,022 history research papers by high school students from 46 states and 38 other countries. This has only increased my understanding that high school students should be not only encouraged to read complete history books (as I never was in school) but assigned them as well. It is now my view that unless students in our high schools get used to reading at least one complete history book each year, they will not be as well prepared for the books on college nonfiction reading lists as they should be.

In addition, as adherents to the ideas of E.D. Hirsch know well, understanding what one reads depends on the prior knowledge of the reader, and by reading history books our high schools students will learn more history and be more competent to read difficult nonfiction material, including more history books, in college.

When I discuss these thoughts, even with my good friends in the education world, I find a strange sort of automatic reversion to the default. When I want to talk about reading nonfiction books, suddenly the conversation is about novels. Any discussion of reading nonfiction in the high schools always, in my experience, defaults to talk of literature. It seems virtually impossible to anyone discussing reading to relax the clutches of the English Departments long enough even to consider that a history book might make good reading material for our students, too. Try it sometime and see what I mean.

I realize that most Social Studies and History Departments have simply given up on having students read a history book, even in those few cases where they may have tried in the past. They are almost universally content, it seems, to leave the assignment of books (and too much of the writing as well) entirely in the hands of their English Department colleagues.

One outcome of this, in my view, is that even when the Common Core people talk about the need for more nonfiction, it is more than they can manage to dare to suggest a list of complete history books for kids to read. So we find them suggesting little nonfiction excerpts and short speeches to assign, along with menus, brochures, and bus schedules for the middle schoolers. Embarrassing.

Nevertheless, if asked, what history books would I suggest? Everyone is afraid to mention possible history books if they are not about current events, or civics, or some underserved population, for fear of a backlash against the whole idea of history books.

But I will offer these: Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough for Freshmen, Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer for Sophomores, Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson for Juniors, and The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough for Seniors in high school.

Obviously there are thousands of other good history books, and students should be free to read any of these as they work on their Extended History Essays or the very new Capstone Essays the College Board is now beginning to start the process of thinking about. And of course I do realize that some history took place before 1620 and even in countries other than our own, but these books are good ones, and if students read them they will actually learn some history, but perhaps more important, they will learn that reading a real live nonfiction history book is not beyond their reach. I dearly wish I had learned that when I was in high school.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

WE DON'T WANT TO KNOW YOU; Houston, Texas; Madison, Wisconsin


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
15 April 2012

Three times a year, The Boston Globe (in the Athens of America) has a 14-16-page Special Supplement celebrating local "scholar-athletes" with pictures and brief write-ups. These are high school students who have taken part in soccer, tennis, golf, football, swimming, baseball, basketball, softball, wrestling, and what-have-you, and done well by various measures. Their coaches, too, get their pictures in the paper and sometimes a paragraph of praise. In addition to these supplements, hardly a day goes by during the school year when some high school athlete, team, coach or event doesn't get "covered" by The Boston Globe. A local philanthropic group has recently raised several million dollars to promote sports in our public high schools.

As we all know, sports involve students, parents, boosters and the like, and they build teamwork, discipline, character, equality (of a sort), ambition, competition, and attendance. Parents do not need to be dragged to games the way they do to school meetings or Parents' Night to talk to teachers. In many cases, they pay fees to allow their youngsters to participate in sports, and some even raise money as boosters for trips to games, tournaments, etc. Community involvement is fairly easy to get in sports, and there are very few edupundits who find work advising schools and communities on how to get parents and other community members involved when it comes to school sports. I know of no new initiatives or workshops to teach parents how to get involved in their children’s sports programs. Athletes also enjoy rallies, cheerleaders, and coverage in their high school newspaper as well.

Recently a young student basketball player in Massachusetts, 6'10" and very good at his sport, "reclassified" himself (changed from a Junior to a Senior?), so that he could choose among the many colleges whose coaches want him to come play at their institutions. His picture not only appeared several times in his local school newspaper, but also showed up several times with stories in The Boston Globe (the Sports Section is one of only four main sections in the paper each day). Apparently we want to know who our good high school athletes are, and what they are achieving, and what they look like, etc.

There is another group in our high schools, which might be called not "scholar-athletes," but perhaps "scholar scholars," as their achievements are in the academic work for which, some believe, we build our schools with our taxes in the first place. But we tell those "scholar scholars" that we really don't want to know them. Their work does not appear in The Boston Globe. Their pictures and stories do not appear in the three-a-year Special Supplements or in the daily paper (there is no "academics" section in the paper of course), or even in their local high school newspaper.

Whenever the subject of students who do exemplary academic work in our schools comes up, our cliché response tends to be that "they can take care of themselves." But if we don't seem to feel that good high school athletes should have to get along in anonymity, why do we think that anonymity for our best high school students will serve them (and us) well enough, in our education system, and in the country, which is in a serious fight to stay up with other countries who take their best students and their academic achievement very seriously indeed.

Sometimes when I mention that it might serve us well if we gave some recognition to our best high school "scholar scholars" people say that I must be "against sports." I am not. I am just critical of the huge imbalance between our attention to athletes and what we give to scholars at the high school level. 100 to zero doesn't make the best balance we can achieve in recognizing them, in my view.

Of course, I am biased, because for 25 years I have been publishing exemplary history research papers by high school students (so far 1,022 papers from 46 states and 38 other countries) in a unique quarterly journal, and none of them ever gets mentioned for their history scholarship in The Boston Globe. Folks tell me this practice is not limited to the Athens of America, of course.

If we are worried about the performance of our student athletes, then the relentless coverage of their efforts might seem justified. I know we are worried about the academic achievements of our public high schools, yet when scholar scholars in the high schools get published in The Concord Review (and then go on to Stanford, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton (as about 30% of our authors do), or get to be Rhodes Scholars (as several have), they don't get mentioned in The Boston Globe. Actually one author, Jessica Leight, from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, did get her picture in the paper when she got her Rhodes Scholarship, after being named Junior Eight Phi Beta Kappa and graduating summa cum laude at Yale, but no mention was made of her Emerson Prize-winning paper on Anne Hutchinson, which was published in that unique international journal when she was still in a local public high school.

So let's do continue to praise our local high school athletes and their coaches. But isn't it time at long last now to think about the message such publicity sends to our diligent and successful scholar scholars and their coaches (I mean their teachers—who are also ignored) about what we value as a society? Why has it been so important all these years to send them, when they are doing not only what we ask them to do in school, but well above and beyond what we have expected, the message that, sorry, but "We Don't Want to Know About You"?

“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, April 10, 2012

Madison, Wisconsin

October 5, 2008

Contentless Writing
Will Fitzhugh

Mr. Fitzhugh [] is Editor and Publisher of The Concord Review and Founder of the National Writing Board and the TCR Institute [].

Abraham Lincoln's address at Gettysburg was short. Indeed, the President had spoken and taken his seat before many in that large crowd gathered outdoors even realized that he had spoken. Fortunately, an alert reporter took down his words. Short as the speech was, it began with a date and a fact—the sort of factual content that is being drained away from student writing today.

The very idea of writing without content takes some getting used to. I was taken aback not long ago to read the comments of a young woman who had been asked how she felt about having a computer grade the essays that she wrote on the Graduate Management Admission Test (Mathews, 2004). She replied that she didn't mind, noting that the test givers were more interested in her "ability to communicate" than in what she actually said.

Although style, fluency, tone, and correct grammar are certainly important in writing, folks like me think that content has value as well. The guidelines for scoring the new writing section on the SAT seem to say otherwise, however. Readers evaluating the essays are told not to take points off for factual mistakes, and they must score the essays "holistically"—at the rate of 30 an hour (Winerip, 2005).

Earlier this year, Linda Shaw of the Seattle Times (2006), reported that the the rules for the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) do not allow dictionaries, but "when it comes to the writing section, there's one rule they can break: They can make things up. Statistics. Experts. Quotes. Whatever helps them make their point." According to Shaw, the state's education office announced that "making up facts is acceptable when writing nonfiction, persuasive essays on the WASL."

Lest you conclude that writing without content, or writing nonfiction with fictional content—think James Frey's A Million Little Pieces—is limited to the Left Coast, think again. Across the United States, even the most prestigious writing workshops for teachers generally bypass the what to focus on the how.

All writing has to have some content, of course. So what are students encouraged to put down on the page? In its 2003 report, The Neglected 'R', The National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges, gave us a clue. According to the report, the following passage by a high school student about the September 11 terrorist attacks shows "how powerfully children can express their emotions."

The time has come to fight back and we are. By supporting our leaders and each other, we are stronger than ever. We will never forget those who died, nor will we forgive those who took them from us.

Or look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) the supposed gold standard for evaluating academic achievement in U.S. schools, as measured and reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. In its 2002 writing assessment, in which 77 percent of 12th graders scored "Basic" or "Below Basic," NAEP scored the following student response "Excellent." The prompt called for a brief review of a book worth preserving. In a discussion of Herman Hesse's Demian, in which the main character grows up and awakens to himself, the student wrote,

High school is a wonderful time of self-discovery, where teens bond with several groups of friends, try different foods, fashions, classes and experiences, both good and bad. The end result in May of senior year is a mature and confident adult, ready to enter the next stage of life. (p. 22)

As these two excerpts show, both the National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges and the NAEP seem to favor emotional and personal writing, at least at the high school level. If personal memoir and "fictional nonfiction" were the sorts of writing that college courses required—not to mention in business, government and other lines of work--then perhaps it wouldn't matter. After all, top executives at ENRON wrote quite a bit of fiction before their arrests, not to mention some well-known journalists who substituted fiction for fact in their reporting.

The problem is that students must know facts, dates, and the viewpoints of various experts and authors to write their college term papers. The Boston Globe has reported some frightening statistics about students' knowledge gaps. Sixty-three percent of students graduating from Massachusetts high schools and attending community colleges are in remedial courses, as are 34 percent of those attending four-year colleges. (Sacchetti, 2004)

A survey of leading U.S. companies revealed that organizations are spending more than $3 billion each year in remedial writing courses for both hourly and salaried employees (National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges, 2004).

Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay

As it happens, some teachers and students in U.S. high schools know that writing serious, factual history research papers is good and necessary preparation for future writing tasks, and that it's a superb way to learn history and practice scholarship. One student, whose history essay appeared in The Concord Review (see "Raising the Bar for Expository Writing," p. 46) was so interested in the trial and excommunication of Anne Hutchinson in the early 1600s that she spent several months during her Junior year doing independent study at a public high school in Massachusetts. Her 13,000-word research paper won The Concord Review's Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize. [She has since graduated summa from Yale, finished her Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in economics at MIT.]

The student found Anne Hutchinson's independence inspiring. In the following extract from her paper, the student discusses the accusations made against Hutchinson during the trial in which this courageous woman was excommunicated for questioning in private the authority of the ministers as the sole source of God's wisdom:

...This bitter speech, made by a man who had seen his entire career threatened by the woman now standing before him, opened a trial marked by extraordinary vindictiveness on the part of the men presiding. Why? Because their regulatory power had been, up to this point, thwarted. Hutchinson had done nothing in public, nothing that could be clearly seen and defined, nothing that could be clearly punished. The principal accusation leveled against her was failure to show proper respect to the ministers, but again, she had made no public speeches or declarations, and the court would soon find that producing evidence of her insolence was very difficult.

The assembly did not immediately strike to the heart of the matter: Hutchinson's disparagement of the ministers of the colony as under a covenant of works. Instead, the presiding ministers first accused her of disobeying the commandment to obey one's father and one's mother by not submitting to the 'fathers of the commonwealth,' as [Governor] Winthrop termed it. Next, Hutchinson's meetings were condemned, despite her citation of a rule in Titus exhorting the elder women to teach the younger.

This is factual writing about a historical event—a trial—in which the facts of the case were of the greatest importance. Fiction was not the focus here. The author's emotions, and her "experiences in high school," were distinctly of secondary—if any—importance in her account of these events in American religious and legal history.

Some readers may mistakenly assume that writing with content is common in schools. In 2002, the Roper Organization conducted a study for The Concord Review and found that in U.S. public high schools, 81% of teachers never assign a 5,000-word research paper--that's 8,000 words shorter than the previously cited award-winning essay--and 62% never assign a 3,000-word nonfiction paper. (The Concord Review 2002). Although 95% of teachers surveyed believed that research papers were "important" or "very important," most reported that they did not have time to assign and grade them.

When Support Trumps Rigor

In her report for the Fordham Foundation on state social studies standards in the United States, researcher Sandra Stotsky (1999), cited a newspaper article about a Hispanic high school student named Carol who was unprepared for college work. Described as a top student, the girl was stunned by the level of writing that her Boston college demanded of her. Although the students said that she had received encouragement and support from her high school teachers, she wished that her teachers had given her more challenging work. According to the reporter, the student discovered that "moral support is different from academic rigor." Stotsky noted that teachers often substitute self-esteem-building assignments for rigorous work. The same newspaper article described a high school teacher,

“who had had her students "write a short story about their lives" because, in the teacher's words, it allowed them to show "a high level of writing ability" and to realize that "their own experience is valid and useful." This teacher is also quoted as believing that this assignment reflected her "high expectations" for her students. It apparently did not occur to the reporter that this kind of writing assignment today, especially for high school students from minority groups, is more likely to reflect a concern for their self-esteem rather than a desire to challenge them intellectually. A regular flow of such writing assignments may be part of the reason that Hispanic students like Carol are not prepared for college-level writing.” (pp. 269-270)

Students like Carol who belatedly discover their lack of preparedness for college work are far more numerous than one might think. Through a survey of recent high school graduates (Achieve, Inc., 2005), the National Governors Association learned that a large majority of students surveyed wished that their teachers had given them more challenging work. Moreover, the High School Survey of Student Engagement (Indiana University, 2004) found that 55% of the 80,000 students surveyed said they did fewer than three hours of homework each week, and most received As and Bs anyway.

Anything But Knowledge

Writing about oneself can be the work of genius, as Marcel Proust demonstrated so well in his magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time. But limiting students to thinking and writing almost entirely about themselves in school is, well, limiting. The Boston Globe, which annually celebrates essays on Courage, asks students to submit short essays—not about someone else's courage, but about their own. Of course, famous people like Anne Hutchinson, Winston Churchill, or Martin Luther King, Jr., don't have a monopoly on courage. But it would be refreshing for students to look outside themselves from time to time to reflect on such qualities in others. Unfortunately, solipsism seems to have become the order of the day; the lack of a sustained focus on objectivity and rigor in writing is showing up in poor literacy rates, greater numbers of remedial classes in college, and higher college dropout rates.

In 2005, comedian Stephen Colbert introduced the idea of "truthiness" into the English language. The term characterizes speech or writing that appears to be accurate and serious, but is, in fact, false or comical. In college, I learned that one of the tasks of thought is to help us distinguish appearance from reality. The goal of "truthiness" is to blur that distinction. On satirical news programs, like The Daily Show this dubious practice brings the relief of laughter, but on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning--in which students are told that it's OK to make things up and to invent experts and "quote" them--it just brings confusion, even to the task of writing of "nonfiction." Postmodernists and deconstructionists at the university level have long been claiming that there is no such thing as truth, but here we have high school students being told, on a state assessment, that when writing nonfiction, it is OK just to make things up, for instance to invent an expert, and then "quote" him in support of an argument they are making.

The danger is that practices like these can lead high school students to believe that they don't need to seek information about anything outside of their own feelings and experiences. However, college students are still expected to read nonfiction books, which obviously deal with topics other than their personal lives. Students also have to write research papers in which they must organize their thinking and present material coherently. Too many students are not prepared to do this, and many end up dropping out of college. What a terrible waste of hopes and opportunity!


Achieve (2005). "Rising to the challenge: Are high school graduates prepared for college and work?" PowerPoint presentation prepared by the Peter D. Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies. Available:

The Concord Review, (2002). History research paper study (conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis). Available:

Indiana University. (2004) High School Survey of Student Engagement. Bloomington, Indiana: [Martha McCarthy]

Mathews, J. (2004, August 1). "Computers weighing in on the elements of essay; Programs critique structure not ideas." The Washington Post

National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). The Nation's Report Card: Writing Highlights 2002.

National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges. (2003). The neglected 'R'; The need for a writing revolution. New York: College Board.

National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges. (2004). Writing: A ticket to work...or a ticket out: A survey of business leaders.

Sacchetti, M. (2005, June 26) Colleges question MCAS success; many in state schools still need remedial help. The Boston Globe.

Shaw, L. (2006, March 17). "WASL writing: Make it up as they go along." The Seattle Times, p. B1.

Stotsky, S (1999). Losing Our Language: How Multicultural Classroom Instruction is Undermining Our Children's Ability to Read, Write, and Reason. New York: The Free Press, pp. 269-271

Winerip, M. (2005, May 4). "SAT Essay rewards length and ignores errors." The New York Times.

This article was first published by Educational Leadership in October 2006, and is reprinted with permission of the author.

"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 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®