(American School Library Association)
“Writing A History Research Paper”
Volume 34, Number 2, December 2005
Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review
I understand that in medieval European universities, before Gutenberg had developed his movable type, the students had no books. In their courses, the professors, who had a book composed of the notes they had taken as students and later as scholars, would read to the students from their book. These readings were called lectures, after the Latin word for reading. The students, in turn, would write down these readings into their book, and when they were graduated they then had a book of their own, filled with the knowledge they had copied down at university.
Students now, even in United States secondary schools have, thanks to our libraries, access to many books. These books are on a great variety of topics and offer introductions to a wide range of knowledge.
David McCullough  writes that when Harry Truman was in the high school class of 1901 in Independence, Missouri, the town library of two thousand volumes (a treasure beyond imagining for a medieval student) was connected to the high school. Truman and his friend Harry Ross had a competition to see which of them could read all of those books, including encyclopedias, first, and later each claimed to have won. And Harry Truman was not even preparing for college. He never went to college, although he did quite a bit of reading as a United States Senator and later, as President for seven years.
In the current century, it appears that among those American students who do graduate from high school (less than 70% of those who begin ninth grade) and then go on to college, up to 50% need remedial reading and writing courses before they can take on college-level courses, and many do not return for their sophomore year.
What has happened in just over a century since Harry Truman was reading those two thousand books in the local library? For one thing, now almost everyone goes to high school, which was not the case in Truman’s day. For another, some educators have decided that we are in a “post-literate” era, where books, writing, and all those things we associate with the literate era of the past, are no longer so important.
“I would be remiss if I did not thank you, on behalf of all students who have been called upon to attempt the seemingly insurmountable task of writing an in-depth history paper, for providing us with plentiful examples of good writing and good history. Your publication has helped us to see a way through the jungle.”—Jesse Esch, Archbishop MacDonald High School, Edmonton, Alberta, Class of 1997; University of Alberta, Class of 2001, published in The Concord Review, Summer 1997.
In their place, students are offered filmstrips, videos, DVDs, portable computers, skits, PDAs, movies, and the Internet, which are supposed to relieve students of the need to go to the library or read a book. Many educators also seem to have acquired the idea that students need almost no knowledge, because they can always “look it up,” presumably online. The Concord Review recently received a history paper from a high school student who, in the bibliography, listed “online sources” and “offline sources.” Books, in other words, at least for this young HS author, are now “offline sources.”
When educators talk about moving beyond reading and writing to a more audiovisual “post-literate” era, I always think of hieroglyphics, the picture language par excellence. Maybe they think instant messaging with its emoticons is just one giant step on the way to the new day of picture-writing?
Just because almost a majority of our college freshmen arrive so post-literate that they need remedial reading and writing (and so post-numerate that they need remedial math), doesn’t mean that all the news is bad on the literacy front.
The Concord Review, the only journal in the world for the academic papers of high school students, has published 715 [1,143] history research papers from students in 44 states and 33  other countries since 1987. These papers now average 6,500 words, with extensive endnotes and bibliography. There are several of these essays on the journal’s website (www.tcr.org) and you can judge the quality for yourself.
“My paper originally began as a 1,500-word assignment. Like many public school students, I had never written a paper over 1,000 words, so I was initially overwhelmed by the task. However, as I began to delve into the primary and secondary source documents that I had borrowed from the library at the University of California in Berkeley, I became fascinated with the topic. I decided to expand my paper into a full-length research paper and submit it to the Concord Review. The excellent quality of all the research papers in the journal inspired me to work extremely hard to achieve the same high standard. It is had not been for the Review, I would never have invested as much time and effort as I did in writing my paper. Through this process, I improved my writing skills, and deepened my love for history.”—Kevin Zhou, Monte Vista High School, California, Class of 2006; Harvard Class of 2010, published in The Concord Review, Winter 2004.
Most of these students read books, and most do not think of books as offline resources. They take advantage of the knowledge and counsel of their school librarians, and through their labors to produce a serious research paper they come to join the ranks of the scholars who have gone before, at least at the apprentice level.
Nevertheless, it is hard for some librarians to retain their faith in the books of the literate age, at least when it comes to working with students. James Billington, Librarian of Congress, gave a talk in December 2004 to people interested in civics in Washington, DC. He spoke at length of his efforts to produce a wonderful and hugely expensive DVD full of exciting images and sounds, which he said would be more relevant and exciting for students, and might even help to lead them gradually back to reading actual books one day. At the same conference, David McCullough, who always tries to read the books his subjects read in their day, and who never tires of recommending the joys and benefits of reading books, talked about the importance of libraries. He pointed out how lucky our students are to have access to so many books in our libraries, and he said that even in this day and age, there are more libraries than Macdonald’s eateries in the United States.
“I wrote this paper independently, during my own time out of school. My motives for doing so were both academic and personal. Although history has always been my favorite subject, I had never written a paper with this extensive research before. After reading the high quality of essays in The Concord Review, I was very inspired to to try to write one myself. I thought it was a significant opportunity to challenge and expand my academic horizons. Thus during the summer before my Senior year, I began doing the research for my own paper.”—Shounan Ho, Notre Dame Academy, Los Angeles, Class of 2003; Columbia University, Class of 2007, published in The Concord Review, Summer 2003.
If some librarians feel defensive about books, and high school teachers no longer assign research papers, the chances are good that students will read fewer books, or none, and thus be unready for college work.
In 2002, with a grant from the Albert Shanker Institute, The Concord Review commissioned a study of the state of the history term paper in United States high schools. The study is on our website, but the basic findings are that, while 95% of the teachers interviewed said term papers were important or very important, 82% never assign a 5,000-word paper (like those published in the journal) and 63% never assign a 3,000-word research paper. Taken together with studies that show high school students spending less than three hours a week on homework, it seems most probable that the majority of high school students in this country now leave without having done a serious research paper, and perhaps without having read one nonfiction book.
“You invited me to try my hand at history. I worked thereafter not to complete my class assignment, but to achieve publication. I knew so little about convention, a fact made manifest by the text, but I was nonetheless rewarded by The Concord Review.”—Alec Barker, St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, Philadelphia, Class of 1997; Georgetown University, Class of 2001, published in The Concord Review, Summer 1997.
In fact, the head of the history department at the Boston Latin School, the oldest (1635) public school in the country and the premier exam school in Boston, wrote me a couple of years ago to say that they had not assigned the “traditional history term paper” for more than a decade.
The teachers in the Concord Review Term Paper Study mostly said they do not have enough time to assign, coach and evaluate research papers, so they don’t ask students to do them. Of course, if serious academic writing is not valued by the schools, teachers will not be given the time to work on them with students. To point only one contrast, a local high school sophomore in a suburban high school near Boston recently estimated that she spent 21 hours a week on swimming, counting practices and meets, but not travel time.
Most of the older private schools do expect their students to learn to write research papers and teachers are given small classes so that they can work on papers with students, and have the time to assess them.
We are preparing to do a companion study to find out the number of nonfiction books (if any) our high school students now read for their classes. Of course, some students, encouraged by their parents, and helped by their librarian, read nonfiction books on their own. But we want to discover the state of expectations for the reading of nonfiction books in high school.
It is not too hard to imagine the reaction of the medieval scholar, if he could see the vast array of books available to students who are now about their age, when he realized that, given these incredible riches of knowledge, many students are not even inclined to open a book at all now.
“I wrote my paper on John Adams, for my end-of-the-year paper. I received a B on the paper, mainly because I had over-cited some sources, but with the encouragement of my teacher, I researched and revised during my summer break so that I could send it in to The Concord Review. I thoroughly enjoyed reading through letters written by John Adams and journal entries from Benjamin Rush. This whole experience has led me to appreciate history more and value the research process. Thanks again for creating such an outstanding journal and for raising the academic standard.”—Rachael Dean, Pulaski Academy, Arkansas, Class of 2005. published in The Concord Review, Spring 2005. University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2009.
In other parts of the world, even now, there are students who are grateful for the chance even to share a book with other students. Business Week had an article about the very high standards set by the India Institutes of Technology, where students can expect four hours of sleep a night while they are there. It told of one student who, when he began his work for a Ph.D. at Stanford, was thrilled that he could now have his own book, which he did not have to share with others [”Whiz Kids” 1998].
If we do not require students to read nonfiction books and write research papers there are consequences beyond remedial courses in reading and writing during their freshman year in college.
The New York Times reported on January 10, 2005, that some major newspapers are now giving away up to 12 percent of the copies they claim in their circulation figures. “Without them, many newspapers would be losing circulation at a far higher rate. In the industry as a whole, circulation has been falling for a decade or more...Media companies are fighting a steady decline in readership.” [Steinberg and Torok 2005]
“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 an original work from a heap of history—is one without which no student should leave high school.”—Daniel Winik, Sidwell Friends School, Class of 2003. Yale Class of 2007.
The Business Roundtable surveyed its member companies in 2004 to find out what they needed by way of remedial writing courses. They discovered that these companies are spending more than $3,000,000,000 (3 billion dollars) a year for courses in remedial writing for their employees, both salaried and hourly workers. If we took reading and writing seriously in our schools, this money could be and should be available for other things. I have also heard many stories from lawyers who say they have set up remedial writing courses in the firm for their new associates, many of whom arrive from law school unable to write well enough to do the work of the firm.
The National Endowment for the Arts in 2004 did a large survey of adults in this country which found that the reading of fiction has declined. It seems probable that if the National Endowment for the Humanities did a study of the reading of nonfiction books, there would be a similar finding. The lack of the requirement for nonfiction reading and academic writing in our schools not only leads to a burden on colleges to provide remedial work, and on our employers to do the same, but it seems likely that it also contributes to the decline in readership for newspapers, to take one example, and perhaps a decline in the number of those who use our libraries as well.
“In the end, working on that history paper, 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 of 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 had to 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.”—Eric Suh, Isidore Newman School, New Orleans, Class of 2003. Harvard Class of 2007.
The Concord Review is preparing a companion study [funding permitting] to determine the the number of nonfiction books our high school students now read for their classes. While some students, encouraged by their parents and helped by librarians, read nonfiction books on their own, we want to discover the state of expectations for the reading of nonfiction books in high school.
It seems highly likely that if high school students are not required to write research papers, they will not read nonfiction books, and they will not discover the joys of reading and this will lead to less reading in later life, along with a reduced ability to communicate in writing.
When we see the dumbed-down political commercials every four years, it is hard to remember that the audiences for the Lincoln-Douglas debates stood for up to four hours, listening with interest to Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Douglas discuss the issues of the day. In our post-literate age, we are treated to short television spots suited, in the minds of some, to citizens who no longer read, and who perhaps are thereby assumed to be less and less able to govern themselves.
Librarians are essential to reading and writing nonfiction in schools—a role I urge you to embrace, not abandon.
©2005 William Fitzhugh
Will Fitzhugh, a graduate of Harvard, who founded The Concord Review [www.tcr.org] in 1987, and the National Writing Board in 1998, taught for ten years at the high school in Concord, Massachusetts [firstname.lastname@example.org].
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