Wednesday, November 15, 2017


"History is Philosophy Teaching by Examples"...



Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review

Monday, November 13, 2017


Start assigning term papers early.

Think Little League.

Think Pop Warner.

Don't wait till High School...

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review

Monday, November 6, 2017


Good Student Academic work inspires 
Good Student Academic Work.

For examples from 40 countries, email:

Will Fitzhugh at

Thursday, November 2, 2017


Pattern recognition, the fourth component of sound decision making, is why history is such an essential part of a liberal education—why, in the famous words of George Santayana, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Pattern recognition refers to the ability to see the relevance of other nonidentical situations. It is inextricably linked with experience. A child can play wonderful chess at age seven or eight just by knowing the tactical techniques of chess and having an abundance of raw talent for the game. What takes the prodigy to the grandmaster level in his teens is his accumulated exposure to thousands of positions combined with the ability to see the similarities of those positions to the one he faces in the present game. Similarly, a young physician can be a technically proficient diagnostician the day he finishes his internship, but he cannot become a great diagnostician except by accumulating the experience that is the foundation of pattern recognition.

    Both of these examples illustrate how experience can be personal and vicarious. Personal experience is important, but the chess prodigy studies thousands of games played by the great players of the past to gain vicarious experience. The physician who wants to become a great diagnostician immerses himself in medical journals and texts long after medical school to build up his vicarious experience and thereby enhance his capacity for pattern recognition.

    In all of the great cultural, political, and economic issues of the day, the study of history is how we develop vicarious experience, and that’s why extensive study of history must be part of a liberal education. I do not mean one required survey course, but closer to half a dozen. The rewards of studying history are not abstract. The very creation of the United States is a case in point. The Founders did not imagine that they could make up a Constitution in a vacuum. They consciously undertook a study of democracies and republics from ancient Greece and Rome up through their own time, analyzing the reasons why each had collapsed. The mechanisms they devised—checks and balances, separation of powers, and the rest—were directly influenced by that analysis.

Charles Murray, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality 

 (Kindle Locations 1444-1459). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017


HS Students who have not read one History book are not ready for college.

Saturday, October 21, 2017


High School students who have not written one term paper are not ready for college.

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review

Monday, October 9, 2017


Education Week

Absent From Class

By Will Fitzhugh

There are many important variables to consider in evaluating the causes for academic failure or success in the high school classroom. The training of the teacher, the quality of the curriculum, school safety, the availability of books, and so on are factors studied extensively, and all of them play a part. But I would argue that the most important variable is the student’s actual level of academic work. Why do so many of our high school students do so little of that? The short answer is because they can get away with it.

A close study of the academic demands on students in the vast majority of our high school classrooms would disclose, I feel certain, that one of the principal reasons for students’ boredom is that they really have nothing to do but sit still and wait for the bell. In most classrooms, the chances of a student being called on are slight, and of being called on twice are almost non-existent. If a student is called on and has not done the required reading or other class preparation, most probably the teacher will just call on someone else. There are no real consequences for being unprepared. As a result, many, if not most, students are not capable of contributing in class—or even understanding class discussions—and that can only deepen their boredom.

By contrast, on the football or soccer field, every player is called on in every practice and in nearly every game. Even for players on the bench, there is a constant possibility that they will be asked to perform at any time. If they don’t know what to do then, the embarrassment and disapproval will be swift and obvious. The same also could be said for high school theater productions, performances of the band or chorus, participation in the model United Nations, or almost any other activity they pursue.

In extracurricular activities, the student faces a kind of peer pressure to do well that is usually lacking in the classroom. There, peers may even think it cool for another student to get away with having done no preparation. This may offer insight into findings from the 2005 Indiana University High School Survey of Student Engagement. Of the 80,000 students questioned, 49 percent indicated that they did only three to four hours a week of homework, and yet they still reported getting A’s and B’s. I cannot think of a single high school sport that asks for only three or four hours a week of practice. So little time spent preparing would easily lead to an athletic failure to match the academic failure of so many of our students.

The absence of serious academic demands on the attention and effort of students in our high school classrooms results not only in boredom and daydreaming, but also in the high levels of unproductive media time reported in a 2005 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That report found that young people spend an average of 6.3 hours a day (44.5 hours a week) with various electronic entertainment media; they’re not doing homework on the computer, merely entertaining themselves.

High school students also, for the most part, find time for an active social life, perhaps a job, and often athletics and other time-consuming hobbies and activities. But not, apparently, for academics.

While we have lots of research studies on test results, teachers’ training, per-pupil expenditures, new curricula, professional workshops, and a host of other educational topics, there is a striking need for close study of what students actually are being asked to do while they are in class. The remarkable fact to me is not that our high school dropout rate is so high, but that so little is being asked of those who do not drop out.

Some claim that if only the teacher were more brilliant or entertaining, boredom could be banished, or that the problem of student engagement could be solved if we just showed enough movies in class, gave enough PowerPoint presentations, or had enough DVDs on “relevant” subject matter on hand. But imagine how absurd it would be to expect students to stay committed to a sport in which they spent their time sitting in the stands while the coach told wonderful stories, showed great movies, or talked amusingly about his or her personal athletic history. The student-athletes come to play, as they should, and their motivation is rewarded by the chance to participate, often with sweat, strain, and even tears.

When we make so few classroom demands on students, we should not wonder why so many of them check out, or are essentially absent from class, whether sitting there or not. If nothing is asked of them, if they are not being challenged academically, then they might as well be turning their attention to other pursuits that could offer rewards greater than passivity and boredom.

The education research community should consider undertaking studies that compare the academic demands on students in the typical high school classroom with those that students face in the other activities in which they take part. Let’s try, moreover, to discover high school classrooms that resemble those in law schools or business schools, where students are expected to be prepared each day and are at risk of being called on to demonstrate that readiness at a moment’s notice. And then let’s find out how these schools motivate their students to pour the same energy and commitment they devote to games or matches into their pursuit of learning.

If we want our high school students to do more academic work, let’s try to figure out how to stop boring and ignoring them in our classes. Let’s give them better reasons not to be “absent from class.”


Will Fitzhugh is the founder and president of The Concord Review, a unique journal of academic writing in History by high school students, and the National Writing Board, both located in Sudbury, Massachusetts [].

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


Laurence Steinberg
Beyond the Classroom
New York: Touchstone, p. 138

The Power of Peers

Parents play a central role in influencing their child’s development and education, but by the time children have reached the last years of elementary school, friends have taken on tremendous importance in their school life. In order to understand the full complement of influences on school performance and engagement, especially during the adolescent years—and in order to understand the causes of America’s achievement problems—we need to look closely at the roles played by peers. Indeed, our research indicates that peers shape student achievement in profound ways, and that in many respects friends are more powerful influences than family members are. For a large number of adolescents, peers—not parents—are the chief determinants of how intensely they are invested in school and how much effort they devote to their education.


pp. 145-146

The Prevailing Norm: Getting By

...what did our study tell us about the peer norms and standards operative within the typical American school? Let’s begin by looking at the most common crowds found in American schools and what they stand for. As you will see, there isn’t much place in the typical American high school for students whose primary concern is academic excellence.

    The popularity-conscious, socially elite crowds, whose concerns tend to revolve around socializing, dating, and maintaining social status among friends, account for approximately 20 percent of students in a typical high school. Students in these crowds may do well enough to get by without getting into academic trouble, but they rarely strive for academic excellence—most of their grades are Bs [in 1996]. Another 20 percent of students belong to one of more of the alienated crowds, where identities are centered around drugs, drinking, delinquency, or defiance; these students are openly hostile to academics—on average, they earn Cs. About 30 percent of students describe themselves as “average”—not especially opposed to academic pursuits, but not exactly striving for success, either; like those in the social crowds, their grades hover around straight Bs. And between 10 and 15 percent of students belong to a crowd defined by ethnicity, although this figure varies considerably from school to school, depending on the school’s ethnic composition. The extent to which members of ethnically defined peer crowds are invested in academics depends largely on the particular ethnic group in question...

    ... What about the explicitly academically oriented crowds—the “brains,” the “intellectuals,” and so on? Despite the fact that these students are enrolled in more difficult, more demanding courses—many of them take honors and advanced-placement courses—they maintain an A- average in school grades. But whereas 70 percent of students belong to one of the solid-B [1996], popularity-conscious elites, one of the low achieving, alienated crowds, or to the large mass of “average” students, less than 5 percent of all students are members of a high-achieving crowd that defines itself on the basis of academic excellence.

    Not only is there little room in most schools for the academically-oriented, there is substantial peer pressure on students to underachieve. Adults might think that virtually all teenagers would rather do well in school than do poorly, but our studies suggest that this is not necessarily the case. To be sure, the prevailing expectation among American teenagers is that one ought to avoid failing in school and do what it takes to graduate. But our surveys indicate that among American teenagers, there is widespread peer pressure not to do too well...

...One out of every six students deliberately hides her or his intelligence and interest in doing well while in class because they are “worried about what their friends might think.” One in five students say their friends make fun of people who try to do well in school......

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Houston, Texas


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review

    We make frequent use of the influence of their high school peers on many of our students. We have peer counseling programs and even peer discipline systems, in some cases. We show students the artistic abilities of their peers in exhibitions, concerts, plays, recitals, and the like. 

    Most obviously, we put before our high school students the athletic skills and performances of their peers in a very wide range of meets, matches, and games, some of which, of course, are better attended than others.

    While some high schools still have just one valedictorian, fellow students have little or no idea what sort of academic work the student who is first in her class has done. Academic scholarships may be announced, but it is quite impossible for peers to see the academic work for which the scholarship has been awarded. Here again, the contrast with athletics is clear.

    We show high school students the artistic, athletic, and other examples of the outstanding efforts and accomplishments of their peers without seeming to worry that such examples will send their peers into unmanageable depressions or cause them to give up their own efforts to do their best.

    When it comes to academic achievements
, on the other hand, we do seem to worry that they will have a harmful effect if they are shown to other students. I am not quite sure how that attitude got its hold on us, but I do have some comments from authors whose papers I have published in The Concord Review, on their reaction to seeing the exemplary academic work of their peers:

“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...In short, 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.”

North Central High School (IN)

“The opportunity that The Concord Review presented drove me to rewrite and revise my paper to emulate its high standards. Your journal truly provides an extraordinary opportunity and positive motivation for high school students to undertake extensive research and academic writing, experiences that ease the transition from high school to college.”

Thomas Worthington High School (OH) 

“Thank you for selecting my essay regarding Augustus Caesar and his rule of the Roman Republic for publication in the Spring issue of The Concord Review. I am both delighted and honored to know that this essay will be of some use to readers around the world. The process of researching and writing this paper for my IB Diploma was truly enjoyable and it is my hope that it will inspire other students to undertake their own research projects on historical topics.”

Old Scona Academic High School, Edmonton, Alberta, (Canada) 

“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 in 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 put so much work into the paper. I would not have had the heart to revise so thoroughly.”

Isidore Newman School (LA)

“At CRLHS, a much-beloved history teacher suggested to me that I consider writing for The Concord Review, a publication that I had previously heard of, but knew little about. He proposed, and I agreed, that it would be an opportunity for me to pursue more independent work, something that I longed for, and hone my writing and research skills in a project of considerably broader scope than anything I had undertaken up to that point.”

Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School (MA)

Now, whenever a counterintuitive result—like this enthusiasm for a challenge—is found, there is always an attempt to limit the damage to our preconceptions. “This is only a tiny fringe group (of trouble-makers, nerds, etc.)” or “most of our high school students would not respond with interest to the exemplary academic work of their peers.” The problem with those arguments is that we really don’t know enough. We haven’t often actually tried to see what would happen if we presented our high school students with good academic work done by their more diligent peers. Perhaps we should consider giving that experiment a serious try. I have, as it happens, some good high school academic expository writing in History to use as examples in such a trial...see

          Contact: Will Fitzhugh,

Friday, August 4, 2017


4 August 2017
Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review

The New Common Core Standards call for a 50% reduction in “literary” [aka fictional noninformational texts] readings for students, and an increase in nonfiction informational texts, so that students may be better prepared for the nonfiction they will encounter in college and at work.
In addition to memos, technical manuals, and menus (and bus schedules?), the nonfiction informational texts suggested include The Gettysburg Address, Letter from Birmingham Jail, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and perhaps one of the Federalist Papers.
History books, such as those by David Hackett Fischer, James McPherson, David McCullough, Ron Chernow, Paul Johnson, Martin Gilbert, etc. are not among the nonfiction informational texts recommended, perhaps to keep students from having to read any complete books while they are still in high school.
In the spirit of Turnabout, let us consider saving students more time from their fictional noninformational text readings (previously known as literature) by cutting back on the complete novels, plays and poems formerly offered in our high schools. For instance, instead of Pride and Prejudice (the whole novel), students could be asked to read Chapter Three. Instead of the complete Romeo and Juliet, they could read Act Two, Scene Two, and in poetry, instead of a whole sonnet, perhaps just alternate stanzas could be assigned. In this way, they could get the “gist” of great works of literature, enough to be, as it were, “grist” for their deeper analytic cognitive thinking skill mills.
As the goal is to develop deeply critical analytic cognitive thinking skills, surely there is no need to read a whole book either in English or in History classes. This will not be a loss in Social Studies classes, since they don’t assign complete books anyway, but it may be a wrench for English teachers who probably still think that there is some value in reading a whole novel, or a whole play, or even a complete poem.
But change is change is change, as Gertrude Stein might have written, and if our teachers are to develop themselves professionally to offer the new deeper cognitive analytic thinking skills required by the Common Core Standards, they will just have to learn to wean themselves from the old notions of knowledge and understanding they have tried to develop from readings for students in the past.
As Caleb Nelson wrote in 1990 in The Atlantic Monthly, speaking about an older Common Core at Harvard College:
The philosophy behind the [Harvard College] Core is that educated people are not those who have read many books and have learned many facts but rather those who could analyze facts if they should ever happen to encounter any, and who could ‘approach’ books if it were ever necessary to do so….
The New Common Core Standards are meant to prepare our students to think deeply on subjects they know practically nothing about, because instead of reading a lot about anything, they will have been exercising their critical cognitive analytical faculties on little excerpts amputated from their context. So they can think “deeply,” for example, about Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, while knowing nothing about the nation’s Founding, or Slavery, or the new Republican Party, or, of course, the American Civil War.
Students’ new Common academic work with texts about which they will be asked to Think & Learn Deeply, may encourage them to believe that ignorance is no barrier to useful thinking, in the same way that those who have written the Common Core Standards believe that they can think deeply about and make policy for our many state education systems, without having spent much, if any time, as teachers themselves, or even in meeting with teachers who have the experience they lack.
It may very well turn out that ignorance and incompetence transfer from one domain to another much better than deeper thinking skills do, and that the current mad flight from knowledge and understanding, while clearly very well funded, has led to Standards which will mean that our high school students [those that do not drop out] will need even more massive amounts of remediation when they go on to college and the workplace than are presently on offer.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017


In fact, a few months ago I received an email from a high schooler in California who had read The Concord Review, looking for some research advice!

From: Name Withheld
Date: May 25, 2017 at 20:49:39 EDT
To: Will Fitzhugh <>
Subject: Emerson Prize

Dear Mr. Fitzhugh, 

Last night I came home late from an orchestra concert to find your letter about the Emerson Prize. What an amazing surprise! I just wanted to say how grateful I am for both this, and the chance to be published in your impressive journal in the first place. 

I have no doubt that it helped me get into the University of Chicago, where I'll be going next year. From the moment I visited it I knew it was the place where I could see myself finding that same entrancement in learning (what our headmaster calls "flow,") that I get while deep in the research process. 

Although I'm not usually one for awards and such, your recognition has allowed me to feel that maybe pursuing what I love most in school is not so futile after all...and that something as seemingly solitary as a history paper can exist outside of the classroom and reach a wider audience. In fact, a few months ago I received an email from a high schooler in California who had read The Concord Review, looking for some research advice!

Thanks again for all of your help, the prize (which I promise to put to good use,) and your invaluable journal.  

[Commonwealth School, Class of 2017
"Judicial Independence,"
The Concord Review, Winter 2016
Volume 27 Emerson Prize]


Quod Erat Demonstrandum

Premise 1:
Bright Diligent High School students can write serious interesting History research papers

Premise 2:
Their History papers will inspire emulation among their High School peers.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017


Asheville School News

Richard Baek   Class of 2017   

Published in The Concord Review

An essay by Asheville School senior Richard Baek has been accepted for publication in The Concord Review, a prestigious academic journal that showcases excellent research papers written by secondary school students. Baek's 4,488-word essay, "John Stuart Mill at The British East India Company: A Defender of Despotism or A Champion of Freedom?" will appear in the Summer 2017 issue.

Baek is thrilled that his essay will be included in The Concord Review. "For me, this is a huge honor," he said. "I am especially glad that students at secondary schools around the world will have a chance to derive inspiration for their own work in history from my essay." 

The Concord Review is highly selective—according to their website, they publish about 5% of submitted essays. A recent editorial in The Boston Globe described The Concord Review as "the world's foremost showcase for first-rate history research by secondary school students." In a 2011 New York Times article, Harvard's Dean of Admissions William Fitzsimmons said that having an essay accepted in the journal was akin to winning a national math competition. 

In his essay, Baek analyzes Mill's theories, actions, and beliefs: "In a classical philosophical discourse, John Stuart Mill is often assumed to be a liberal-minded thinker who championed freedom and respected particularities of different cultures," Baek wrote. "However, contrary to this common assumption, John Mill viewed the rights and best interests of the Indian subjects in a similar manner to his chauvinist father, James Mill. In theory, the younger Mill espoused autonomy and freedom. But in practice, he believed in the alleged backwardness of the Indian political customs, and his ideas were also a forerunner of the late-nineteenth century imperialist movement led by Benjamin Disraeli and Joseph Chamberlain." 

Writing this essay was a labor of love for Baek. He began it in a summer program before his Junior year and spent his free time revising the essay before submitting it earlier this year. Baek says that the topic fascinates him because he has always loved studying the theories of John Stuart Mill. 

Baek plans to enter The University of Pennsylvania next year.

The Concord Review is published by William Fitzhugh, and it has been featured in a wide variety of outlets including The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Chicago Tribune. You can read more about The Concord Review and purchase copies of the 2017 Summer issue at

News Archives Page [Asheville, North Carolina]

Monday, June 19, 2017


A nationally famous teacher of teachers of writing [Lucy Calkins] once told me:

“I teach writing, I don’t get into content that much…” 

That is a splendid example of the divorce between content and process 
in common writing instruction.

Houston, Texas

Process vs. Content

Tuesday, June 20, 2006
Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review

When teaching our students to write, not only are standards set very low in most high schools, limiting students to the five-paragraph essay, responses to a document-based question, or the 500-word personal (or college) essay about matters which are often no one else’s business, but we often so load up students with formulae and guidelines that the importance of writing when the author has something to say gets lost in the maze of processes.

On the one hand writing is difficult enough to do, and academic writing is especially difficult if the student hasn’t read anything, and on the other hand teachers feel the need to have students “produce” writing, however short or superficial that writing may be. So writing consultants and writing teachers feel they must come up with guidelines, parameters, checklists, and the like, as props to substitute for students’ absent motivation to describe or express in writing something they have learned.

Samuel Johnson once said, “an author will turn over half a library to produce one book,” the point being, as I understand it, that good writing must be based on extensive reading. But reading is just the step that is left out of the “Writing Process” in too many instances. The result is that students in fact do not have much to say, so of course they don’t have much they want to communicate in writing.

Enter the guidelines. Students are told to write a topic sentence, to express one idea per paragraph, to follow the structure of Introduction, Body, Conclusion, to follow the “Twelve Steps to Effective Writing,” and the like. This the students can be made to do, but the result is too often empty, formulaic writing which students come to despise, and which does not prepare them for the serious academic papers they may be asked to do in college.

I fear that the History book report, at least at the high school level in too many places, has died in the United States. Perhaps people will contact me with welcome evidence to the contrary, but where it is no longer done, students have not only been discouraged from reading nonfiction, but also have been led to believe that they can and must write to formula without knowing something—for instance about the contents of a good book—before they write.

A nationally famous teacher of teachers of writing once told me: “I teach writing, I don’t get into content that much...” This is a splendid example of the divorce between content and process in common writing instruction.

Reading and writing are inseparable partners, in my view. In letters from authors of essays published in The Concord Review over the years, they often say that they read so much about something in History that they reached a point where they felt a strong need to tell people what they had found out. The knowledge they had acquired had given them the desire to write well so that others could share and appreciate it as they did.

This is where good academic writing should start. When the motivation is there, born from knowledge gained, then the writing process follows a much more natural and straightforward path. Then the student can write, read what they have written, and see what they have left out, what they need to learn more about, and what they have failed to express as clearly as they wanted to. Then they read more, re-write, and do all the natural things that have always led to good academic writing, whether in history or in any other subject.

At that point the guidelines are no longer needed, because the student has become immersed in the real work of expressing the meaning and value of something they know is worth writing about. This writing helps them discover the limits of their own understanding of the subject and allows them to see more clearly what they themselves think about the subject. The process of critiquing their own writing becomes natural and automatic. This is not to deny, of course, the value of reading what they have written to a friend or of giving it to a teacher for criticism and advice. But the writing techniques and processes no longer stop up the natural springs for the motivation to write.

As students are encouraged to learn more before they write, their writing will gradually extend past the five-paragraph size so often constraining the craft of writing in our schools. Our Page Per Year Plan© suggests that all public high school Seniors could be expected to write a twelve-page history research paper, if they had written an eleven-page paper their Junior year, a ten-page paper their Sophomore year, and a nine-page paper their Freshman year, and so on all the way back through the five-page paper in Fifth Grade and even to a one-page paper on a topic other than themselves their first year in school. With the Page Per Year Plan©, every Senior in high school will have learned, for that twelve-page paper, more about some topic probably than anyone else in their class knows, perhaps even more than any of their teachers knows about that subject. They will have had in the course of writing longer papers each year, that first taste of being a scholar which will serve them so well in higher education and beyond.

Writing is always much harder when the student has nothing to communicate, and the proliferating paraphernalia of structural aids from writing consultants and teachers often simply encumber students and alienate them from the essential benefits of writing. John Adams urged his fellow citizens to “Dare to read, think, speak and write” so that they could contribute to the civilization we have been given to enjoy and preserve. Let us endeavor to allow students to discover, through their own academic reading and writing, both the discipline and the satisfactions of writing carefully and well.

Saturday, June 3, 2017


Education Week Commentary
by Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review
4 October 2006 
The Boston Globe reported recently that Michelle Wie, at 16, in addition to getting out now and then for a good game of golf, not only speaks Korean and English, but has also taken four years of Japanese, and is starting Mandarin Chinese. She is planning to apply early to Stanford. I would venture the opinion, however, that in her high school, not only has her academic writing been limited to the five-paragraph essay, but it is very likely that she has not been assigned a complete nonfiction book and will not be given such an assignment at any time in her high school years.

For the last two [13] years, and especially since the National Endowment for the Arts’ large study of the reading of fiction in the United States, by young people and others, I have sought funding for a much smaller study of the assignment of complete nonfiction books in U.S. public high schools. This proposed study, which Diane Ravitch has called “timely and relevant,” has been turned down by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a number of large and small foundations and institutes so far.

I have a fair amount of anecdotal evidence, even from people who would be quite shocked to hear that high school English departments are no longer assigning any complete novels, that they understand (and accept) that nonfiction books, for instance history books, are not being assigned at all. 

One partner in a law firm in Boston, who went to Phillips Academy in Andover several decades ago, commented that there was no point in such a study because everyone knows there are no history books assigned in schools. Even at Andover in his day, he had only selections, readings and the like, never a complete book. A Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, sometimes thought of as a conservative place, told me, when I commented that I couldn’t find anyone who agrees that our high school students should read one book, that “The only hope is parents introducing their kids to reading, and that’s a mighty slim hope.” 

For the last two (three) decades, I have been working to encourage the writing of history research papers by our high school students, but it has become apparent to me that one of the many problems in getting students to undertake such a task is that so many do not read any history, and so have nothing to write about. But as I began to try to find out about the reading of nonfiction books, I have found more and more apathy and acceptance of the situation in which as long as the English department controls reading and writing in our schools, the reading will be fiction, and the writing will be personal, creative or the five-paragraph essay.

Now consider the fact that while most of our high school students are not fluent in English and Korean, and are not studying Japanese or Mandarin, tens or hundreds of thousands of them are expected to manage Chemistry, Calculus, and Physics. I don’t understand the view that reading a good history book is more difficult than Calculus, but there it seems to be.

Why is this important? ACT found this Spring that 49% of our high school graduates (half of the 70% who do graduate) cannot read at the level of freshman college texts. Common sense, buttressed by such work as that of E.D. Hirsch, Jr., for instance in his most recent book, The Knowledge Deficit, would lead to the assumption that perhaps the reason so many students need remedial work in college (65% of those in Massachusetts’ community colleges and 34% of those in Massachusetts’ four-year colleges, according to The Boston Globe), and the reason so many do not return for their sophomore year, may be because they have never faced a nonfiction book before, and they may have so little knowledge that they do not know what their professors are talking about.

These days, of course, there is a great deal of attention given to many educational issues, and one of the current Edupundit maxims is that the most important variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality. So lots of attention and many millions of dollars go into teacher training, re-training, professional development, and the like.

I believe the truth is otherwise. The most important variable in student academic achievement is student academic work. Those who concern themselves with teacher quality only assume that better teachers will lead to more student academic work, but if they would care to look, the examples of the lousy teacher with the diligent student who does well, and the superior teacher with a student who does no academic work, are everywhere to be found.

Ignoring academic writing and the reading of nonfiction books at the high school level can only prolong, it seems to me, the high levels of remediation and failure in college that we already have. I hope that it may soon become possible to discover if our high school students are indeed discouraged from reading a history book and from writing a serious term paper, and that then we might turn more of our attention to asking for the student academic work that alone can lead to the academic achievement we all wish to see for our students.

The Concord Review, 730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24, Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776     978-443-0022