Will Fitzhugh, Founder, The Concord Review, Inc.
23 March 2017, Harvard Faculty Club
Thanks, Bill, [Bill Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid, Harvard College] for the kind introduction, and for decades of encouragement and support. You know, in addition to managing 40,000 applications, he also runs marathons…
Thanks also to our High School string quartet, [for playing Mozart], organized by the violinist Elizabeth Kim, whose interesting paper on the career of Leni Riefenstahl was published in our Winter issue this year. [She is headed for a gap year at the Sorbonne.]
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and thanks for coming to this 30th Anniversary Dinner for The Concord Review.
I would like to talk to you about college readiness, about History and academic writing in the schools, and about The Concord Review’s three decades of work to promote the idea to: “Teach with Examples.”
A few years ago, I went to a dinner at the Harvard Club of Boston, and the president welcomed us all and then said: “None of you would get in now.”
I loved my boarding school in California, but when I arrived at Harvard, 61 years ago, I had never been asked to read one history book or to write one term paper, so I arrived unprepared for the academic reading and writing Harvard offered.
Then 30 years ago, during a sabbatical from teaching at the High School in Concord, Massachusetts, I got the idea for The Concord Review.
I had a couple of questions. Were there secondary students in the English-speaking world who were writing good History papers and would they send them to me? And could we use those exemplary papers to inspire some of their peers to read more History and to work on serious papers of their own, so they would be more ready for college than I had been?
In August 1987, I sent a four-page brochure calling for papers to every Secondary School in the United States and Canada and 1,500 overseas, and the answer to the first questions was yes.
The serious papers started to come in. We have now published 112 issues, with 1,230 exemplary History research papers by students from 44 states and 40 other countries.
As to using those papers to inspire other students, we have had much less success, in spite of support from many wonderful people, such as Steven Graubard, Theodore Sizer, Diane Ravitch, Harold Howe, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Albert Shanker, Bill Fitzsimmons, John Silber, and others. Most donors and foundations turned us down, either because they believed that publications all fail, or because they saw both History and this journal as elitist.
School and public libraries have Young Adult Sections, but librarians would not put The Concord Review in those, even though the essays were written by Young Adults and for Young Adults. It just didn’t fit in with the Teen Romances and the Vampire Fiction.
David Brooks, in a review of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers in the New York Times, wrote: “As the classical philosophers understood, examples of individual greatness inspire achievement more reliably than any other form of education.”
To give you an idea of the reaction to this among some educational leaders, I sent that comment to the Dean of the School of Education at Boston University, and he replied with this email: “The myth of individual greatness is a myth.” (sic).
There are too many reasons to go into now, but History and academic writing are in big trouble in our schools. Social Studies has taken over History, and some Massachusetts high schools are suggesting that History courses be folded into a Humanities department and taught by English teachers.
When it comes to writing, that has always been the property of the English department, and the vast majority of American public High School students now graduate without ever having been asked to read one nonfiction book or to write one term paper.
There are consequences for students: on the last NAEP test of U.S History, only 12% of our HS Seniors passed, leading some to suggest that perhaps 88% of them would not be able to pass the U.S. citizenship exam.
Permit me one anecdote: Last December 7, The Boston Globe reported that a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor had asked a HS girl what she knew about Pearl Harbor? And the girl said: “Who is she?”
Enrollments in History courses in colleges are falling off, even at Harvard, and most universities, including Harvard, have remedial writing courses for first-year students. The courses are not called that, but they exist, because, as one of our HS authors wrote me: “We are told we will learn to write in college.” In High School they are doing personal and creative writing, five-paragraph essays, and the 500-word college “essay.”
We are now sending most of our students to college unprepared. In Texas, recent estimates suggest 65% of their HS graduates are not ready for college. And there are consequences beyond college. There are constant complaints in the workplace about employees who can’t write. A few years ago, the Business Roundtable did a survey of its member companies and they reported spending $3.1 Billion every single year on remedial writing courses for their employees, evenly distributed among new hourly, new salaried, current hourly and current salaried employees.
There are also consequences for their lack of experience in reading nonfiction books and for their ignorance of History. Many of our High School graduates are entering college with their reading ability at the 7th grade level.
The Concord Review has, so far, been a small effort, but the History papers we have published have been longer, more serious, more interesting, and better-written than I had imagined would be possible when I started. We don’t tell students what to write about. We say we are interested in papers on any historical topic, ancient or modern, domestic or foreign, and, naturally, papers on topics the authors are interested in are better than those on assigned topics.
It has been a wonderful privilege for me to read so many serious and interesting History research papers by secondary students over these last 30 years.
Could I have a show of hands of those published in The Concord Review? Including those now with a Ph.D. in History?
Professor Ferguson may remind us that History is probably more important for us now than it has ever been, but I must say I am deeply grateful for the thousands of good strong student history papers that have kept The Concord Review going for the last thirty years.
Now, thanks to support from John Thornton and David Rubenstein, it looks like The Concord Review and its efforts will continue to encourage many more students to read History and work on serious papers of their own in the future.
Of the many good stories about these efforts over the last three decades, permit me to mention one. When Robert Nasson and I started the National History Club 15 years ago to encourage the reading, writing, discussion and enjoyment of History—the first chapter was at a girls’ school in Memphis, Tennessee.
They called their chapter: “The Cliosophic Society,” and they chose as their symbol a flower: The Forget-Me-Not…When it comes to History, that strikes me as perfect.
Thanks again for coming, and I hope you enjoy the dinner, after which we will have the privilege of hearing some of the thoughts of historian Niall Ferguson.