Thursday, August 15, 2019

JEFF JACOBY

                   
 The Boston Globe
 
                    September 17, 2018
                            Jeff Jacoby



                In praise of The Concord Review
 



For years, Will Fitzhugh has deplored the fact that talented high school scholars get so much less recognition than talented high school athletes. Many newspapers publish lavish “all-scholastic ” special sections celebrating the achievements of young track, softball, and soccer stars, but there are no four-color inserts extolling high-school students who excel at academics. At colleges all over America, athletic coaches keep tabs on the most promising up-and-coming high school basketball, baseball, and football players. But is there a History Department chairman on any campus in the United States who could name the most gifted history student at any high school within a 500-mile radius?
 
Thirty years ago, Fitzhugh—a one-time history teacher in Concord, Massachusetts—set out to change this imbalance. I wrote about his efforts in a column last year:
 

Fitzhugh decided to blaze a path. He quit his job, cashed in his pension, and devoted himself full-time to producing a journal that would show what kind of scholarly writing kids were capable of. He adopted “Varsity Academics®” as his slogan and put out a call for excellent history essays. The journal’s purpose, he says, was to serve as a new kind of peer pressure: to demonstrate to high school students everywhere what kids like them could produce.
 

As word of The Concord Review trickled out, the superb history papers began flowing in. So did tributes from supporters as varied as Albert Shanker, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Silber, and David McCullough. So did modest financial support from a handful of donors who grasped the potential of what Fitzhugh was doing.

But it has always been a hand-to-mouth existence. Fitzhugh never saw anything like the tens of millions of dollars that are poured into after-the-fact remedial writing instruction and into gimmicky feel-good campaigns by foundations more interested in boosting self-esteem than in challenging students to work hard. Over and over, Fitzhugh’s grant applications have been rejected on the grounds that his journal is too elitist, or that it doesn’t have a politically correct edge, or that the study of history isn’t, after all, nearly as important as he seems to think it is. A few high schools have embraced The Concord Review. But far more want nothing to do with a journal so committed to high academic standards.

Through it all, Fitzhugh persists, cheerful and determined—and passionate as ever about student achievement. It remains the case that most high school students are never required to write a serious research paper. But now there are 30 years’ worth of Concord Reviews that open a window into an alternative universe. You want to see what high school kids can do? Spend some time with The Concord Review, and prepare to be inspired.

The papers published in The Concord Review bear no resemblance to the five-paragraph “essay” that millions of high-school students have been misled into thinking constitutes serious writing. The history essays Fitzhugh accepts for publication are typically in the 5,000-8,000 word range. But there is no word limit, and at least one essay (on the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre in Utah) ran to more than 20,000 words.

Nor is there any subject requirement. Students are invited to submit papers on any historical topic at all, and the range of subjects they have tackled is vast. The most recent issue includes essays on the Treaty of Lausanne, the Northern Wei Dynasty, the Election of 1916, the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and the Irish liberator Daniel O’Connell. The only thing the essays have in common, besides their brilliance, is that they were all written by high school students.

The Concord Review isn’t splashy, and neither is its founder and editor. But what Fitzhugh lacks in razzle-dazzle and snappy jokes, he more than makes up for in charisma, good spirits, commitment, and a lifelong pursuit of excellence. A brief new video highlighting his one-man crusade is promoted online by the Pioneer Institute,  one of Boston’s leading think tanks. Take seven minutes to watch it, and you’ll be reassured that even in our era of dumbed-down, short-attention-span, lowest-common-denominator education, all is not yet lost.

[Varsity Academics® is a registered trademark of The Concord Review, Inc., a nonprofit
Massachusetts corporation...www.tcr.org; fitzhugh@tcr.org]
 

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

8th GRADER

 
In 2002, a distinguished historian wrote that the widely told tales of “No Irish Need Apply” signs in late nineteenth-century America were myths. The University of Illinois professor Richard Jensen said that such signs were inventions, “myths of victimization,” passed down from Irish immigrants to their children until they reached the unassailable status of urban legends. For over a decade, most historians accepted Jensen’s scholarship on the matter. Opponents of Jensen’s thesis were dismissed—sometimes by Jensen himself—as Irish-American loyalists. 

In a 2015 story that seemed to encapsulate the death of expertise, an eighth grader named Rebecca Fried claimed that Jensen was wrong, not least because of research she did on Google. She was respectful, but determined. “He has been doing scholarly work for decades before I was born, and the last thing I want to do was show disrespect for him and his work,” she said later. It all seemed to be just another case of a precocious child telling an experienced teacher—an emeritus professor of history, no less—that he had not done his homework. As it turns out, she was right and he was wrong. Such signs existed, and they weren’t that hard to find. For years, other scholars had wrestled with Jensen’s claims, but they fought with his work inside the thicket of professional historiography. Meanwhile, outside the academy, Jensen’s assertion was quickly accepted and trumpeted as a case of an imagined grievance among Irish-Americans. (Vox, of course, loved the original Jensen piece.)

Young Rebecca, however, did what a sensible person would: she started looking through databases of old newspapers. She found the signs, as the Daily Beast later reported, “collecting a handful of examples, then dozens, then more. She went to as many newspaper databases as she could. Then she thought, somebody had to have done this before, right?” As it turned out, neither Jensen nor anyone else had apparently bothered to do this basic fact-checking. Jensen later fired back, trying to rebut the work of a grade-schooler by claiming that he was right but that he could have been more accurate in his claims. Debate over his thesis, as the Smithsonian magazine later put it, “may still be raging in the comments section” of various Internet lists, but Fried’s work proves “that anyone with a curious mind and a nose for research can challenge the historical status quo.” Miss Fried, for her part, has now entered high school with a published piece in the Journal of Social History.


Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (170-171). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

ROBERT HOLLAND


RealClearEducation


A Simple Page-Per-Year Plan© Formula Could Increase Students’ Ability to Read, Write, and Think


By Robert Holland   November 30, 2018

The never-ending quest for a magic formula to educate all children brings to mind this lyrical lament from a 1980 Johnny Lee country tune: “I was lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.”


Rarely does anything loveable, or even merely useful, come from wandering the maze of government agencies, huge foundations, textbook publishers, and assorted ed-tech or pedagogical soothsayers. A review of a century’s worth of grandiose schemes, designs, and boondoggles—Common Core being the latest—would be hard-pressed to identify more than a few that have succeeded.


By contrast, a spark of inspiration for helping children can emanate from an individual who has no institutional axe to grind and is willing to sacrifice for the cause.


Will Fitzhugh fits that mold perfectly.


Three decades ago, Fitzhugh quit his job as a history teacher at Concord High School, cashed in his small pension, and put all his energies into creating a quarterly journal to be filled with the finest history essays written by high school students. His mission was to show students—and the rest of the world—what they are capable of producing.


Operating without the gargantuan grants that fuel the merchants of ed-biz faddism, The Concord Review has published 1,307 [1,340 now] scholarly articles under the bylines of student authors from 45 states and 40 countries. Fitzhugh imposes no arbitrary word limit on submissions. Published essays average 7,500 words, complete with endnotes and bibliography.


The Concord Review is the only quarterly journal in the United States [in the world] devoted exclusively to publishing secondary students’ writing about history. The range of topics is eclectic and the writing is engaging. Here is a small sampling of topics over the past year: “Machine Politics,” “Black-Jewish Relations,” “The Scopes Trial,” “Food Guide Pyramid,” “Coups in Pakistan,” “Sino-Soviet Split,” “Roaring Twenties,” “Chinese Feminism.”


Fitzhugh’s blog makes plain how The Review’s essayists have justified his confidence in them. Many students have written him to say they reached a point in reading about history where they strongly felt a need to tell people what they had discovered. 


In short, as Fitzhugh put it, “reading and writing are inseparable partners.” When motivation springs from knowledge gained, writing can follow a natural progression of writing, reviewing a draft, revising for clarity and correcting omissions, reading for additional content, and rewriting again.


In other words, The Review’s authors exhibit “all the natural things that have always led to good academic writing, whether in history or any other subject.”


Unfortunately, in most high schools, writing is a heavily regulated and restricted process far removed from the ideal of students being able to express something they have learned. Fitzhugh describes the current practice:


“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 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.”


Learn something then write about it. Now there is a novel concept.

 
Fitzhugh has developed a Page Per Year Plan© (and even copyrighted it) that, if ever implemented widely, could lead to substantially increased time devoted to student reading and writing.


His idea is that all public high school seniors would be expected to write a 12-page history research paper. However, that requirement would not just be plopped on them. They would have written an 11-page paper as juniors, a 10-pager as sophomores, and so back down the year-by-year ladder to a 5-page paper in fifth grade, and even a one-pager on a topic other than themselves in the first grade.


With a Page Per Year Plan© in place, Fitzhugh figures that “every senior in high school will have learned, for that 12-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.”


It is highly doubtful that a government-run school system would ever adopt anything as rigorous, yet sensible, as this Page-Per-Year Plan© ladder to writing success. Perhaps there are private-sector innovators including homeschoolers bold enough to give it a try.


Meanwhile, anyone looking to find evidence of a love of writing by inspired students will continue to find it every three months in the pages of The Concord Review.


[Robert Holland (holland@heartland.org) is a senior fellow for education policy for The Heartland Institute.]


Varsity Academics® is a registered trademark of The Concord Review, Inc. [tcr.org]