Tuesday, April 20, 2010


In this post, Will Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review, explains why it is important for high school students to write research papers and read complete nonfiction (history) books. The Review is the world’s only quarterly journal for the academic history research papers of high school students.

By Will Fitzhugh

Professors E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia have continually, and most usefully, pointed out that tests of reading are really tests of knowledge.

They have also campaigned, somewhat quixotically, to encourage educators and "literacy pundits" to recognize that knowledge has a lot more to do with whether students can understand what they read than does those pundits' heavy-laden toolbelt of gimmicks and techniques to teach "literacy skills.” 

Indeed, one major literacy study and report recently pointed out, in an aside, that the idea that reading books will do a lot for the literacy of students is sadly misguided. What students need, it was felt, is lots more technique and process classes, K-12, on “finding the main idea,” “identifying the author’s audience,” and many other literacy-lite shortcuts (no knowledge required). 

I would argue to the contrary.

Not only does reading books contribute powerfully to the knowledge that students need in order to read more and more difficult material (such as they should face in high school and will certainly face in college), but, also, the work of writing a serious research paper will lead students to do a lot more reading and to gather a lot of knowledge in the process. 

A study done for The Concord Review Institute some years ago found that the majority of U.S. public high school teachers no longer assign serious research papers, because teachers do not have the time (or perhaps the knowledge) to guide students through them and to assess them when they are handed in. 

It is clear that working with students on term papers would be less time-consuming than layup drills for basketball, tackling drills for football and batting practice for baseball, to which countless hours of students and coaches are devoted every year on a regular basis.

But as long as educators do not see that writing serious term papers will lead to more knowledge, which leads students to read better and understand more, such papers will continue to receive the small notice they now do. 

The California State College System people, at a conference last November, reported that 47% of their freshmen are in remedial English classes, just one bit of evidence that those students have not done the serious reading and writing or acquired the knowledge they should have to get ready for college work. 

There are those who say that high school students are really not capable of writing serious research papers—and one student even told me that at her school the assumption was that students would learn to write in college!—but they are quite mistaken, as it turns out. 

This view, when made known to college professors, does not make them happy. A Chronicle of Higher Education poll a few years ago found that 89% of college professors reported that the students they were getting were not very well prepared in reading, doing research, and writing. 

Since 1987, I have published 890 history research papers (averaging 5,500 words, with endnotes and bibliography) in 81 quarterly issues, by high school students from 44 states and 37 other countries. Samples of this exemplary work may be found here.

As has so often been reported, and as famed teacher Jaime Escalante used to say, students will rise to the level of the academic expectations we give them. And this is true for serious term papers as well as for history books, calculus, science, foreign languages and the rest. 

I hope that those who have written so convincingly of the need for students to have more knowledge in order to be able to understand what they are reading, will come to agree with me that in the process of writing serious term papers, students are very likely to gain some of that knowledge, as they read and work on their own [independently] to produce informative and readable history papers of the sort I have published over the last 22 years or so.

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