Thursday, April 21, 2011

HIGHS AND LOWS; Houston, Texas; Madison, Wisconsin


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
21 April 2011

It seems that the academic expository writing of our public high school students will rise, or fall, to the level of our expectations. Here are excerpts from narrative essays, written by U.S. public high school students, to illustrate that claim—three have been written to the student’s own high expectations and the other three to our generally low expectations for National Competitions, civics and otherwise:

Excerpt from a 40-page essay written as an independent study by a Junior in a Massachusetts public high school [endnote notation omitted]:

“At first, the church hierarchy was pleased at this outburst of religious enthusiasm and female piety; it was almost a revival. Hutchinson, after all, was a prominent and devout member of the Boston church, and only the most suspicious churchmen found immediate fault in the meetings. But soon, Hutchinson’s soirĂ©es became less innocuous. In response to her audience’s interest—in fact, their near-adulation—and in keeping with her own brilliance and constant theological introspection, she moved from repeating sermons to commenting on them, and from commenting to formulating her own distinct doctrine. As Winthrop sardonically remarked, ‘the pretense was to repeat sermons, but when that was done, she would comment...and she would be sure to make it serve her turn.’ What was actually happening, however, was far more radical and far more significant than Hutchinson making the words of others ‘serve her turn.’ She was not using anyone else’s words; she was preaching a new brand of Puritanism, and this is what is now known as Antinomianism.”


Excerpt from a Grand Prize-winning 700-word essay written for a National Competition by a Junior from a public high school in Mableton, Georgia:

“Without history, there is no way to learn from mistakes or remember the good times through the bad. History is more than a teacher to me; it’s an understanding of why I am who I am. It’s a part of my life on which I can never turn back. History is the one thing you can count on never to change; the only thing that changes is people’s perception of it.

It cannot be denied that every aspect of the past has shaped the present, nor that every aspect of the present is shaping and will continue to shape the future. In a sense, history is me, and I am the history of the future. History does not mean series of events; history means stories and pictures; history means people, and yet, history means much more. History means the people of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. History means me.”


Excerpt from a 30-page independent study by a Junior at a public high school in Worthington, Ohio [endnote notation omitted]:

“Opposition to this strictly-planned agricultural system found leadership under Deng Zihui, the director of rural affairs in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CCCPC). This faction believed that peasants engaged in farming should have freedom in management, and advocated a form of private ownership. To them, peasants should have the power to buy, sell, or lease land, and to manage and employ labor. Zihui saw collectivization as a dangerous and detrimental practice to the Chinese economy. The production-team system that was practiced under collective farming did not maximize agricultural output. Production teams were comprised of around 20 to 30 households in the neighborhood, and net income was based on the performance of the production team as a whole. Individual peasants did not see direct returns for their efforts, and therefore the incentive to work hard did not exist under the production-team system. Consequently, agricultural outputs and farmers’ per capita net income were significantly low; in 1957, each farmer received an average net income of 73.37 yuan.”


Excerpt from a 750-word Grand Prize-Winning essay for a National Competition by a Sophomore from a public high school in Rochester, Michigan:

“Similar to how courage has changed our country, having courage has helped shaped who I am today. When I was in 7th grade, I befriended two boys with autism in my gym class. I fully knew that being friends with them was not going to help me climb any higher on the social ladder, but I did not care. I had the courage to go against what was socially acceptable in order to do what was right. I soon not only played with them in gym but invited them to sit with my friends at lunch too. Someone had to have the courage to say that they deserved to be treated equally.

Equality is a civic value that Americans take pride in, and it needs to be defended.

Courageous people stand up for what is right in order to preserve these civic values.

Courageous acts in American history are what have molded us into the great nation we are today. They are, in large part, the reason why we became an independent nation and also an important reason why we have our first African-American president. Social and political movements in the U.S. began with one courageous person willing to stand up and go against the crowd. Every downpour has to start with one drop of rain.”


Excerpt from a 25-page essay by a Junior at a public high school in Manchester, Massachusetts [endnote notation omitted]:

“Paris was the center of medicine in the 19th century, an age which witnessed a revolt against dogmatism and a new emphasis on scientific thought. As universities were freed of political and ecclesiastic control, more social classes were able to attend, and true scientific thought was encouraged. A new type of clinical observation emerged that focused on active examination and explainable symptoms. Furthermore, laboratory medicine, meaning research-based medicine, gained a foothold. As medicine became more systematic, scientists moved away from the four humors view of the body and began conducting experiments in chemistry, notably biochemistry. In 1838, Theodor Schwann and Malthais Schleidan formulated the cell theory, and in 1854, Hugo von Mohl, John Goodsir, Robert Remak, and Rudolf Virchow demonstrated that cells arise from other cells. These two discoveries make up the modern cell theory and the foundation of all biological advances. With the discovery of cells came new opinions about the origins of disease, reviving interest in microbiology. The most widely accepted theory about how disease was spread was the “filth theory.” According to the filth theory, epidemics were caused by miasmatic hazes rising from decaying organic matter. However, some disagreed with this hypothesis. The idea that epidemic diseases were caused by micro-organisms and transmitted by contagion was not new in the mid-19th century. It had been proclaimed by Fracastorius in the 16th century, Kircher in the 17th, and Lancisi and Linne in the 18th. Opposing the filth theory, Jacob Henle proposed the role of micro-organisms again in 1840. Unfortunately, many of his contemporaries viewed him as old-fashioned until some notable discoveries occurred. Bassi, DonnĂ©, Schoelein, and Grubi each proved fungi to be the cause of certain diseases. In 1850, bacteria, discovered earlier by Leeuwenhoek, were also confirmed as sources of disease. Even though micro-organisms as the source of disease was well documented, many did not accept this theory until about 20 years later. Nevertheless, people knew something was causing diseases, igniting a public hygiene movement in Europe and the dawn of the preventive medicine age.”


Excerpt from a First Prize essay by a public high school Sophomore for a National Creative Minds Competition [creative nonfiction writing] organized by the oldest and best-known gifted program in the United States:

“It is summer, one of those elusive, warm days when the world seems at peace. I splash around in the ocean, listening to the voices of the beachgoers mingling with the quiet roar of the waves. When I scoop water into my palm, it is clear, yet all the water together becomes an ocean of blue. Nothing plus nothing equals something; I cannot explain the equation of the ocean. I dip my head under to get my hair wet and to taste the salt once held by ancient rocks. I hold myself up on my hands, imaging I am an astronaut, and explore my newfound weightlessness.

But water is the opposite of space. Space is cold and lifeless, and water is warm and life giving. Both are alien to my body, though not to my soul.

Underwater, I open my eyes, and there is sunlight filtering through the ceiling of water. As I toss a handful of sand, the rays illuminate every drifting grain in turn. I feel as if I can spend forever here, the endless blue washing over me. Though the water is pure, I can’t see very far. There is a feeling of unknown, of infinite depths.

As a little girl, I used to press my face against the glass of my fish tank and pretend I swam with my guppies, our iridescent tails flashing. The world moved so unhurriedly, with such grace. Everything looked so beautiful underwater—so poetic. It was pure magic how the fish stayed together, moving as one in an instant. What was their signal? Could they read minds? how did these tiny, insignificant fish know things I did not?”


The questions suggest themselves: What sort of writing better prepares our students for college and career assignments, and must we leave high standards for high school academic expository writing up to the students who set them for themselves? [The more academic excerpts were taken from papers published in The Concord Review—]

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