Monday, March 11, 2013


Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics

Monday, 25 February, 2013
Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review

Will Fitzhugh at the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics
Dr. Wong, members of the faculty, students and guests. Many thanks for this opportunity to speak here at Hogwarts...I mean the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics....I am glad to be at a place where serious students are taken seriously.

I once saw Neal Armstrong speak on television and he began his remarks by saying: “The only bird who can talk, can’t fly very well, so I will be brief.” I am not an astronaut, but I will also be somewhat brief in the hope we will have time for comments and questions at the end.

It was 50 years ago, but it seems like yesterday to me...In 1963, when I was 27, almost by accident, I found myself working at the Space & Information Systems Division of North American Aviation, at a very low-level job, helping thirty or so other people prepare reports for the Director of Manufacturing. North American Aviation at the time had contracts for the Saturn 5 rocket at its Rocketdyne Division and for the Apollo command modules at the Space & Information Systems Division, so from time to time I could go out on the factory floor and see several command modules being assembled. John Glenn had orbited the earth the year before, and it was a very exciting time to have even a small job on that project.

Six years later, In 1969, I had a job (I have had a poorly-planned career) as a staff psychologist on a Peace Corps program for volunteers to Iran, and I spent two months in country. The Shah was still in power and he had a literacy program which the Peace Corps was helping with. On July 20th Apollo 11 was getting ready to land on the Moon and I was staying in a big beautiful hotel in Hamadan, Iran, a city of 100,000 or so. I went down to the hotel desk to ask about watching the landing on television. An Australian man leaning against the desk heard my question and let me know that there was no television in the city of Hamadan. By the way, when Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon, you may remember he didn’t say anything about steps and leaps. He said, as a pilot would: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

This last week I watched “Apollo 13” on television a couple of times, and I think that is a truly great movie. Jim Lovell’s book Lost Moon is also wonderful, if you get a chance to to read it. One of things I love about that movie is that it helps to demolish the fantasy that engineers are Nerds, who only sit in rows in class, wear pocket protectors and glasses, use slide rules, and are not capable of creativity, like artists and poets are.

As you may know the Apollo Program was one of the most thoroughly planned and simulated of any program ever. Every conceivable contingency was rehearsed and simulated in the training program. Yet there, with Apollo 13, was a series of completely unforeseen problems to be solved creatively under immense time pressure with three astronaut lives at stake. And they solved all those problems in the time they had and brought the men home safely. Amazing!

So, anyway, I am a great admirer of engineers and scientists, in spite of my own academic background in literature and history.

One more story about Neil Armstrong, who, as you may know, flew 78 combat missions in Korea and was a test pilot in just about all of the experimental aircraft of his day.... At the end of the twentieth century, the major engineering organizations in the United States formed a committee with one member from each to review the achievements of the century and choose the most important. Neil Armstrong shared the report with the National Press Club in Washington. The committee had agreed that Electrical Engineering had made the most important engineering achievements of the century, because without electricity, little else would have been possible.

Here is some of what he said:

“I am honored to be speaking on behalf of the National Academy of Engineering and our nation’s professional engineering societies.

I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer—born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in the steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace, and propelled by compressible flow.

As an engineer, I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession. Bill Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, has said that science is about what is, and engineering is about what can be. The Greek letter eta, in lower case, often shows up in engineering documents. Engineers pay a good bit of attention to improving eta because it is a symbol for efficiency—doing an equivalent or better job with less weight, less power, less time, less cost. The entire existence of engineers is dedicated to doing things better and more efficiently.”

He concluded his remarks in this way:

“For three decades, I have enjoyed the work and friendship of Arthur Clarke, a prolific science and science fiction writer, who back in 1945 first suggested the possibility of the communications satellite. In addition to writing some wonderful books, he has also proposed a few memorable laws. Clarke’s third law seems particularly apt today: ‘Any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic....’

And then he said:

It has been a magical century...”


I should tell you that I also take serious students seriously. Now that I have made it clear that I am an admirer of all those who toil in some of the fields which are your primary areas of study here, I want to turn to some bad news, which may or may not be important for the students here.

First of all, I should remind you that even engineers and scientists need to be able to read and write. I got a letter from a college chemistry professor not too long ago, in which she said, in talking about her students’ ability to read and write:

“For several years I didn’t realize this was happening until one year when we had invited an author of a popular freshman chemistry text to give a seminar. He explained that he wrote the text to be read sequentially page by page and that if students read only here and there that they wouldn’t be getting the most out of the text. My thought was, 'Well, duh!!  Why state the obvious?' That afternoon I was helping one of my students in my office hours and it was obvious from her responses that she was using the “shotgun” approach to the assigned problem. If I hadn’t just attended the seminar, I probably would not have noticed. I then began asking my students how they used the text and the vast majority, over 98% (that’s the chemist in me!), quite nonchalantly explained how they used the text as a 'backup' to the lecture and used the “shotgun” approach to problems. I somehow got the impression they were taught these methods in high school since they were used by such a large majority.  Ever after that my first lecture always included a discussion (diatribe?) on how to use the text effectively. I found it had little effect and I believe that to be because they were unable to read and comprehend at a college level. 

I began listing 'college level reading and writing skills' as prerequisites for my courses.  In my first lecture I also included a section on how to overcome poor reading and writing skills. However, I have to say that it is VERY difficult for a college student to learn reading and writing skills 'after the fact' while pursuing their college degree. They really need to learn these in high school (which they definitely are not) and come in prepared, or spend a year in college learning them before they begin their degree program—what a waste of their time and money!” 

Now, I don’t know much about what reading of nonfiction books and writing of serious history research papers students do here, but the Chronicle of Higher Education did a survey of high school teachers and college professors a few years ago, and found that about 90% of college professors reported that the students they were getting were not very well prepared in reading, or in doing research, or in academic writing.

As far as I can tell, the majority of American public high school students now graduate without ever having been assigned one complete nonfiction book and without ever having written one serious research paper.

Naturally, this is not good preparation for college reading lists and college term papers. But the colleges, although they complain about the academic reading and writing skills of the students they get, ask only for a 500-word “personal” essay when students apply for admission, which only compounds the problems.

Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, has said that “The single biggest complaint from college teachers and employers is that high school graduates cannot write as well as they need to.”

This situation is made worse by the facts, recently reported by the University of Indiana’s perennial High School Survey of Student Engagement, that, in their survey of 143,052 public high school students they found that 82.7% spend 5 or fewer hours a week doing homework, and 42.5% spend an hour or less each week on homework. A friend in South Korea informs me that the average Korean student spends 15 hours a week doing homework and that does not include any time spent at hagwon tutoring classes in the evenings........Houston, we have a problem...

Twenty-five years ago, in 1987, while on sabbatical from teaching history at the high school in Concord, Massachusetts, I was reading some recent books pointing out how ignorant of history our high school students were, and how poor their academic writing was...but I knew I had received a few excellent history papers from my students over the years and it occurred to me that with 24,000 high schools in the United States and 3,500 in Canada, and more overseas in the English-speaking world, there had to be lots of excellent history research papers being written by high school students. If I could get some sent to me, and I could publish them in a quarterly journal, then that exemplary work might be useful in challenging and inspiring their peers to read more history, write more serious papers and be better prepared for further education—in addition to their learning more history in the process.

Since I started it with the last of my own money in March of 1987, The Concord Review has published 96 issues, with 1,055 history research papers by secondary students from 46 states and 38 other countries. The quality of the papers sent to me gets higher all the time, and we now publish about 6% of the ones we get.

But I have to report to you that I am constantly surprised by the dislike of academic excellence in the education world. I will just offer one example.

I believe that, as Samuel Johnson wrote in Rasselas: “Example is always more efficacious than precept.” That is why I publish examples of fine academic work instead of a manual of tips on how to write papers...I was pleased when 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 this 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).”

I am in the middle of Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington, and I can assure you, if you had any doubt, that individual greatness is no myth.

The only way to sustain an attitude like that Dean’s, in my view, is to be completely ignorant of human history, including the history of Apollo 13, and to be prejudiced, for some bizarre reason, against exemplary academic work. I admit it continues to baffle me when I encounter the avoidance, among both educators and funders, of the exemplary history papers I publish.

But here you are in a school which does admire individual greatness and which gives you an unusual chance to do outstanding academic work, whether the wider American society wants you to spend 53 hours a week on electronic entertainment media, and one hour on homework, or not.

Thanks again for this opportunity to speak to you, and I will conclude by encouraging you as students of Magic not to neglect your study of the Defense Against the Dark Arts—of ignorance, superstition and anti-elitism.

Thank you.

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