Wednesday, October 20, 2021


The Washington Post

Stuff your 5,000-word limit! Students dare to write longer history papers.
Long research papers are rarely assigned at most American high schools.  

By Jay Mathews
Sunday, October 17, 2021 at 6:00 a.m. EDT

Very few U.S. high schools ask their students to write long research papers. Teachers may lack time to supervise such work. It is also feared that teenagers would rebel against such drudgery.

Or, possibly, this is just one more sign of our unfortunate national tendency to overlook our children’s potential.

A farsighted former history teacher named Will Fitzhugh has been publishing long and deep high school papers for 34 years. His young authors love the work so much that they routinely defy his 5,000-word limit. He has discovered something our schools usually ignore—the powerful effect of going as deep into a topic as you like.

Keeping essays to that length, about 20 double-spaced typewritten pages, made sense to Fitzhugh, who was a high school social studies teacher when he started The Concord Review in 1987 to publish these papers. But if students wrote more than that he was fine with it.

Because of his willingness to indulge the adolescent urge for something extra, the average paper used by The Concord Review is now 9,000 words. The quarterly journal has so far published 1,427 history papers by high school students (and four middle school students) from 46 states and 43 other countries in 131 issues. The torrent of submissions is so great he can publish only about 5 percent of what he gets.

For decades Fitzhugh, now 85, has been receiving excited emails from students such as Jane Chen, whose teacher at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colo., suggested she expand a class project into a Concord Review article. Chen told Fitzhugh it was “a completely new experience for me. . . . I was free to pursue whatever aspect of my topic that I wanted to whatever extent that I wanted.”

What if more high school teachers encouraged dissertations such as Chen’s examination of the light shed on the Pentagon Papers by President Richard Nixon’s telephone transcripts?

Long research papers are usually required only by certain parts of the International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement high school programs and by some private schools. Many of the papers published by Fitzhugh come from students revising and expanding that schoolwork.

This year, the IB extended essay program, begun in 1975, produced 88,249 papers. The AP research essay program, begun in 2015, produced 24,021. Both covered many topics besides history. But neither shares Fitzhugh’s fondness for work of any length. To ensure no student gets an unfair advantage, IB limits essays to 4,000 words and AP to 5,000 words.

Fitzhugh first got the idea for big papers because he concluded that his students at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School in Concord, Mass., were better than the five-to-seven-page assignments he was giving them. One sophomore handed in a 28-page paper on the nuclear strategic balance between the United States and the Soviet Union.

“He was not meeting my standards, but his own,” Fitzhugh recalled. “This gave me a clue that perhaps I was not asking students for all they could do. Two of my colleagues proposed to the administration that they work with two or three volunteer students who wanted to work on a history paper for a year . . . for a one-semester independent study credit. This was turned down as elitist.”

Fitzhugh had a sabbatical in the 1986-1987 school year. He read a landmark book by reformer Ted Sizer, Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School. He realized many educators shared his concern about nonfiction reading, knowledge of history and academic expository writing.

“I was 50, feeling I hadn’t done much with my life,” Fitzhugh said. “I admired entrepreneurs, and desktop publishing had just become a possibility.” His father had left him $80,000. He sent a four-page brochure asking for papers from every high school in the United States and Canada, and 1,500 more schools abroad.

He taught one more year to pay for his sabbatical and then quit. The next 14 years he worked with no pay and no vacation from his dining room table. The first issue of The Concord Review came out in the Fall of 1988. He sent the first four issues free to 1,000 private schools. They were the most likely to require student research. But at the beginning he got almost no response.

The project was always short of money. He tried to stretch the occasional grants he received from intrigued billionaires and foundations. Then he discovered a more reliable moneymaker—summer history camps. He charges $3,500 per student for a two-week online research and writing course, including one-on-one student-teacher contact.

The Fall 2021 issue of The Concord Review has 11 essays, three of them from students abroad. Titles include “Tanzimat Reforms” (19th-century Ottoman Empire, 5,880 words) by Atharv Panditrao at Fremont High School in Sunnyvale, Calif.; “Green Goods Scam” (19th-century United States, 6,884 words) by Michael Benjamin Hoffen, an eighth-grader at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx; “Committees of Correspondence” (6,753 words) by Ruosong Gao at Cranbrook Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; and “Battle of the Somme” (8,172 words) by Ju Hwan James Kim at the United World College of South East Asia, a K-12 IB school in Singapore. A paper on the Chinese population in Indonesia in the same issue had 13,076 words.

AP and IB officials say they admire what Fitzhugh, his authors and their teachers have done. Educators who want to encourage writing have been urging students to submit their work not only to The Concord Review but also to college undergraduate research journals now open to younger scholars and to publications run by their own high schools.

Like Fitzhugh, those teachers understand that seeing your name in print is a powerful incentive. It is admittedly a juvenile obsession, but it got me into journalism and is still keeping me at it.

According to Fitzhugh, experts often say teacher quality is the most important factor in academic achievement, but he thinks challenging [student] academic work inspires the most learning.

Students who have tackled demanding tasks “now know they can do it,” he said. “We are not surprised by the breaking of Olympic records by young people inspired by the examples of their peers. Why be surprised if that works in academics too?”

Teachers who haven’t tried this could start with a few independent study projects. That can’t be dismissed as elitist if they let anyone do it who wants to try.

Monday, October 18, 2021


Life is a Toil, and

Love is a Trouble.

Beauty does Fade, and

Riches do Flee.

Prices they Double, and

Pleasures they Dwindle, and

Nothing is As I could Wish it to Be.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021


[In the U.S.] It proved necessary to increase the scope of state intervention (against much resistance) in order to bring about the conversion to war as rapidly as possible, but American industrial practices—large firms, mass production methods, high engineering standards, professional management—meant that private initiative as much as state control was a driving force of American war production. The United States produced two-thirds of all Allied supplies during the war, including 297,000 aircraft, 193,000 artillery pieces, 86,000 tanks, and 2 million trucks. American shipyards turned out 8,800 naval vessels, sixteen to every one produced by Japan. All of this could be done while sustaining generous consumption levels by the standards of other states (though rationing, particularly of petrol, was introduced for a number of products) and raising income levels for the workforce. Average calorie intake was higher in 1944 than it had been in 1938, a situation enjoyed by no other warring population. Better food and higher incomes were particularly important for the poorer sections of American society, hit hardest by the depression, but now able to share high standards with the better-off. Though historians have argued that the idea of wartime boom years can be exaggerated, by comparison with the decade of economic crisis that preceded it, the boom seemed real enough…

...The Soviet war effort relied heavily on Lend Lease because the supply of food, materials, and equipment allowed Soviet industry to concentrate production on finished weapons. The 363,000 trucks supplied to the Soviet Union exceeded total German production throughout the war; Lend Lease supplied 58 per cent of Soviet aviation fuel and 53 per cent of explosives, and 1,900 rail locomotives against just 92 produced in the Soviet Union. The Soviet military communications system was transformed by the supply of telephones, telephone wire, and front-line radios. Though the Soviet position after the war was to play down aid from the imperialist West, Khrushchev recalled in the 1960s that Stalin had several times remarked that without the aid the Soviet Union ‘could not have continued the war.’

Overy, Richard. The Oxford Illustrated History of World War Two (238-241). Oxford University Press, Oxford. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021


 What all of them had was, in the first place, reading.

Robert Conquest
Reflections on a Ravaged Century
New York: Norton and Company, 2000; 228-229

For people can be educated, cultured and so forth without having been to university at all—as with dozens from Benjamin Franklin to Winston Churchill, from Shakespeare to Einstein, to say nothing of the great women writers of the nineteenth century. Nor is this only a matter of genius. Even erudition is possible outside academe, a point illustrated perfectly by Gibbon himself, the greatest of historians, who did attend Oxford briefly when fifteen years old, from which, (as he tells us) he got nothing. What all of them had was, in the first place, reading. We all know dozens of people, especially from an older generation, who are as much at home in these worlds—expect in special fields—as their Bachelored, and Mastered, and Doctored acquaintances.

No doubt these were naturally inclined that way, or else brought up in circumstances where it was taken for granted. And, of course, they must have had some sort of preuniversity education that puts them above many university entrants, or exiters, these days. I think of such people (at random) as Julian Symons, or Roy Fuller, or V.S. Pritchett, or Iain Hamilton, the editor of the London Spectator (who left school at sixteen to work in a clothes shop), and of other major figures in literature and journalism.

All this is relevant, too, to the proliferation of business and management studies by which, in principle at least, a new business class emerges trained in all the expertise but deficient in education proper. When Leland Stanford, himself an outstandingly successful businessman, founded the university that bears his son’s name, he commented that the humanities (then) were important “for the enlargement of the mind and  for business capacity. I think I have noticed that technically educated boys do not make the best businessmen. The imagination needs to be cultivated and developed to ensure success in life.”

Monday, October 4, 2021


Lenin (March 19, 1922): It is now and only now, when in the regions afflicted by the famine there is cannibalism and the roads are littered with hundreds if not thousands of corpses, that we can (and therefore must) pursue the acquisition of [church] valuables with the most ferocious and merciless energy, stopping at nothing in suppressing all resistance.…[N]o other moment except that of desperate hunger will offer us such a mood among the broad peasant masses, which will either assure us of their sympathy, or, at any rate, their neutrality.…[W]e must now give the most decisive and merciless battle to the [clergy] and subdue its resistance with such brutality that they will not forget it for decades to come.…The greater the number of the representatives of the reactionary bourgeoisie and reactionary clergy that we will manage to execute in this affair, the better.

Church records show that 2,691 priests, 1,962 monks and 3,447 nuns were killed that year. During an earlier Russian famine, that of 1891, in which half a million died, famine relief was a national priority. In the regional capital of Samara only one intellectual, a twenty-two-year-old lawyer, refused to participate in the effort—and, indeed, publicly denounced it. This was Lenin. He “had the courage,” as a friend put it, to come out and say openly that famine would have numerous positive results.

…Famine, he explained, in destroying the outdated peasant economy, would…usher in socialism.…Famine would also destroy faith not only in the tsar, but in God too.

Famine belongs to the Communist tetrarchy—the other three elements being terror, slavery and, of course, failure, monotonous and incorrigible failure.

It has often been said that the Bolsheviks ruled as if conducting a war against their own people. But you could go further and say that the Bolsheviks were conducting a war against human nature. Lenin to Gorky: Every religious idea, every idea of God…is unutterable vileness…of the most dangerous kind, 'contagion' of the most abominable kind. Millions of sins, filthy deeds, acts of violence and physical contagions…are far less dangerous than the subtle, spiritual idea of God decked out in the smartest 'ideological' costumes.…

Religion is reaction, certainly (and wasn’t the Tsar meant to be divine?). But religion is also human nature. One recalls John Updike’s argument: the only evidence for the existence of God is the collective human yearning that it should be so. The war against religion was part of the war against human nature, which was prosecuted on many other fronts.

Martin Amis, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (Vintage International) Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Friday, October 1, 2021


Here is the second sentence of Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine

"We may perhaps put this in perspective in the present case by saying that in the actions here recorded about twenty human lives were lost for, not every word, but every letter, in this book."

That sentence represents 3,040 lives. The book is 411 pages long.

Martin Amis, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (Vintage International). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021


 Even worse, 19 percent of American high school graduates are functionally illiterate, unable to read well enough to manage daily tasks…Contrary to CRT ideology, several factors far outpace race in determining educational success. These include family stability, parental involvement, a school and home culture that supports effective study habits and elementary school curricula that prioritize broadening students’ knowledge base.


Critical race theory distracts from widespread academic underachievement

Ian Rowe and Bob Woodson
September 21, 2021

With a new school year underway, parents, teachers and children anxiously return to classrooms amidst an ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

But this year, school board members, teachers, academics, politicians and parents continue to argue over critical race theory and how to enact its version of equity.

Last week, the U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted a resolution to support the teaching of critical race theory in public K-12 schools. The resolution initially listed among its sponsors liberal mayors like Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot, Portland’s Ted Wheeler and Louisville’s Greg Fischer. 

Over the summer, Oregon governor Kate Brown suspended a requirement for students to demonstrate reading, writing and math proficiency in order to receive a high school diploma, in a supposed effort to build “equity.” The governor’s office said the new standards for graduation would aid the state’s “Black, Latino, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and students of color.” 

These efforts by politicians to push critical race theory distracts from a real analysis of educational achievement in their states and cities. The real issue in American education is a failure to enable the majority of students—regardless of race—to achieve academic excellence or even, in many cases, basic skills. 

We have a national crisis of education that most Americans aren’t paying attention to. Our school systems produce a small group of high-achieving students at the top and a massive group of low-achieving students at the bottom.

America has fallen into a multi-generational crisis of illiteracy
. In terms of raw numbers, more white students are reading below grade level than Black students. Of the 1.8 million students who took the ACT in 2019, 36 percent did not achieve college readiness in any of the four subjects. That means about 650,000 American students, despite spending thousands of hours in school, were not prepared for college-level work in a single subject. And that number does not include the millions of students who did not take the ACT. Even worse, 19 percent of American high school graduates are functionally illiterate, unable to read well enough to manage daily tasks.

Framing American educational failure in terms of critical race theory or systemic racism alone ignores the long history of Black American educational excellence. After the abolition of slavery, Black Americans took an incredible leap from illiteracy to literacy, from 20 percent in 1870 to nearly 70 percent by 1910, and many segregated schools, such as all-Black Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., sent higher percentages of their students to college than comparable white schools did. 

While racial disparities do exist, closing them typically means achieving universal mediocrity. In West Virginia, for example, only 18.7 percent of Black male eighth graders were proficient in reading on the 2013 National Assessment for Educational Progress; for white eighth graders, that number was 19.7 percent. If we closed that “racial achievement gap,” we would still be failing to educate 80 percent of Black and white students.

Meanwhile, the voluntarily segregated Rosenwald Schools, built by Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald in the early 1900s—dramatically increased educational outcomes among Blacks when racism was enshrined in law.

Instead of seeing the world solely through a racial lens, we would do better to address the underlying causes of America’s widespread and race-blind battle with illiteracy. It’s much easier to hire another equity consultant than it is to teach all kids effectively.

By deceptively characterizing educational underachievement as a “Black” problem, CRT advocates have both unhelpfully stereotyped Black students, whose levels of college access continues to rise, and lulled white parents into a false sense of security. In each year since the Nation’s Report Card was first administered in 1992, less than half of the nation’s white students in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades scored proficient in reading.

Contrary to CRT ideology, several factors far outpace race in determining educational success. These include family stability, parental involvement, a school and home culture that supports effective study habits and elementary school curricula that prioritize broadening students’ knowledge base. 

Consider the Piney Woods School in Mississippi, the nation’s oldest Black boarding school. More than 98 percent of Piney Woods’ graduates go on to attend college, because it offers, in the words of the school’s mission, an “exceptional academic model which supports the tenet that all students can learn, develop a strong work ethic, and lead extraordinary lives through academic achievement and responsible citizenship.” Rather than obsess over race, the school aims to promote love, integrity, faith, excellence and empowerment as core values. 

Imagine if this type of education were available for every American family.
Our biggest problem today isn’t the achievement gap between Black and white students; it’s the distance between current illiteracy rates among all students and true academic excellence.

Closing this achievement gap will take a cultural sea change in the way America approaches schooling. Yes, debate critical race theory, but let’s keep our eyes on the prize. We should spend far more time in the pursuit of excellence—implementing reading instruction that would improve literacy outcomes for kids of all races. That would erase the stain of racism far more than endlessly debating critical race theory.

[Bob Woodson is a civil-rights veteran, and founder and president of the Woodson Center and its 1776 Unites initiative. Ian Rowe is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Woodson Center, and a scholar for the 1776 Unites Initiative.]

Ian Rowe and Bob Woodson

Thursday, September 16, 2021


National Review
A Scholar and a Gentleman
By Jay Nordinger; September 2021

At Brooklyn [College], a history major had to take Western civilization and then a variety of courses, covering many periods and places. They wouldn’t let you be an ignoramus, Kagan said. These days, if you’re an ignoramus, no problem.

And how did he come to be a classical historian—an historian of the ancient world? This, said Kagan, tells us something about “the role of chance in our lives.”

There were so many history courses to choose from, after you took Western civ. Where to begin? Donald Kagan thought he would go in order: from the ancient world on up. He consulted some older students about this. Should he begin with Greece and Rome? “Um, that’s fine,” they said, “but you might want to wait a year or two. Maybe she’ll be retired by then.”

“She”? That was Meta Elizabeth Schutz, “a maiden lady in her sixties,” as Kagan put it to me. She was formidable, no-nonsense—kind of a battle axe. Anyway, Kagan, undaunted, signed up.

“The first thing I noticed was that the room was too big for the number of students in it. And that squared with what I’d heard about her.” Not many were undaunted. Not many were cut out for Miss Schutz.

She had no desire to be your friend. She wasn’t there to cuddle you. She was a severe, exacting teacher. She would not wait for you to raise your hand. She would call on you. And you’d better have the answer.

One young woman began her answer tentatively, saying, “Well . . .” Miss Schutz said, “It is not well!”

Kagan resolved to be ready for this lady. She would not show him up. He studied and studied. And when she called on him—he gave the answer she needed, and gave it with kind of a tough-guy attitude. “Yes,” said Miss Schutz. Then she moved on, matter-of-factly, to the next student.

She did not celebrate young Kagan’s answer. She did not pat him on the back. She expected you to know. That was normal. And if you didn’t know—that was abnormal. She treated her students—many of them poor immigrant kids—as if they were products of Choate and Groton, studying at Princeton. She had high standards—normal standards, she would have said—and expected you to meet them.

Long story short, Kagan grew to appreciate Meta Elizabeth Schutz a great deal. And he determined, then and there—that very semester—to be an ancient historian. When he was a professor, did he, too, call on students, without waiting for them to raise their hand? No. “I wasn’t man enough to be Meta Schutz.”



Donald Kagan was one of the leading classical historians of our time. He spent most of his career at Yale—from 1969 until his retirement in 2013. For three years, he was dean of the college. Kagan knew plenty about Rome, but his real love was Greece, and at Yale he had the luxury of teaching Greek history, only. On August 6, 2021, Professor Kagan passed away at 89.

Monday, September 13, 2021


 Ibrahim Mammadov, Harvard College Class of 2023

 “The class was authoritarian.”
These were the words spoken by my classmate several days ago. Both of us are juniors at Harvard College, and we often talk among our friends about how we feel increasingly unable to engage in real debate on our campus, whether it be in class or otherwise. “They want controlled opposition,” he continued, describing how he felt that “the answers [in class] felt scripted,” and how there was little room for discussion. This class is by far not an exception to this general trend at Harvard. This is worrisome, because already we are beginning to see some of the problematic ramifications of this trend and its negative impact on the campus environment.

One negative impact is that there are very few novel ideas being presented. The students, who are scared stiff by the thought that they might say something that a segment of the class will find problematic, simply regurgitate the same cookie-cutter answers that they know their teachers and classmates will feel comfortable hearing. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of those “acceptable” answers are in line with progressive worldviews. Conservatives—who comprise a little over 12% of the campus population, cannot bring their ideas forward without major backlash from classmates, or sometimes even from the professors. This trend is dangerous
because in the past, colleges were places where ideas could be debated and new solutions could be found to social problems. Debate would mold students’ perspectives, and allow a new generation to emerge that is better equipped to deal with the diverse problems of their time than the previous generation. That is no longer the case. Enrolling a “diverse student body” and then not allowing that student body to express a diversity of thought is nonsensical, and is the reason why the world is increasingly polarized.

In conversation with my classmates who come from abroad, I realized that many of them are shocked at how restricted freedom of expression is in the United States. One of them, who is from India, said that after witnessing multiple students get piled on for defending capitalism in class—with most opponents making little effort to engage with their argument and instead focusing on insulting their character—he swore that he would never disagree with the crowd and simply “say whatever they wanted me [him] to say.” It is shameful that the most elite institutions in the United States are marring the perception of the U.S. as a country where liberty of thought and expression are valued.

The situation is turning outright totalitarian. With students increasingly flirting with the idea of the “fascist lifeboat,” where the objective of achieving a certain political end could justify almost anything, from limitations on speech to harassment and false accusations, it is perhaps time to reconsider the role that universities ought to play in political conflicts. Are they to actively promote a certain perspective? Or should the universities allow the ideas to compete, and let the merit of the best one shine through? The pervasive authoritarianism that exists on
campuses is currently disabling democracy of thought, and it is a mystery why university administrators are doing nothing to stop it.


[Ibrahim Mammadov is from Azerbaijan. He graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School and he had a history paper published in The Concord Review.]

Thursday, September 9, 2021


Volume 1, Number 3, August 1996
A publication of Capital Research Center

Why doesn’t a journal for the best high school history papers have support
from groups professing an interest in the future of education?

by Laurence Jarvik

When Will Fitzhugh quit teaching high school history in Concord, Massachusetts nine years ago to start The Concord Review, he didn’t know that it would be so difficult to find backers for his venture. The premise for his quarterly publication was simple: to publish the best history papers by public and private high school students in the United States so that teachers and students would have access to examples of excellence. High standards for writing history could be encouraged by learning by example. Fitzhugh, a graduate of Harvard College (Class of 1960), thought that there would be a natural demand among teachers for his effort to publicize essays written by the “best and the brightest.” He was surprised when his request for funding was turned down by 125 foundations, the Department of Education, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Fitzhugh cashed in his retirement account and put one hundred thousand dollars of his own money into The Concord Review, whose first issue appeared in 1988. What Fitzhugh did not realize was that while he was pursuing teaching history in the public high schools, the field of academic history was changing. The lifelong Democrat had become an unknowing participant in the culture wars. The rejections he received from foundations and government agencies were the results of a paradigm shift which preferred group identity to individual merit. “Sometimes they tell me they are only interested in the work of minority students,” Fitzhugh recalled, “and sometimes they say they cannot see the value of supporting the work of just a few good youngsters.” Fitzhugh’s position that minority students are “welcome to contribute their work” and to be judged on the basis of its excellence fell on deaf ears.

That Fitzhugh’s journal would be caught up in the controversy over politically correct high school history came as a surprise. When the National Standards for United States History were released in 1994, they listed The Concord Review among approved “teaching resources for United States history”…as “an exceptional teaching tool modeling outstanding essays research (sic) and written by high school students…Recommended for grades 9-12.” Two essays were featured in a special January, 1995 Concord Review as the best of the year. Neither could be considered conservative. Aaron Einbond, a sophomore at New York City’s elite public Hunter College High School, contributed a study of John Maynard Keynes based on citations from liberal economists John Kenneth Galbraith and Robert Lekachman. Pia Lindstrom Luedtke, a sophomore at the private Polytechnic School of Pasadena, offered a feminist interpretation of the career of architect Julia Morgan entitled “Blueprint for Social Change.” The high-schooler had already enjoyed one official seal of approval: in 1993 Luedtke received a $1,900 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities through the NEH Younger Scholars Program to write her essay over summer vacation. Other essays published in The Concord Review included accounts of baseball’s Negro Leagues, women’s suffrage, President Woodrow Wilson’s vision of the League of Nations, the role of women in the French Revolution, and a critique of Frederick Jackson Turner based on the work of liberal historian Richard Hofstadter. The Concord Review also published essays on the development of the Ferris Wheel and the power loom and an analysis of how Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis continue the debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. A glance at issues provided to Culture Watch shows little in the way of what might be characterized as conservative history: for example, the legacy of conservative statesmen, scientists, businessmen, intellectuals, military history, or criticism of leftist historical figures or trends.

Fitzhugh is a colorful character. The son of a prominent Boston physician, at the age of two Fitzhugh moved to Arizona with his mother after his parents divorced. Graduating from a boarding school in Menlo Park, California after winning a prize by answering (almost) 1,000 questions correctly (the best a student had done in 17 years), he went to work as a logger. Fitzhugh entered Harvard in 1956 after his father brought him back East with an offer to pay his tuition. He graduated in 1962 with an English degree, spent a year doing graduate work in English literature at Cambridge University, and in 1964 went to work for the Apollo space program preparing charts used in the construction of the Command Module. This led to a job with Pan Am as a management trainee. Fitzhugh returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts where he obtained a master’s degree in education from Harvard. After jobs with the Peace Corps (which sent him to Iran), Westinghouse, and Polaroid, Fitzhugh went into teaching, first working as a guidance counselor and, in 1978, as a social studies teacher at Concord High School. In 1987, he started The Concord Review to give recognition to good students, “the ones who’re doing better than we think they are.” In its first year the magazine had subscribers in 14 states, and soon had support from Harold Howe, a Harvard professor and Commissioner of Education in the Johnson administration, and Chester Finn, Assistant Secretary of Education in the Reagan administration. Finn gave Fitzhugh $10,000 from the Fordham foundation. Howe wrote letters to 15 foundations on his behalf.

A traditional liberal approach to history—narratives of great men, nations and ideas—is not in keeping with trends in political correctness sweeping education. Against his will, Fitzhugh is being pushed into the conservative camp. His notion that The Concord Review is a form of “Varsity Academics®” [now a registered trademark of The Concord Review, Inc.] is offensive to advocates of the new pedagogy. The very educational nostrums that brought Fitzhugh to Harvard in 1956 from a logging camp are now considered obsolete and elitist. The new view of history is instrumental, and high school history has become a kind of sensitivity training. Robert Lerner, Althea K. Nagai, and Stanley Rothman have called the process Molding the Good Citizen (Prager, 1995) in their review of the politics of high school history texts. They point out that civil rights groups, feminists, peace activists and environmentalists have all “sought to change the school in specific ways to bring about a new social order.” Because Fitzhugh’s journal does not pretend to fight oppression by race, class and sex, its purpose is suspect. “It used to be the people on both sides of the aisle thought standards were a good idea,” Fitzhugh told Culture Watch. “Now anybody who thinks reading and writing and doing homework is a good idea is considered a conservative.’

[Will Fitzhugh can be reached at; and The Concord Review at Varsity Academics® is a registered trademark of The Concord Review, Inc.]

Wednesday, September 1, 2021


     On August 25 [1914] the burning of Louvain began. The medieval city on the road from Liège to Brussels was renowned for its University and incomparable Library, founded in 1426 when Berlin was a clump of wooden huts. Housed in the fourteenth century Clothworkers’ Hall, the Library included among its 230,000 volumes a unique collection of 750 medieval manuscripts and over a thousand incunabula. The façade of the Town Hall, called a “jewel of Gothic art,” was a stone tapestry of carved knights and saints and ladies, lavish even of its kind. In the church of St. Pierre were altar panels by Dierik Bouts and other Flemish masters. The burning and sack of Louvain, accompanied by the invariable shooting of civilians, lasted six days before it was called off as abruptly as it began. 

    Everything went smoothly when Louvain was first occupied. The shops did a rush of business. German soldiers behaved in exemplary fashion, bought postcards and souvenirs, paid for all their purchases, and stood in line with the regular customers for haircuts at the barbershop. The second day was more strained. A German soldier was shot in the leg, allegedly by snipers. The burgomaster urgently repeated his call upon civilians to surrender arms. He and two other officials were arrested as hostages. Executions behind the railroad station became frequent. The endless tramp of von Kluck’s columns continued through the city day after day. 

    On August 25 the Belgian Army at Malines, on the edge of the entrenched camp of Antwerp, made a sudden sharp sortie upon the rearguard of von Kluck’s Army, flinging them back in disorder upon Louvain. In the turmoil of retreat a riderless horse clattering through the gates after dark frightened another horse which tried to bolt, fell in harness, and overturned the wagon. Shots rang out, setting off cries of “Die Franzosen sind da! Die Engländer sind da!” Later the Germans claimed they had been fired on by Belgian civilians or that civilians had fired from rooftops as signals to the Belgian Army. Belgians claimed that German soldiers had fired on one another in the dark. For weeks and months, even years, after the event that appalled the world, judicial inquiries and tribunals investigated the outbreak, and German accusations were contradicted by Belgian countercharges. Who shot whom was never established and was in any case irrelevant to what followed, for the Germans burned Louvain not as a punishment for alleged Belgian misdeeds, but as a deterrent and a warning to all their enemies—a gesture of German might before all the world. 

    General von Luttwitz, the new Governor of Brussels, expressed as much next morning. Visited in the course of duty by the American and Spanish Ministers, he said to them, “A dreadful thing has occurred at Louvain. Our General there has been shot by the son of the Burgomaster. The population has fired on our troops.” He paused, looked at his visitors, and finished, “And now of course we have to destroy the city.”

Barbara W. Tuchman,  (7-22-2009). The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I; Barbara W. Tuchman's Great War Series (Modern Library 100 Best Nonfiction Books) (Kindle Locations 6001-6018). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Thursday, August 26, 2021


Some serious concern now over Oregon minority students being allowed to graduate from high school without knowing how to write.

As far as I can tell from the information available to me, we test no HS seniors on their skill in nonfiction writing. If there is such a test of academic (or any) writing for Seniors at any U.S. public high school, I hope someone will let me know about it.
We do not test for writing and guess what? our HS graduates cannot write. Q.E.D.

Will Fitzhugh 

Tuesday, August 24, 2021


 Rate Busters

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
1 September 2021

Back in the day, when Union contracts specified the number of widgets each worker was expected to produce during a shift, that number was called “the rate.” Anyone who produced more than that number was called a “rate-buster,” and was subjected to pressure, sanctions, and the like, from fellow union members, until their production was once more within the agreed rate for that job.

There are “rates” in education as well, for students. In general, if they are assigned nonfiction papers, many high school students are asked to write only 3-5 pages. The International Baccalaureate asks for Extended Essays of 4,000 words (16 pages) at the end of a candidate’s time in the program, but that is quite out of the ordinary.

In 2014 a Junior at one of the most prestigious (and most expensive) New England preparatory schools expressed an interest in preparing a paper to be considered by The Concord Review, where the published history research papers now average 9,000 words (30 pages), but she was concerned because her teachers limited history papers at that school to 1,000 words or less (4 pages).

When The Concord Review started calling for history research papers by secondary students in 1987, the suggestion was that papers should be 4,000-6,000 words (or more), (16-24 pages) but students have been sending in longer papers. One 20,000-word paper on the Augustan Reforms in the Roman military (c. 65 pages) was submitted by a student in Singapore whose English curriculum would limit him to 2,000 words. He wanted to read more and write more about the topic. (He will be going to Oxford.)

He is a rate-buster, eager to go beyond the common expectations for what high school students are capable of in writing serious history research papers. In his introduction to the first issue of The Concord Review, (1988) Theodore Sizer, former Dean of the School of Education at Harvard, and former Headmaster at Andover, wrote:  

Americans shamefully underestimate their adolescents. With often misdirected generosity, we offer them all sorts of opportunities and, at least for middle-class and affluent youths, the time and resources to take advantage of them.

We ask little in return. We expect little, and the young people sense this, and relax. The genially superficial is tolerated, save in areas where the high school students themselves have some control, in inter-scholastic athletics, sometimes in their part-time work, almost always in their socializing.

Not much has changed since Dr. Sizer wrote that in 1988. Our schools continue to find ways to limit the amount of nonfiction writing our students do, with the result that they do not get very good at it. But no matter how much college professors and employers complain that their students and employees can’t write, our “union rules” at the k-12 level ensure that students do very little nonfiction writing.

This is not the result of a union contract on rates, but it does come in part from the fact that, for instance in some public high schools, history teachers can have 150 students. This provides a big disincentive for them in assigning term papers or even book reports. They must consider how much time they have to advise students on papers and to evaluate them when they are submitted. But the administration and the school committees do not want nonfiction writing to get, for example, the extra time routinely given to after-school sports, or band and cheerleading.

In addition, some significant number of teachers have never written a thesis, or done much serious academic writing of their own, which makes it more comfortable for them to limit their students to the minimum of nonfiction writing in school (or none).

The Concord Review
has published 130 issues with 1,427 history research papers by secondary students from 46 states and 43 other countries, so there are some “rate-buster” students out there, even in our public high schools. It is even clearer, from the number of excellent “independent study” papers we now receive, that many more students, when they see the exemplary work of their peers, follow the rule that says “Where there’s a Way there’s a Will,” and they take advantage of a journal that does not tell them what to write about, nor does it limit the length of the papers they want to write. When we see the number of these fine history papers, it should make us regret all the more everything we do to press our potential student “rate-busters” to do less than they could. We don’t do that in sports. Why in the world do we do it in academics?

“Teach with Examples”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
TCR History Camp [2014]
Varsity Academics®

Tuesday, August 17, 2021


 Gertrude Himmelfarb, excerpt from “Beyond Method”
What’s Happened to the Humanities?, Princeton University Press, 1997, pp. 146-147

        In the year-long course I took under Louis Gottschalk at the University of Chicago, there were two principal assignments tailored to the student’s field of specialization. Since mine was the French Revolution, I was asked to determine the hour of sunrise on a particular day during the Revolution. I do not now remember the day (to say nothing of the time), nor do I remember how I solved the problem. But I do recall, after my initial resentment at having to devote so much effort to so trivial a matter, becoming conscious of the importance of determining that fact (it turned out to be critical to some event) and also taking pride, even pleasure, in the practical experience of research.

        That was a minor chore. The major assignment was a paper based upon a detailed examination of a few pages from the most reputable, recent work in our field. The charge was simple, or so it seemed until we tried to carry it out. We were to examine every published source cited (manuscript sources were excepted only because they were unavailable to us), first to see whether the quotations and footnotes were accurate, and then, more important, to see whether each quotation or paraphrase was faithful to the sense and context of the source; whether the source itself was trustworthy and impartial (or, if not, whether that was taken into account by the author); whether the author drew the proper inferences from the sources; whether every significant or controversial fact in the text was based upon relevant and reliable sources; and whether there were other relevant and reliable sources that were not cited and that might have supported other facts and conclusions.

        It was a challenging exercise and a salutary experience. In my own case, I discovered several errors in quotations and citations and one serious discrepancy between the source and the deductions drawn from it. This was my initiation into the discipline of history—a painful initiation, because it made me acutely sensitive to the rigors and difficulties of scholarship (and because my own half-written thesis had drawn heavily on that book and I had to go back and check all the facts and quotations I had borrowed from it). At the same time it was an exhilarating experience, rather like a game of chess. And like a good game of chess, it gave me a great respect for the craft of the discipline, a craft that was patently not infallible but that did aspire to high standards and could be tested against those standards. (I later discovered that this was essentially the same exercise, on a much larger scale obviously and with access to the primary documents, that Forrest McDonald performed when he refuted Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.)

        Such required courses on methodology are now relatively rare. Although modernist history continues to be practiced by a good many historians, it no longer has the credibility and authority to sustain a mandatory course of this kind. For the postmodernist the very idea of a “discipline” of history, let alone a methodology, is regarded as specious, even fraudulent.

Friday, August 13, 2021


I suggest to you that the situation is far different today. Whatever the formal religious attachments of our students may be, I find that a firm belief in the traditional values and the ability to understand and the willingness to defend them are rare. Still rarer is an informed understanding of the traditions and institutions of our western civilization and of our country and an appreciation of their special qualities and values. The admirable, even the uniquely good elements are taken for granted as if they were universally available, had always existed, and required no special effort to preserve. All shortcomings, however, are quickly noticed and harshly condemned. Our society is judged not against the experience of human societies in other times and places, but against the Kingdom of Heaven. There is great danger in this, because our society, no less than others now and in the past, requires the allegiance and devotion of its members if it is to defend itself and make progress toward a better life.

Traditional beliefs, however, are not replaced by a different set of values resting on different traditions. Instead, I find a kind of cultural void, an ignorance of the past, a sense of rootlessness and aimlessness, as though not only the students but also the world was born yesterday, a feeling that they are attached to the society in which they live only incidentally and accidentally. Having little or no sense of the human experience through the ages, of what has been tried, of what has succeeded and what has failed, of what is the price of cherishing some values as opposed to others, or of how values relate to one another, they leap from acting as though anything is possible, without cost, to despairing that nothing is possible. They are inclined to see other people’s values as mere prejudices, one no better than another, while viewing their own as entirely valid, for they see themselves as autonomous entities entitled to be free from interference by society and from obligation to it.

Because of the cultural vacuum in their earlier education and because of the informal education they receive from the communications media, which both shape and reflect the larger society, today’s liberal arts students come to college, it seems to me, bearing a sort of relativism verging on nihilism, a kind of individualism that is really isolation from community. The education they receive in college these days, I believe, is more likely to reinforce this condition than to change it. 


Excerpt from Donald Kagan

Ave atque vale June 2013 

The New Criterion
Vol. 39, No. 10 / June 2021

Monday, August 9, 2021


 Excerpt from a Harvard student oration which won the Detur Book Prize in 1796 (from Teddy Delwiche)

        No employment can furnish so much useful knowledge and wisdom, in the same time on so easy terms, as the study of HISTORY. This comprehensive science presents to view the vast theatre of elapsed time. The mighty revolutions which have varied the face of the world, the rise and fall of states and empires, the triumph of knowledge and the mist of ignorance pass in succession before the eye. In the course of a few days we live over ages, learn their manners, gain their experience, and enjoy the fruits of their labors, without sharing their toils and troubles. If fame can make a man live after his death, history gives him life before his birth….

Tuesday, August 3, 2021


 Chris Bellamy
Absolute War
New York, Vintage Books, 2007, 388-389

In the Spring [1942], 300,000 survivors of the terrible first winter [in Leningrad] began a massive clearing-up operation. Once the snow and ice thawed, the million tonnes of refuse that had accumulated during the winter would become a health hazard. Enormous efforts were made to restore and maintain morale, and to reintroduce a semblance of normality after a winter in which nearly a million might have died. The Soviet authorities also tried to project an image of normality to the rest of the country, and its allies. To convince the Leningraders, the country, the allies and the Germans that Leningrad was unbowed, they hit upon a wonderfully Russian, superbly flamboyant piece of psychological warfare. To stage and broadcast around the world a performance of Shostakovich’s new Seventh Leningrad Symphony, which had first been staged far away in central Asia. The score was flown into the besieged city in late June. After six weeks of rehearsal, on 9 August, the Leningrad Philharmonic opened for the performance. There were some lights in chandeliers although the windows were all boarded up with plywood. [Soviet] Lt. General of Artillery Govorov, commanding the Leningrad Front, was there in his best uniform, with Kuznetsov, the Party Secretary. Many soldiers and sailors had tickets, and they wore uniform, but everyone else was in their best suit or silk dress. As the chords, like workmen hammering to construct a vast edifice, became louder, in a slow but inexorable build-up of strength and intensity, [German] General Friedrich Ferch, Eighteenth Army’s Chief-of-Staff, started getting reports that his troops were listening on the radio. The performance was being relayed across the Soviet Union and by short-wave radio to the rest of Europe and the United States. The Germans later banned the symphony from being played in any territory they occupied. But for now, Ferch sensed an opportunity. He ordered his long-range artillery to zero in on the Philharmonic.

But Govorov had anticipated him. The siege of Leningrad was very much an artillery battle and the Germans knew the whereabouts of any significant buildings in the city. Their bombardment timetable had always targeted people who might be going to the theatre. However, the Russians had always been very good gunners, and Govorov, a specialist in counter-battery fire—silencing the enemy’s artillery with your own—knew where the German batteries were. As the majestic symphony played on, a massive and precisely targeted Russian artillery strike paralysed the German guns. There is no doubt about this. Ferch ordered the initial German strike, but all the witnesses—and the elite of Leningrad were all there—confirm that no German shells landed anywhere near the concert hall. As the entire orchestra in the Philharmonic joined in, building the volume of the symphony, other parts of the wider ‘orchestra’, Leningrad’s guns, joined in too. Land-based artillery, and the grey Baltic fleet battleships, their fire superbly directed, belched shell at the German positions. The moral and physical components of a nation’s soul and fighting power fused in harmony, and the German guns were silenced...

Wednesday, July 28, 2021


In the Soviet Union, Stalin showed his people the 1940 movie The Grapes of Wrath, because it powerfully illustrated Americans’ poverty during the Depression. He stopped showing it when the audiences noticed that even the impoverished Joad family had a truck. A truck! No one in the glorious Soviet Union could afford a truck. Many collective farms couldn’t afford one. Yet a poor family in America could. Bad message for the New Soviet Man.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021


Historically, China had been able to accomplish massive projects because of its greatest advantage: a colossal labor force. By mobilizing the efforts of hundreds of millions of people together, mostly anything set out by the leader to be done, could be done. As a result, Mao sought to mobilize the peasant masses to concentrate on agriculture and industry using a tool that he often turned to his advantage: propaganda. For example, one of the propaganda posters used for the extermination of sparrows (The Great Sparrow Campaign) in the Four Pests Campaign had the caption, written in, “Everybody comes to beat the sparrows.” In this poster, two children are depicted; a young boy is holding a slingshot, presumably aimed at a sparrow not shown in the image, while a younger girl is holding several dead sparrows. The overall message is that the sparrow is the enemy, and suggests there is a war between man and nature. The rural village in the background emphasizes the effort put into this campaign by the people who live in the countryside. It also reveals that Mao saw the farmers as the key to his program; they are the brawn behind everything. Furthermore, the use of children in the poster draws in a community effort, as it presents a fact that even the youth are helping this effort. Having a mass work-force of hundreds of millions of people not only accelerated the country as a whole, but also accelerated Mao Zedong’s visions of improving both the industrial and agricultural sectors of China….

One of the main ways to achieve his objectives was the Great Sparrow Campaign, which drew on the peasants’ emotions and sense of a community to persuade them to join the campaign. Meant for use in school, one poster titled “Eliminating the last sparrow,” developed in 1959, exemplifies the heedless nature of the campaign. This poster features a sequence of two images, the first of which has a group of nine males, almost all holding shotguns, surrounding a barren tree with a lone sparrow resting on a branch. The next photo on the poster is the same group of males (adults and adolescents), but this time, they are surrounding the “last sparrow” that they just killed. All smile broadly, doubtless because they recognize their actions as beneficial and praiseworthy. This poster, by combining various age groups, demonstrates that eliminating sparrows and the other four pests requires everyone. Successfully recruiting a broad community effort is one of the main things that catapulted the Great Sparrow Campaign into such astonishing results in such a short time.

The equation for improving agricultural production was unbalanced and unworkable without commitment from the people. The numbers of people involved in these campaigns were not limited to those living in the countryside; all citizens were in a war with the pests, notably the sparrows. Their personal accounts express what would happen daily, ranging from building scarecrows to continually banging kitchenware all for the sole purpose of exterminating sparrows and protecting their grain. People played their roles successfully—almost too successfully. Despite the impressive data, their personal stories and experiences reveal a darker side to the numbers. By November of 1958, less than a year into the campaign, 1.98 billion sparrows were killed. The primary technique used to eliminate the birds was to keep them flying until they died of exhaustion, which normally took four hours. To achieve this, citizens fired guns, drummed, and did anything that they could do in order to keep the birds in the air:

I saw that a young woman was running to and fro...waving a bamboo pole with a large sheet attached to it...I realized that in all the upper stories of the hotel, white clad females were waving sheets and towels that were supposed to keep the sparrows from alighting on the building...During the whole day, it was drums, gunshots, screams, and waving bedclothes...The strategy behind this war on the sparrows boiled down to keeping the poor creature from coming to rest on a branch of tree…[I]t was claimed that a sparrow kept in the air for more than four hours was bound to drop from exhaustion.

The above account discloses the efforts used in the Four Pests Campaign. And almost every citizen was involved, as Mao put the Campaign as one of the highest priorities, emphasized by the description of the Campaign as a war. The resulting noise—screams and gunshots—left no room for negligence, or thinking that the war against the sparrows was insignificant.

Mao exploited many other avenues in this campaign. In addition to mobilizing the peasants in the countryside, he targeted citizens in the cities. In Peking, every morning at 5 A.M., the radio would broadcast the song, “Arise, arise, O millions with one heart; braving the enemy’s fire, march on.” This revolutionary anthem was sung for the students going out to battle the sparrow population. They would bang cymbals, blow whistles, and beat kitchenware, using the same technique of making the sparrows die of fatigue. Education and regular activities were replaced with the duties of a soldier at war with the sparrows.

The Results
The Great Leap Forward and the Four Pests Campaign did not produce the desired or even the anticipated results. He thought that his unprecedented actions would create a strong image for China as a world leader. It did not. The Four Pests Campaign, which Chairman Mao intended to make a positive impact on the grain quantity, resulted in the opposite. Sparrows play many roles, and not all of them are harmful to agriculture. They are the main predator for locusts, an insect which has a diet that primarily consists of grass and grain. The Desert Locust, specifically, targets the last moist part of the plant beneath the ear, causing complete loss of the grain. With the elimination of the sparrows, locust populations boomed and locust swarms would feast on the grain across the country. Locust outbreaks were common starting in the 1940s in China, as outbreaks occurred 1-2 years after El Niños and droughts. Floods and droughts created environments ideal for locusts to lay their eggs, as the survival rate increased with lack of rainfall. The largest damage often occurred just before the harvest was taken, “as swarms of locusts would obscure the sky and cover the countryside under a bristling blanket, devouring the crop...In the Jingzhou region more than 50,000 hectares were devastated.” The amount of grain that the growing population of locusts ate was far greater than what the sparrows would have eaten. Chairman Mao either did not know how to, or did not care to, make the calculations.

If Mao had heeded the experts or even listened to his fellow members of the CCP, the Great Famine would probably have not occurred. He knew little about the environment or animals, and this deficit, combined with his refusal to consult, led to the death of 45 million people. Mao knew one thing only about the plans he was executing; sparrows eat grain. He ignored the issues of biodiversity, and refused to contemplate how removing sparrows might affect the ecology in China. Chinese experts had expressed opposition to this idea, but Mao distrusted intellectuals; in fact, he had millions of academics denounced and killed, so that no one would be able to criticize him. Mao raised ignorance to a higher level by disregarding and disposing of opposing opinions, with disastrous results. The pattern of eliminating anyone who criticized his actions carried on to the Lushan Conference, as we will see. Mao’s pride made him and his country vulnerable to disasters.

The extermination of sparrows was also accompanied, ironically, by China’s ceaseless exports of grain, despite its starving citizens. In early 1959, in a secret meeting, Mao ordered the seizure of more than 30% of the available grain, an unprecedented rise in demand. Regarding the issue of exporting grain while people were dying of starvation, Mao observed, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” The Chairman evidently was not concerned about his rapidly declining population, and as suggested by his words, encouraged the deaths of some so that others might be content. Mao placed China’s economic success above his people’s lives—illustrating where his true loyalty lay.

As conditions worsened, the government was forced deeper into denial. Mass starvation across China resulted in numerous acts of cannibalism. A police report about an incident reveals the severe and challenging times that the Great Leap Forward ignited: “Relationship with culprit: younger brother. Manner of crime: killed and eaten. Reason: livelihood issues.” The act of killing and eating one’s own brother illustrates the conditions people were forced into. Reports were sent to Mao concerning the deaths and violence that ensued, but the Chairman did not allow these tragedies to stop him; instead, he pushed for greater extractions and demands. Production quotas for the communes were raised regardless of poor weather and without any reference to feasibility. To cope, officials faked and exaggerated reports to please the Chairman, masking the large shortcomings in production, and staged crop displays at the communes that Mao visited. However, any who questioned or doubted these reports or stages were labeled Rightists. But because the fabricated reports fed into a feedback loop which showed progress, the state continued to set unrealistic procurement quotas, increasing pressure on food sources and deepening the famine…

The Endgame
In the winter of 1960-1961, the government discovered how bad the situation had become and began to import grain and food from the West in efforts to rebuild the population. In January of 1962, Liu Shaoqi noted that the famine was caused by man, eroding support for the Chairman. Once Mao recognized that the Great Leap Forward and the killing of sparrows needed to stop and that he made “severe mistakes,” He was forced to import more than 200,000 sparrows from the Soviet Union to replace China’s wild population. During this transaction, even the Soviet Union’s scientists recognized the obvious fact that experts were not consulted, and that Mao acted solely on his own. Mao Zedong only acknowledged the reality that he had squandered the lives of his people when investigations revealed what his decisions had created. 


Copyright 2018, The Concord Review

Wednesday, July 14, 2021


Neil Postman
Amusing Ourselves to Death
New York: Penguin, 1985, 136-138

        It follows from this that history can play no significant role in image politics. For history is of value only to someone who takes seriously the notion that there are patterns in the past which may provide the present with nourishing traditions. “The past is a world,” Thomas Carlyle said, “and not a void of grey haze.” But he wrote this at a time when the book was the principle medium of serious public discourse. A book is all history. Everything about it takes one back in time—from the way it is produced to its linear mode of exposition to the fact that the past tense is its most comfortable form of address. As no either medium before or since, the book promotes a sense of a coherent and usable past. In a conversation of books, history, as Carlyle understood it, is not only a world but a living world. It is the present that is shadowy.

        But television is a light-speed medium, a present-centered medium. Its grammar, so to say, permits no access to the past. Everything presented in moving pictures is experienced as happening “now,” which is why we must be told in language that a videotape we are seeing was made months before. Moreover, like its forefather, the telegraph, television needs to move fragments of information, not to collect and organize them. Carlyle was more prophetic than he could imagine: The literal gray haze that is the background void on all television screens is an apt metaphor of the notion of history that the medium puts forward. In the Age of Show Business and image politics, political discourse is emptied not only of ideological content but of historical content, as well.

        Czelaw Milosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature, remarked in his acceptance speech in Stockholm that our age is characterized by a “refusal to remember”; he cited, among other things, the shattering fact that there are now more than one hundred books in print that deny that the Holocaust ever took place. The historian Carl Schorske has, in my opinion, circled closer to the truth by noting that the modern mind has grown indifferent to history because history has become useless to it; in other words, it is not obstinacy or ignorance but a sense of irrelevance that leads to the diminution of history. Television’s Bill Moyers inches still closer when he says, “I worry that my own business...helps to make this an anxious age of agitated amnesiacs...We Americans seem to know everything about the last twenty-four hours but every little of the last sixty centuries or the last sixty years..” Terence Moran, I believe, lands on the target in saying that with media whose structure is biased toward furnishing images and fragments, we are deprived of access to an historical perspective. In the absence of continuity and context, he says, “bits of information cannot be integrated into an intelligent and consistent whole.” We do not refuse to remember; neither do we find it exactly useless to remember. Rather, we are being rendered unfit to remember. For if remembering is to be something more than nostalgia, it requires a contextual basis—a theory, a vision, a metaphor—something within which facts can be organized and patterns discerned. The politics of image and instantaneous news provides no such context, is, in fact, hampered by attempts to provide any. A mirror only records what you are wearing today. It is silent about yesterday. With television, we vault ourselves into a continuous, incoherent present. “History,” Henry Ford said, “is bunk.” Henry Ford was a typographic optimist. “History,” the Electric Plug replies, “doesn’t exist.”

        If these conjectures make sense, then in this Orwell was wrong once again, at least for the Western democracies. He envisioned the demolition of history, but believed it would be accomplished by the state; that some equivalent of the Ministry of Truth would systematically banish inconvenient facts and destroy the records of the past. Certainly this is the way of the Soviet Union [1985], our modern-day Oceania. But as Huxley more accurately foretold, nothing so crude as all that is required. Seemingly benign technologies devoted to providing the population with a politics of image, instancy and therapy may disappear history just as effectively, perhaps more permanently, and without objection...

Tuesday, July 13, 2021


 The early decades of this century forged the central educational fallacy of our time: that one can think without having anything to think about.

“Anything But Knowledge”

“Why Johnny’s Teacher Can’t Teach” (1998)
from The Burden of  Bad Ideas
Heather Mac Donald
Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000, pp. 82ff.

    America’s nearly last-place finish in the Third International Mathematics and Sciences Study of student achievement caused widespread consternation this February, except in the one place it should have mattered most: the nation’s teacher education schools. Those schools have far more important things to do than worrying about test scores—things like stamping out racism in aspiring teachers. “Let’s be honest,” darkly commanded Professor Valerie Henning-Piedmont to a lecture hall of education students at Columbia University’s Teachers College last February. “What labels do you place on young people based on your biases?” It would be difficult to imagine a less likely group of bigots than these idealistic young people, happily toting around their handbooks of multicultural education and their exposés of sexism in the classroom. But Teachers College knows better. It knows that most of its students, by virtue of being white, are complicitous in an unjust power structure.

    The crusade against racism is just the latest irrelevancy to seize the nation’s teacher education schools. For over eighty years, teacher education in America has been in the grip of an immutable dogma, responsible for endless educational nonsense. That dogma may be summed up in the phrase: Anything But Knowledge. Schools are about many things, teacher educators say (depending on the decade)—self-actualization, following one’s joy, social adjustment, or multicultural sensitivity—but the one thing they are not about is knowledge. Oh, sure, educators will occasionally allow the word to pass their lips, but it is always in a compromised position, as in “constructing one’s own knowledge,” or “contextualized knowledge.” Plain old knowledge, the kind passed down in books, the kind for which Faust sold his soul, that is out.

    The education profession currently stands ready to tighten its already viselike grip on teacher credentialing, persuading both the federal government and the states to “professionalize” teaching further. In New York, as elsewhere, that means closing off routes to the classroom that do not pass through an education school. But before caving in to the educrats’ pressure, we had better take a hard look at what education schools teach.

    The course in “Curriculum and Teaching in Elementary Education” that Professor Anne Nelson (a pseudonym) teaches at the City College of New York is a good place to start. Dressed in a tailored brown suit, and with close-cropped hair, Nelson is a charismatic teacher, with a commanding repertoire of voices and personae. And yet, for all her obvious experience and common sense, her course is a remarkable exercise in vacuousness.

    As with most education classes, the title of Professor Nelson’s course doesn’t give a clear sense of what it is about. Unfortunately, Professor Nelson doesn’t either. The semester began, she said in a pre-class interview, by “building a community, rich of talk, in which students look at what they themselves are doing by in-class writing.” On this, the third meeting of the semester, Professor Nelson said that she would be “getting the students to develop the subtext of what they’re doing.” I would soon discover why Professor Nelson was so vague.

    “Developing the subtext” turns out to involve a chain reaction of solipsistic moments. After taking attendance and—most admirably—quickly checking the students’ weekly handwriting practice, Professor Nelson begins the main work of the day: generating feather-light “texts,” both written and oral, for immediate group analysis. She asks the students to write for seven minutes on each of three questions; “What excites me about teaching?” “What concerns me about teaching?” and then, the moment that brands this class as hopelessly steeped in the Anything But Knowledge credo: “What was it like to do this writing?”

    This last question triggers a quickening volley of self-reflexive turns. After the students read aloud their predictable reflections on teaching, Professor Nelson asks: “What are you hearing?” A young man states the obvious: “Everyone seems to be reflecting on what their anxieties are.” This is too straightforward an answer. Professor Nelson translates into ed-speak: “So writing gave you permission to think on paper about what’s there.” Ed-speak dresses up the most mundane processes in dramatic terminology—one doesn’t just write, one is “given permission to think on paper”; one doesn’t converse, one “negotiates meaning.” Then, like a champion tennis player finishing off a set, Nelson reaches for the ultimate level of self-reflexivity and drives it home: “What was it like to listen to each other’s responses?”

    The self-reflection isn’t over yet, however. The class next moves into small groups—along with in-class writing, the most pervasive gimmick in progressive classrooms today—to discuss a set of student-teaching guidelines. After ten minutes, Nelson interrupts the by-now lively and largely off-topic conversations, and asks: “Let’s talk about how you felt in these small groups.” The students are picking up ed-speak. “It shifted the comfort zone,” reveals one. “It was just acceptance; I felt the vibe going through the group.” Another adds: “I felt really comfortable; I had trust there.” Nelson senses a “teachable moment.” “Let’s talk about that,” she interjects. “We are building trust in this class; we are learning how to work with each other.”

    Now, let us note what this class was not: it was not about how to keep the attention of eight-year-olds or plan a lesson or make the Pilgrims real to first-graders. It did not, in other words, contain any material (with the exception of the student-teacher guidelines) from the outside world. Instead, it continuously spun its own subject matter out of itself. Like a relationship that consists of obsessively analyzing the relationship, the only content of the course was the course itself.

    How did such navel-gazing come to be central to teacher education? It is the almost inevitable consequence of the Anything But Knowledge doctrine, born in a burst of quintessentially American anti-intellectual fervor in the wake of World War I. Educators within the federal government and at Columbia’s Teachers College issued a clarion call to schools: cast off the traditional academic curriculum and start preparing young people for the demands of modern life. America is a forward-looking country, they boasted; what need have we for such impractical disciplines as Greek, Latin, and higher math? Instead, let the students then flooding the schools take such useful courses as family membership, hygiene, and the worthy use of leisure time. “Life adjustment,” not wisdom or learning, was to be the goal of education.

    The early decades of this century forged the central educational fallacy of our time: that one can think without having anything to think about. Knowledge is changing too fast to be transmitted usefully to students, argued William Heard Kilpatrick of Teachers College, the most influential American educator of the century; instead of teaching children dead facts and figures, schools should teach them “critical thinking,” he wrote in 1925. What matters is not what you know, but whether you know how to look it up, so that you can be a “lifelong learner.”

    Two final doctrines rounded out the indelible legacy of progressivism. First, Harold Rugg’s The Child-Centered School (1928) shifted the locus of power in the classroom from the teacher to the student. In a child-centered class, the child determines what he wants to learn. Forcing children into an existing curriculum inhibits their self-actualization, Rugg argued, just as forcing them into neat rows of chairs and desks inhibits their creativity. The teacher becomes an enabler, an advisor; not, heaven forbid, the transmitter of a pre-existing body of ideas, texts, or worst of all, facts. In today’s jargon, the child should “construct” his own knowledge rather than passively receive it. Bu the late 1920s, students were moving their chairs around to form groups of “active learners” pursuing their own individual interests, and, instead of a curriculum, the student-centered classroom followed just one principle: “activity leading to further activity without badness,” in Kilpatrick’s words. Today’s educators still present these seven-decades-old practices as cutting-edge.

    As E.D. Hirsch observes, the child-centered doctrines grew out of the romantic idealization of children. If the child was, in Wordsworth’s words, a “Mighty Prophet! Seer Blest!” then who needs teachers? But the Mighty Prophet emerged from student-centered schools ever more ignorant and incurious as the schools became more vacuous. By the 1940s and 1950s, schools were offering classes in how to put on nail polish and how to act on a date. The notion that learning should push students out of their narrow world had been lost.

    The final cornerstone of progressive theory was the disdain for report cards and objective tests of knowledge. These inhibit authentic learning, Kilpatrick argued; and he carried the day, to the eternal joy of students everywhere.

    The foregoing doctrines are complete bunk, but bunk that has survived virtually unchanged to the present. The notion that one can teach “metacognitive” thinking in the abstract is senseless. Students need to learn something to learn how to learn at all. The claim that prior knowledge is superfluous because one can always look it up, preferably on the Internet, is equally senseless. Effective research depends on preexisting knowledge. Moreover, if you don’t know in what century the atomic bomb was dropped without rushing to an encyclopedia, you cannot fully participate in society. Lastly, Kilpatrick’s influential assertion that knowledge was changing too fast to be taught presupposes a blinkered definition of knowledge that excludes the great works and enterprises of the past.

    The rejection of testing rests on premises as flawed as the push for “critical thinking skills.” Progressives argue that if tests exist, then teachers will “teach to the test”—a bad thing, in their view. But why would “teaching to a test” that asked for, say, the causes of the [U.S.] Civil War be bad for students? Additionally, progressives complain that testing provokes rote memorization—again, a bad thing. One of the most tragically influential education professors today, Columbia’s Linda Darling-Hammond, director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, an advocacy group for increased teacher “professionalization,” gives a telling example of what she considers a criminally bad test in her hackneyed 1997 brief for progressive education, The Right to Learn. She points disdainfully to the following question from the 1995 New York State Regents Exam in biology (required for high school graduation) as “a rote recall of isolated facts and vocabulary terms”: “The tissue which conducts organic food through a vascular plant is composed of: (1) Cambium cells; (2) Xylem cells; (3) Phloem cells; (4) Epidermal cells.”

    Only a know-nothing could be offended by so innocent a question. It never occurs to Darling-Hammond that there may be a joy in mastering the parts of a plant or the organelles of a cell, and that such memorization constitutes learning. Moreover, when, in the progressives’ view, will a student ever be held accountable for such knowledge? Does Darling-Hammond believe that a student can pursue a career in, say, molecular biology or in medicine without it? And how else will that learning be demonstrated, if not in a test? But of course such testing will produce unequal results, and that is the real target of Darling-Hammond’s animus.

    Once you dismiss real knowledge as the goal of education, you have to find something else to do. That’s why the Anything But Knowledge doctrine leads directly to Professor Nelson’s odd course. In thousands of education schools across the country, teachers are generating little moments of meaning, which they then subject to instant replay. Educators call this “constructing knowledge,” a fatuous label for something that is neither construction nor knowledge but mere game-playing. Teacher educators, though, posses a primitive relationship to words. They believe that if they just label something “critical thinking” or “community-building,” these activities will magically occur...

    The Anything But Knowledge credo leaves education professors and their acolytes free to concentrate on more pressing matters than how to teach the facts of history or the rules of sentence construction. “Community-building” is one of their most urgent concerns. Teacher educators conceive of their classes as sites of profound political engagement, out of which the new egalitarian order will emerge. A case in point is Columbia’s required class, “Teaching English in Diverse Social and Cultural Contexts,” taught by Professor Barbara Tenney (a pseudonym). “I want to work at a very conscious level with you to build community in this class,” Tenney tells her attentive students on the first day of the semester this spring. “You can do it consciously, and you ought to do it in your own classes.” Community-building starts by making nameplates for our desks. Then we all find a partner to interview about each other’s “identity.” Over the course of the semester, each student will conduct two more “identity” interviews with different partners. After the interview, the inevitable self-reflexive moment arrives, when Tenney asks: “How did it work?” This is a sign that we are on our way to “constructing knowledge.”...

    All this artificial “community-building,” however gratifying to the professors, has nothing to do with learning. Learning is ultimately a solitary activity: we have only one brain, and at some point we must exercise it in private. One could learn an immense amount about Schubert’s lieder or calculus without ever knowing the name of one’s seatmate. Such a view is heresy to the education establishment, determined, as Rita Kramer has noted, to eradicate any opportunity for individual accomplishment, with its sinister risk of superior achievement. For the educrats, the group is the irreducible unit of learning. Fueling this principle is the gap in achievement between whites and Asians, on the one hand, and other minorities on the other. Unwilling to adopt the discipline and teaching practices that would help reduce the gap, the education establishment tries to conceal it under group projects....

    The consequences of the Anything But Knowledge credo for intellectual standards have been dire. Education professors are remarkably casual when it comes to determining whether their students actually know anything, rarely asking them, for example, what can you tell us about the American Revolution? The ed schools incorrectly presume that students have learned everything they need to know in their other or previous college courses, and that the teacher certification exam will screen out people who didn’t.

    Even if college education were reliably rigorous and comprehensive, education majors aren’t the students most likely to profit from it. Nationally, undergraduate education majors have lower SAT and ACT scores than students in any other program of study. Only 16 percent of education majors scored in the top quartile of 1992-1993 graduates, compared with 33 percent of humanities majors. Education majors were overrepresented in the bottom quartile, at 30 percent. In New York City, many education majors have an uncertain command of English—I saw one education student at City College repeatedly write “choce” for “choice”— and appear altogether ill at ease in a classroom. To presume anything about this population without a rigorous content exit exam is unwarranted.

    The laissez-faire attitude toward student knowledge rests on “principled” grounds, as well as on see-no-evil inertia. Many education professors embrace the facile post-structuralist view that knowledge is always political. “An education program can’t have content [knowledge] specifics,” explains Migdalia Romero, chair of Hunter College’s Department of Curriculum and Teaching, “because then you have a point of view. Once you define exactly what finite knowledge is, it becomes a perspective.” The notion that culture could possess a pre-political common store of texts and idea is anathema to the modern academic.

    The most powerful dodge regurgitates William Heard Kilpatrick’s classic “critical thinking” scam. Asked whether a future teacher should know the date of the 1812 war, Professor Romero replied: “Teaching and learning is not about dates, facts, and figures, but about developing critical thinking.” When pressed if there were not some core facts that a teacher or student should know, she valiantly held her ground. “There are two ways of looking at teaching and learning,” she replied. “Either you are imparting knowledge, giving an absolute knowledge base, or teaching and learning is about dialogue, a dialogue that helps to internalize and to raise questions.” Though she offered the disclaimer “of course you need both,” Romero added that teachers don’t have to know everything, because they can always look things up....

    Disregard for language runs deep in the teacher education profession, so much so that ed school professors tolerate glaring language deficiencies in schoolchildren. Last January, Manhattan’s Park West High School shut down for a day, so that its faculty could bone up on progressive pedagogy. One of the more popular staff development seminars ws “Using Journals and Learning Logs.” The presenters—two Park West teachers and a representative from the New York City Writing Project, an anti-grammar initiative run by the Lehman College’s Education School—proudly passed around their students’ journal writing, including the following representative entry on “Matriarchys v. pratiarchys [sic]”: “The different between Matriarchys and patriarchys is that when the mother is in charge of the house. sometime the children do whatever they want. But sometimes the mother can do both roll as mother and as a father too and they can do it very good.” A more personal entry described how the author met her boyfriend: “He said you are so kind I said you noticed and then he hit me on my head. I made-believe I was crying and when he came naire me I slaped him right in his head and than I my grandparients home and he was right behind me. Thats when he asked did I have a boyfriend.”

    The ubiquitous journal-writing cult holds that such writing should go uncorrected. Fortunately, some Park West teachers bridled at the notion. “At some point, the students go into the job market, and they’re not being judged ‘holistically,’” protested a black teacher, responding to the invocation of the state’s “holistic” model for grading writing. Another teacher bemoaned the Board of Ed’s failure to provide guidance on teaching grammar. “My kids are graduating without skills,” he lamented.

    Such views, however, were decidedly in the minority. “Grammar is related to purpose,” soothed the Lehman College representative, educrat code for the proposition that asking students to write grammatically on topics they are not personally “invested in” is unrealistic. A Park West presenter burst out with a more direct explanation for his chilling indifference to student incompetence. “I’m not going to spend my life doing error diagnosis! I’m not going to spend my weekend on that!” Correcting papers used to be part of the necessary drudgery of a teacher’s job. No more, with the advent of enlightened views about “self-expression” and “writing with intentionality.”

    However easygoing the educational establishment is regarding future teachers’ knowledge of history, literature, and science, there is one topic that it assiduously monitors: their awareness of racism. To many teacher educators, such an awareness is the most important tool a young teacher can bring to the classroom. It cannot be developed too early. Rosa, a bouncy and enthusiastic junior at Hunter College, has completed only her first semester of education courses, but already she has mastered the most important lesson: American is a racist, imperialist country, most like, say, Nazi Germany. “We are lied to by the very institutions we have come to trust,” she recalls from her first-semester reading. “It’s all government that’s inventing these lies, such as Western heritage.”
    The source of Rosa’s newfound wisdom, Donald Macedo’s Literacies of Power: What Americans Are Not Allowed to Know, is an execrable book by any measure. But given its target audience—impressionable education students—it comes close to being a crime. Widely assigned at Hunter, and in use in approximately 150 education schools nationally, it is an illiterate, barbarically ignorant Marxist-inspired screed against America. Macedo opens his first chapter, “Literacy for Stupidification: The Pedagogy of Big Lies,” with a quote from Hitler and quickly segues to Ronald Reagan: “While busily calling out slogans from their patriotic vocabulary memory warehouse, these same Americans dutifully vote…for Ronald Reagan…giving him a landslide victory…These same voters ascended [sic] to Bush’s morally high-minded call to apply international laws against Saddam Hussein’s tyranny and his invasion of Kuwait.” Standing against this wave of ignorance and imperialism is a lone 12-year-old from Boston, whom Macedo celebrates for his courageous refusal to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

    What does any of this have to do with teaching? Everything, it turns out. In the 1960s, educational progressivism took on an explicitly political cast: schools were to fight institutional racism and redistribute power. Today, Columbia’s Teachers College holds workshops on cultural and political “oppression,” in which students role-play ways to “usurp the existing power structure,” and the New York State Regents happily call teachers “the ultimate change agents.” To be a change agent, one must first learn to “critique” the existing social structure. Hence, the assignment of such propaganda as Macedo’s book.

    But Macedo is just one of the political tracts that Hunter force-fed the innocent Rosa in her first semester. She also learned about the evils of traditional children’s stories from the education radical Herbert Kohl. In Should We Burn Babar? Kohl weighs the case for and against the dearly beloved children’s classic, Babar the Elephant, noting in passing that it prevented him from “questioning the patriarchy earlier.” He decides—but let Rosa expound the meaning of Kohl’s book: “[Babar]’s like a children’s book, right? [But] there’s an underlying meaning about colonialism, about like colonialism, and is it OK, it’s really like it’s OK, but it’s like really offensive to the people.” Better burn Babar now!…

    Though the current diversity battle cry is “All students can learn,” the educationists continually lower expectations of what they should learn. No longer are students expected to learn all their multiplication tables in the third grade, as has been traditional. But while American educators come up with various theories about fixed cognitive phases to explain why our children should go slow, other nationalities trounce us. Sometimes, we’re trounced in our own backyards, causing cognitive dissonance in local teachers.     

    A young student at Teachers College named Susan describes incredulously a Korean-run preschool in Queens. To her horror, the school, the Holy Mountain School, violates every progressive tenet: rather than being “student-centered” and allowing each child to do whatever he chooses, the school imposes a curriculum on the children, based on the alphabet. “Each week, the children get a different letter,” Susan recalls grimly. Such an approach violates “whole language” doctrine, which holds that students can’t “grasp the [alphabetic] symbols without the whole word or the meaning or any context in their lives.” In Susan’s words, Holy Mountain’s further infractions include teaching its wildly international students only in English and failing to provide an “anti-bias multicultural curriculum.” The result? By the end of preschool the children learn English and are writing words. Here is the true belief in the ability of all children to learn, for it is backed up by action.…

    Given progressive education’s dismal record, all New Yorkers should tremble at what the Regents have in store for the state. The state’s teacher education establishment, led by Columbia’s Linda Darling-Hammond, has persuaded the Regents to make its monopoly on teacher credentialing total. Starting in 2003, according to the Regents plan steaming inexorably toward adoption, all teacher candidates must pass through an education school to be admitted to a classroom. We know, alas, what will happen to them there.

    This power grab will be a disaster for children. By making ed school inescapable, the Regents will drive away every last educated adult who may not be willing to sit still for its foolishness but who could bring to the classroom unusual knowledge or experience. The nation’s elite private schools are full of such people, and parents eagerly proffer tens of thousands of dollars to give their children the benefit of such skill and wisdom.

    Amazingly, even the Regents, among the nation’s most addled education bodies, sporadically acknowledge what works in the classroom. A Task Force on Teaching paper cites some of the factors that allow other countries to wallop us routinely in international tests: a high amount of lesson content (in other words, teacher-centered, not student-centered, learning), individual tracking of students, and a coherent curriculum. The state should cling steadfastly to its momentary insight, at odds with its usual policies, and discard its foolish plan to enshrine Anything But Knowledge as its sole education dogma. Instead of permanently establishing the teacher education status quo, it should search tirelessly for alternatives and for potential teachers with a firm grasp of subject matter and basic skills. Otherwise ed school claptrap will continue to stunt the intellectual growth of the Empire State’s children.

[Heather Mac Donald graduated summa cum laude from Yale, and earned an M.A. at Cambridge University. She holds the J.D. degree from Stanford Law School, and is a John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal]