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...