Wednesday, October 27, 2021


David McCullough
Mornings on Horseback
Touchstone Books, New York, 1982, 346–347

        Earlier in March, having just returned to the Elkhorn after a winter in New York, Theodore was informed by Sewall one morning that a boat, a light, flat–bottomed scow that they kept on the river, had been stolen in the night by someone who had obviously taken off in it downstream. They suspected the culprit was a man named Finnegan,  who lived upriver, toward Medora, with two cronies of equally bad reputation. So in the next few days Sewall and Dow put together a makeshift boat, and after waiting for a blizzard to pass, the three of them took off in pursuit, pushing into the icy current on March 30, Sewall steering.

        It was a matter of principle, Theodore later said. “To submit tamely and meekly to theft or to any other injury is to invite almost certain repetition of the offense…”

        They were three days on the river before catching up with the thieves, their boat charging along between snow–covered buttes and weird Bad Lands configurations that looked to Theodore like “the crouching figures of great goblin beasts.” He had brought along some books to read and his camera, expecting there might be a magazine article in the adventure. Each man had his rifle. The second night the temperature dropped below zero.

        The next day, at a point about a hundred miles downstream from where they had started, they spotted the missing boat and going ashore found Finnegan and his partners, who surrendered without a fight. (“We simply crept noiselessly up and rising when only a few yards distant covered them with cocked rifles.”) From there they spent another six days moving on down the river, making little headway now because of ice jams, and taking turns at night guarding the prisoners, who because of the extreme cold could not be bound hand and foot. Food ran low and the cold and biting winds continued. But not the least extraordinary part of the story is that during these same six days after catching the thieves, Theodore, in odd moments, read the whole of Anna Karenina, and “with very great interest.”

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.