Thursday, May 12, 2022


Steven Lee, Manager, and Lin Frank, Instructor
TCR Middle School History Seminar

“Teddy Roosevelt’s asthma was painful, but it also helped build his character. Perhaps this might imply that diseases in general can have a positive impact on society.”
“We tend to think of being an outsider as a bad thing, but it helped Da Vinci become more creative and observant.”
“How many stories of the successes of marginalized people have been hidden?”

These comments and questions were not formulated in a high school classroom or college seminar; they were spoken during an informal chat among middle school students in the The Concord Review’s (TCR) History Seminar, where students—so far from Canada, Hong Kong, China and the United States—read, discuss and debate about history books with the support of two experienced mentors. They were taking part in an experiment to prove that despite what many of the education establishment might have you believe, it is possible for students, even middle school students, to engage in serious nonfiction reading, debating, and thinking about history.

The roots of the TCR Seminar go back to The Concord Review History Camp, which has been helping high school students work on research papers in history since 2014. Mr. Fitzhugh, the founder of TCR, made this possible by creating The Concord Review in 1987. Steven Lee, the co-founder of the TCR History Camp, wanted younger students also to be able to read and learn about the heritage of our civilization. Now, the TCR History Camp offers programs for younger students, such as the TCR History Seminar.

The Middle School History Seminar is an eight-week long online history book discussion. It meets once a week during the weekend for an hour to discuss, share, and debate on chapters we read during the week. Books that have been featured range from David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback—a vivid, intimate biography of the larger-than-life Teddy Roosevelt—to George Johnson’s Miss Leavitt’s Stars–a fascinating excavation of the forgotten story of how astronomers mapped the universe.

In the first one or two sessions of the seminar, the students are often shy and the discussions are slow to start. Many of our schools and families have a poor record of imparting one of the most important habits for culture and growth—regularly reading and thinking about nonfiction books. Indeed, for many seminar participants this is the first time in their lives that they’ve read a serious nonfiction book from cover to cover. They also often have little experience thinking of academic questions or responding to the opinions of their peers. A two-time TCR seminar mentor, Frank Lin, remembers having to prod the students in the right direction at first, and to offer ideas to revive the conversation. Another seminar mentor, Saadia Khan, has made a list of conversational starters to help the students get the discussion going.

Slowly, but surely, the mood changes. Students become more relaxed. Their statements become more confident, their questions more incisive. They read more carefully and critically. They become comfortable proposing their own theories and responding to the ideas of others. The mentors can step back, watching as the conversation starts to go by itself. Frank vividly remembers one occasion when a sixth-grade student introduced a fascinating angle in looking at the early life of Winston Churchill that Frank had never considered before. It was at that moment Frank knew the experiment had succeeded, that students, once “liberated” from the constraints and pessimism of the normal classroom, are capable of engaging in serious academic reading and discussion.

The students feel that sense of liberation. Indeed, despite the lack of grades as an incentive, the students work hard to dissect the readings and participate in discussions. One student insisted on joining by typing in the chatbox despite having a sore throat, while another read a hundred pages of Ancient Greek history while vacationing in Hawaii! In two months of such learning, the students expanded the scope of their understanding of the human story. Perhaps even more importantly, they learned to talk confidently and think critically, which will help prepare them for a life of learning.

This should come as no surprise. The sages of different civilizations have long agreed that studying history is one of the surest paths to cultivating an independent, vibrant mind. Lin Frank, headed for Yale, credits his background in history as a foundation for all of his education. In our age, it is perhaps more important than ever to have young people take part in the sort of serious, critical discussions that these TCR Seminar students are enjoying.



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