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An Interview with Charles Emerson Riggs: Editorship of The Concord Review

Dec 18, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Sir, I have just heard that you are about to take over the Editorship of The Concord Review. How did this come about?

Will Fitzhugh, TCR’s founder and longtime editor, had been in contact with a former professor of mine from Harvard, asking her whether she could recommend any Harvard history grads with editorial experience, an entrepreneurial bent, and an interest in being his “understudy.” She put us in touch initially. Will and I struck up a correspondence; when we met, about a year ago, we immediately hit it off, strategizing the future of the review and its mission of encouraging and celebrating student academic achievement. I was still in the thick of graduate school, and so Will gave me a year to wrap up my dissertation before going to work for him.

2) For our readers, can you tell us a bit about your background and
education and experience?

I’ve spent most of my life between North Carolina, where I grew up, and Massachusetts. I attended high school at Milton Academy in Milton, MA and then college at Harvard, where I majored in History and graduated in 2010. I’m currently in the late stages of completing my PhD in American History at Rutgers University. My work experience has mostly been as an editor: for a small publishing house in North Carolina, for the budget travel guide company Let’s Go, and for a non-profit in Malden that commissioned me to coordinate and edit a book on American immigration history. My main focus for the past seven years, however, has been historical research and writing. My PhD dissertation is about liberal Christianity, psychoanalysis, and existentialism in mid-twentieth century American thought, with a focus on the German-American theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich. I’m hoping one of these days, if I can find the time amid my work for TCR, to turn my dissertation into a book on Tillich.

3) What lured you to take over the most prestigious journal in the world for high school writers?

When Will first told me about what The Concord Review was, I immediately saw the brilliance and logic of the idea: a journal by, and for, high school students that celebrates the best historical writing being done at the secondary level. I wish I had known about such a thing back when I was a History nerd in high school; I would have been keen on getting published myself. And so, I am very much in awe of what Will has built and honored to have the opportunity to carry on his legacy. I can hardly think of a more important, and more widely neglected, task than identifying and encouraging talented young people, fostering their historical consciousness, and giving them a platform to show their stuff.

4) In your mind how important are writing skills and doing research at
the high school level?

They are absolutely essential. Both in the instrumental sense that without research and writing skills it will be difficult for students to make their way in the world; colleges – to say nothing of employers – care about these things. But also because their lives will be impoverished if they never expand their horizons by engaging the immense wealth contained in the world of books, especially History books.

5) How do you see critical thinking skills and critical writing skills
as overlapping?


Good writing is an aid to – and a sign of – good thinking. But good writing is only possible when you have something to say and good thinking is only possible if that thought has actual content. Having something to say, in turn, is helped immeasurably by reading – widely and adventurously. And so TCR’s educational philosophy – which is nothing new – is simply to put good History books into the hands of smart kids, to let them read following their own curiosities and interests, and to provide a structure and incentive for them to write. Eventually, if they are enterprising, they will get to the point where their writing is a natural expression of what they have learned and of what they want to share with others, rather than an exercise being foisted upon them for the sake of “critical thinking” in the abstract.


6) What challenges do you see in front of you?

There are a lot of obstacles to TCR’s central mission of encouraging student reading and writing. Institutionally, American secondary education is more interested in social engineering than in student academic achievement, notwithstanding the good work being done by many individual teachers. Within the classroom, teachers are so hard-pressed for time and crowded with curricular mandates that they increasingly don’t even assign the kind of substantive research papers that we publish and that we believe are the best outlets for student research.

Politically, history education has become a battleground for rival ideologies.

Economically, there is a perception – in my opinion both misguided and a little contemptible – that studying history is irrelevant to the main task of getting a good job, especially compared to “harder” fields like science, technology, or economics.

Technologically, the proliferation of smart phones and screens of all kinds has led to a general fracturing of the attention span that affects everyone (myself included), but that seems to be having an especially pernicious effect on many young people in their ability to read entire books and undertake serious research projects.

All those are big-picture challenges. On a more practical level, TCR has to raise money to keep the organization alive and growing, to elevate the visibility of the review, to encourage submissions, to get more subscribers, to make connections with history teachers and professional historians who are on board with what we’re doing, and to continue preaching the gospel of the substantive historical research paper to anyone who will listen.

6) What have I neglected to ask?

About my new ideas for TCR! In the next couple months I intend to launch a podcast where I will interview student-authors about their work, to commission a study on the state of academic summer programs in the humanities (TCR runs several such programs), and to begin work, under Will’s supervision, on a book about reading and writing in American secondary education.

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