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An Interview with Will Fitzhugh: Why Are We Afraid to Show Off Our Best and Brightest?

Sep 27, 2012 by

Michael Shaughnessy  –

1) Will, you recently had an article published in The Atlantic, raising some concerns about writing. What are your biggest concerns?

It is frustrating to me, after publishing 1,033 exemplary history research papers by high school students from 46 states and 38 other countries in The Concord Review, to see what silly limits are put on the reading and writing of the vast majority of our high school students. Most of them never read a single history book or write one serious history paper before they graduate, and their writing is restricted to the kind of five-paragraph personal pieces that just prepare them for failure at college (and work) writing tasks. The point is, I know they can rise to a challenge to do good academic expository writing, and it bothers me to see that challenge denied to almost all of them.

2)      I often serve as a judge for science fairs in my state. And they range from average to poor to mediocre to abysmal, but once in a while one really stands out.  Am I just seeing a lot of average students or does this reflect their motivation or perhaps education and training?

For comparison on a question like this, I would turn to high school sports. Of course our Olympic athletes did a lot of their preparation with special coaches outside of their school sports, but the overall quality of athletic performance by high school students may be pretty good, partly because of the level of competition, and partly because their efforts are celebrated (or criticized) by their whole community around their school. I have been sent truly exceptional 11,000-word, 15,000-word and even longer history research papers by high school students from around the world, but without exception papers like that were done as independent studies on the student’s own time. In one case, a Junior in Hong Kong wrote a 13,000-word Emerson Prize-winning paper in English (his first language is Mandarin) and after I published it, he had to cut it down to 4,000 words to meet the limit for the Extended Essay required by the International Baccalaureate Diploma. He is now at Stanford, as is another author, by whom I published an even longer Emerson Prize paper, which she had to cut down from 100+ pages to nine pages to meet the limits set as she won First Place in the country in the National History Day Competition.

3) I shudder to think back to Stephen King’s high school—I wonder who encouraged him to write?

I wish I knew more about David McCullough’s high school (and James McPherson’s and David Hackett Fischer’s and Ron Chernow’s). Were they limited to writing short piece about themselves in high school, as most of our students are now? Or were they asked to do book reports back in their day? I fear the book report may have died the death. I know David McCullough was an English major at Yale and he was influenced by Thornton Wilder, I believe. But when he got out, for some reason (and lucky for us) he got interested in writing history, which I feel sure he never did in school or college.

4) Now, do you think there is a relationship between the material the students read and their ability to write?

As you know, Samuel Johnson said: “A man will turn over half a library to produce one book.” I have recently sent a tweet saying that “Some now think there may be a connection between reading a lot and writing well…Next they will invent the wheel (again).” It just seems obvious to me from the report of every serious writer that good  writing depends heavily on lots and lots of reading. When we limit the reading our students do to badly-written textbooks and a few excerpts, we do a lot of damage to their prospects as writers. The main writing students will have to do in college and at work is not poetry or a memoir or a novel, and so, while I also love the work and genius of Jane Austen and William Shakespeare, I think we should do our students the favor of asking them to read a complete history book and write one serious history paper now and then.

5) Some students rise to the challenge of doing an in-depth investigation of a certain topic. Is this parent support, teacher support, librarian support or perhaps the intrinsic motivation of the student?

Many of the best authors I have published no doubt had a parent who was a history buff, who recommended, as our schools do not, great history books for the student to read, and this helps them a huge amount when they go to do research for writing their own history paper to submit to The Concord Review. Professor Laurence Steinberg wrote that:

“Within a system that fails [flunks] very few students, then, only those student who have high standards of their own—who have more stringent criteria for success and failure—will strive to do better than merely to pass their courses and graduate.”

And I think that the sort of work I have been able to publish is primarily dependent on the student being motivated, but some support for that motivation comes from parents,l librarians, and teachers, as well as, in some cases, from seeing the exemplary history research papers by their peers which are published in The Concord Review.

6) For years you have been editing The Concord Review. Tell our readers about this endeavor.

The publication of exemplary high school history research papers, at least in my experience since 1987, is very poorly funded. Here is Jackson Toby’s description of the funds that The Intel Science Talent Search puts aside for its winners each year, and they don’t even publish the work they find. Instead of $680,000 (doubled) for high school science students, The Concord Review has had only $6,000 in prizes in recent years for a few history students from the U.S. and around the English-speaking world.

Jackson Toby, The Lowering of Higher Education

Santa Barbara, CA: AB-CLIO, 2010, p. 151

“In the science field the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search rewards academic achievement in high school students handsomely. In 2007, 1,705 students from 487 schools in 44 states entered the Intel Science Talent Search; their research usually began years earlier. Each of the 300 students named a finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search receives a $1,000 award [$300,000] for his or her outstanding science research. The top prize is a $100,000 four-year scholarship [$100,000]. The second-place finalist receives a $75,000 scholarship [$75,000], and the third-prize winner gets a $50,000 scholarship [$50,000]. Fourth- through sixth-place finalists each receive a $25,000 scholarship [$75,000]; seventh- through tenth-prize winners each receive a $20,000 scholarship [$80,000].” [$680,000 in awards]  [The Siemens Competition awards are much the same…]

7) Is it possible for parents, librarians, social studies and history teachers to subscribe and to use The Concord Review as an example of either good writing, or good research or both?

We lost $120,000 in support in 2010, so the journal has been online since then. For $40, subscribers get access to 44 exemplary high school papers per year, and I also have all the essays since 1988 available in pdf format for teachers who request a particular paper from the list of issue topics on our site at www.tcr.org. Many students and teachers have praised the effect that seeing these essays has had for student effort and motivation. I am very happy to receive email comments and questions at fitzhugh@tcr.org. David Brooks wrote in the New York Times: “As the classical philosophers understood, examples of individual greatness inspire achievement more reliably than any other form of education.” Letting our high school students see and read the exemplary academic work in history of their peers as published in The Concord Review can do them a real service.

8) Will, I just interviewed Neal McCluskey about the decline in SAT scores and the Writing portion. Are teachers over-focusing and over-emphasizing on all these standardized tests to the detriment of writing?

It seems to me that the current testing mania and with the Common Core are limited to what used to be called Minimal Competency, in this case in basic reading and basic writing.

Neither the testing administrators, nor the Common Core, nor the major foundation supporters of these efforts seems to have an interest in what used to be called the liberal arts, including not only history and literature, but also art, architecture, music and the like. Of course we want all of our students to be minimally competent and too many are not, but why limit all our students to such a low standard? And why drive their reading and writing to such a low level, too? Perhaps one of the reasons the writing tested is so poor is that the prompts are so dumb? I served on the Steering Committed of the NAEP writing test for 2011 (thanks to Diane Ravitch) and at the end of the meetings I wrote this about the expectations for student writing that resulted: “…the writing sought is almost inconceivably superficial, formulaic, sentimental, boring, and bland. It is hard for anyone concerned about writing to understand how these and other groups concerned about ‘Adolescent Literacy’ keep their standards so very low…”

I remain convinced that academic reading and writing are the most dumbed-down parts of our high school curricula, and so I am not at all surprised by the poor showing of too many of our students on measures (such as they are) of their ability to read and write.

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