Education News, Houston, Texas
Philologisticalistic Experts (HS English Departments)
July 30, 2015 by Will Fitzhugh EducationViews Contributor
When it comes to Words, our High School English Departments are the Rulers. They dominate reading and writing, partly because the other departments—including the History and other Social Studies departments—don’t want to assign book reports or term papers and they certainly don’t want to read and grade them.
The English Word Experts are supported in this by the K-12 Literacy World, which never saw a student history research paper they could not ignore. Everywhere you look, reading and writing mean fiction, and for fiction, the Literacy World is adamant that the responsibility for that belongs to English (English Language Arts) Departments.
College professors and employers, with near unanimity, complain about the nonfiction reading, research, and writing abilities of the young people they work with. Talking to the schools and/or the Literacy World about their concerns is just exactly like talking to a dead phone. They cannot hear what they are being told.
Students are not lobbying, in most cases, for the chance to write a serious 5,000-6,000-word term paper, and only later will they face the consequences of their lack of preparation.
Since 1987, The Concord Review has published 106 issues, with 1,165 history research papers by secondary students from 44 states and 40 other countries. The average length of the eleven papers in the Winter issue last Fall was 7,500 words, with endnotes and bibliography. Some of those papers came from International Baccalaureate schools, which still require an Extended Essay for the full Diploma. Some came from private schools, where faculty (and parents) still expect students to write at least one serious term paper before college.
Many of the papers lately have been from an Independent Study, or from Summer programs, like the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute and the TCR Summer Program for high school students. But in general, our public high schools, in my experience, even including an exam school like Boston Latin School, not only do not assign serious term papers, they also do not even want students to see the exemplary work that has been published by their peers, so that they cannot be inspired by them to work harder on reading history and on writing research papers themselves.
Thanks to the Web, more and more students are finding such examples anyway, and they take advantage of them. (e.g. www.tcr.org) One example of hundreds:
“Thank you so much for publishing my essay on the Irish Ladies’ Land League in the Spring issue of The Concord Review. I am honored that my writing was chosen to appear alongside such thoughtful work in your journal.
“When a former history teacher first lent me a copy of The Concord Review, I was inspired by the careful scholarship crafted by other young people. Although I have always loved history passionately, I was used to writing history papers that were essentially glorified book reports. A week before a paper was due, I would visit the local university library, check out all available books on my assigned topic and write as articulate a summary as possible. Such assignments are a useful strategy for learning to build a coherent argument, but they do not teach students to appreciate the subtleties and difficulties of writing good history. Consequently, few students really understand how history is constructed.
“As I began to research the Ladies’ Land League, I looked to The Concord Review for guidance on how to approach my task. At first, I did check out every relevant book from the library, running up some impressive fines in the process, but I learned to skim bibliographies and academic databases to find more interesting texts. I read about women’s history, agrarian activism and Irish nationalism, considering the ideas of feminist and radical historians alongside contemporary accounts.
“Gradually, I came to understand the central difficulty of writing history: how do you resurrect, in words, events that took place in a different place and time? More importantly, how do you resurrect the past only using the words of someone else? In the words of Carl Becker,
History in this sense is story, in aim always a true story; a story that employs all the devices of literary art (statement and generalization, narration and description, comparison and comment and analogy) to present the succession of events in the life of man, and from the succession of events thus presented to derive a satisfactory meaning.
“Flipping through my note cards, the ideas began to fit themselves together in my mind. I was not certain, but there was an excitement in being forced to think rigorously; in wrestling with difficult problems I knew I could not entirely solve. Writing about the Ladies’ Land League, I finally understood and appreciated the beautiful complexity of history.
“In short, I would like to thank you not only for publishing my essay, but for motivating me to develop a deeper understanding of history. I hope that The Concord Review will continue to fascinate, challenge and inspire young historians for years to come.”
Emma Curran Donnelly Hulse
[North Central High School, Indianapolis, Indiana
and Columbia University]
Let’s do make an effort to free our high school students from the English Department/Fiction-Only Monopoly, and allow them to be inspired, by the serious academic expository writing of their peers, to attempt real term papers themselves, before they go on, as most now do, to find themselves both unprepared and a Literacy Problem for their professors and their future employers.