An Interview with Will Fitzhugh: Reading Resolutions for 2013.

Jan 6, 2013 by

NewYearsResolutions_main_0Inasmuch as your field of endeavor is reading—what are your resolutions regarding your reading for 2013?

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Will, at this time of year, everyone is either making New Year’s resolutions or breaking them or reviewing them.

Inasmuch as your field of endeavor is reading—what are your resolutions regarding your reading for 2013?

Senator John McCain is three weeks younger than I am, but he has read all six volumes of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, while I am still only halfway through volume three! I recently read Ron Chernow’s fine biography of Alexander Hamilton (Europe badly needs a man like that now, and we were very lucky to have him when we did). I am also reading Francis Fukayama’s The Origins of Political Order, which was given to me by one of our authors who was an Emerson Prize winner from Hong Kong, and is now at Stanford. I have read several biographies of George Washington, but I want to get started on Ron Chernow’s version before too long. I am also reading William Makepeace Thackery’s Penndennis again (a favorite), so I have not completely stopped reading good literature.

2) Now, you have discussed, for several years, the importance of reading history books—fiction as well as non fiction?

Or should I say non-fiction as well as fiction—which is more important and why?

For some reason, in our schools, the English departments have been given hegemony (pardon the expression) over reading and writing. So the reading is of novels, plays, poetry, etc., and the writing is personal, creative, the five-paragraph essay, and now the 500-word “college essay.” Most of our History and Social Studies Departments have been happy to leave reading and writing to the English people, so most of our students, even in high school, never read a single complete history book, and they don’t write an Extended Essay either, unless they are in an International Baccalaureate program. Of course, this makes them poorly prepared, as their professors incessantly report, to read nonfiction books or do research papers when they get to college. The Common Core is talking about nonfiction now, but most of their suggestions seem fairly short or superficial to me.

3) There is some guy named Bill O’ Reilly who has co-authored some books on Presidential Assasinations.

I have read one, but not the other, but have you had a chance to read/review Killing Lincoln or Killing Kennedy ? I haven’t read either of those, but I have been interested to see how many media people now seem to be ambitious to be historians, and lots of new biographies of Founding Fathers and others have now appeared by people who used to be, or still are, network anchors or editors. In addition, the works of authors such as David McCullough, who was an English major at Yale, continue to be very popular. Too much of professional history, in my view, has confined itself to topics of class, race and gender at the college level, but some historians continue to write about politics, economics, and military history, and the public seems grateful to them.

4) Some books have been written to review periods of history in the past—what are some suggestions for high school students?

David Steiner, former Commissioner of Education in New York State recently said at a Pioneer Institute panel in Boston that history is now so politically toxic that most politicians don’t want to touch it. This may be why the Common Core suggestions are so weak on history. There are hundreds of great history books that high school students could and should read from, learn from, and enjoy, but just to break the ice, I usually suggest these, as a minimum, to be assigned: Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough for Freshman, Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer for Sophomores, Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson for Juniors, and The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough for Seniors. These are all from U.S. History, but I do think it is important for our high school students to read the history of other and perhaps more distant periods and peoples, and they can do some of that on their own.

5) I recently read Power Ambition and Glory by Steve Forbes and John Prevas—about Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Augustus and a few others.

In terms of leaders, and learning about leaders, what would you suggest?

David Brooks wrote, in a review of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers in the New York Times: “As the classical philosophers understood, examples of individual greatness inspire achievement more reliably than any other form of education.” When I sent this quote to the Dean of the School of Education at Boston University, he emailed me back: “The myth of individual greatness is a myth!” (sic) It is hard to think of a parallel to something as dumb and destructive as this, but imagine if we insisted on showing on television only examples of athletes who stumbled and failed at what they were trying to do. Of course in sports we try to put examples of excellence before our athletes and I think we should do the same thing when we teach our students history. There are mistakes to learn from, of course, although even those should be studied before students make snap judgments, but we should certainly offer them “examples of individual greatness” often as well.

6) Most teachers I know, complain about being overworked and overwhelmed. Why in your mind is it important to get kids reading the right stuff, and perhaps more importantly writing about the material they have integrated and synthesized?

Of course teachers are overwhelmed, especially those with the crazy load of five classes with 30 kids in each. Even when students are well-behaved that is a terrific challenge. When they are not,  it is no wonder so many teachers burn right out. But I also think, when it comes to reading and writing, teachers take too much on themselves, feeling they have to micromanage them. If they can persuade students that reading nonfiction books and writing serious research papers are in the students’ best interest, they may find that the students do most of the work themselves. We have a situation in which our average teen spends 53 hours a week with electronic entertainment media, but we should ask them to take some of that time for reading books and writing papers.

7) Let’s talk about The Concord Review—what have you tried to accomplish with this journal, if you will?

When I was on sabbatical from teaching history at the high school in Concord, Massachusetts, it occurred to me that I usually had a few students who did more than they had to on their history papers, and it seemed reasonable to imagine that there were many of their peers in the English-speaking world who might be doing the same. So in 1987 I started a quarterly journal (The Concord Review) to collect them. There were two goals: to find and publish exemplary history research papers by high school students, and to distribute them to challenge and inspire their peers to take their reading and writing for history more seriously. I did not expect some of the wonderful 8,000, 10,000 and 15,000-word papers they have now sent me, and I have been thrilled to get letters from students saying that indeed they were inspired and challenged by the work of their peers. But I have had almost no success with funding and almost no teachers of history have seen fit to subscribe to the journal, to keep it going and to show their students.

8) How long has it been in existence, and students from how many nations have gotten published?

Thanks very much for asking. We have now been able to publish 95 issues, with 1,044 exemplary serious history research papers (average 6,000 words) by high school students from 46 states and 38 other countries. Lately we have been getting more and more very good papers from students in Hong Kong, South Korea, and Singapore, which is impressive, considering that for most of them, English is their second language.

9) I still remember a paper I did about ” The Sun King ” and the Professor who encouraged me to write about Louis XIV—Walter Rauch. Why is it important for students to delve into some period of history or some event or some historical person in depth?

Victor Henningsen, former head of history at Phillips Academy, Andover, once told me that his students usually forget the questions on the AP History exam, but they all remember their research paper topics—and so does he. History papers have at least two important benefits. They require students to learn something in depth about an event, person, or period in history, and they allow students to discover that reading a long history book and writing a serious paper are not beyond their ability. Both of these are a great help in college, where they will encounter both nonfiction books and term papers.

10) What have I neglected to ask?

I remain puzzled by the anti-intellectualism and the flight from history and from serious reading and writing in our high schools. I only wish that more students would have the chance to see that some of their peers are actually taking history, reading and writing, and in fact their own intellectual life, very seriously indeed, whether the schools are asking them to do so or not.

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