An Interview with WIll Fitzhugh: Reflections on Volume 22

May 17, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Will, this seems as good a time as any to reflect back on Four Covers V22-1—but what thoughts enter your mind as you reflect back on these four volumes?

For a unique journal that started with a post office box and in my bedroom in 1987, I am always a bit taken aback at the distant places these 44 essays in Volume 22 have come from: for example—Singapore, Chicago, Lexington, MA, Rochester, MN, Seoul, Republic of Korea, Sandy, UT, Raleigh, NC, Brooklyn, NY, and so on. We have now published submissions from 46 states and 39 other countries. Harvard College did not achieve that level of geographical distribution in its first 25 years, for sure.

2) In your opinion, since you have been doing this for many years—has high school writing gotten better or worse?

It is hard for me to speak about high school writing in general. Really no one seems interested enough to study academic writing at the secondary level. We did the only study in 2002 and as far as I know nothing has been done since. There is tremendous pressure to dumb down writing in the high schools, almost irresistible pressure, but then there are the few students who send papers to us. Those papers have been getting longer, more serious, and better-written over the years, partly in response to the work of their peers that we have published, I like to think.

3) Will, I am constantly impressed by the vast array of historical pieces these students research and write about—do they simply have good teachers or prompting parents ? Or do you suggest topics?

Unlike all student writing contests and competitions, we say nothing about topics, except that they should be historical (and we think that includes all of the past and all of human activity). Serious high school students of history, I have found, have far-ranging curiosity, just like scholars who are older, and we like to encourage them to pursue those questions as far as they can, with as much research as they can, before they write the academic papers they submit to us. I am amazed at the variety of subjects they choose, as well as by the diligence with which they look into them.

4) I believe that every high school in America should have The Concord Review in their library—about how many libraries subscribe—and how many receive it via the Internet?

If every public high school library in just the United States had one subscription, as you and the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., have suggested, The Concord Review’s future would be assured and I could go out to pasture and die in peace. But librarians have to rely on requests by teachers, and almost no high school history teachers in this country assign serious research papers to their students, so why would they want exemplary papers for their students to read? They don’t ask librarians to get The Concord Review, so 21,700 of our public high school librarians don’t order it, and the future of this unique effort is constantly at risk as a result.

5) You get submissions from literally around the world—give us a perspective on this.

Of course, the first essays in 1987 came in mostly from the United States, but there were some from Canada. By now, we have published exemplary history papers (1,022 of them) from Nepal, Tasmania, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Ireland, Finland, Jakarta, Madagascar, and so on (38 other countries), as well as from 46 of our states. Now we are getting more and more great papers from Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore, and Yokohama, and more and more Asian students from the United States are submitting papers too. Math and Science may still rule in East Asia, but more and more students are thinking they need to learn some history and improve their English fluency as well. But, as a monolingual person, I am always impressed when I get a first-rate (Emerson Prize-winning) paper in English from a high school student whose first language is Mandarin…

6) What would you say is the most esoteric topic that has been written about ?

Female infanticide in India and China was the subject of an Emerson Prize-winning paper from Arkansas recently, and serious papers on all sorts of topics, like the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union, or the Empress Theodora of Byzantium, or the impact of Napoleon on nationalist sentiments in Croatia, are among those that continue to surprise me. These students are writing serious paper in high school on subjects that were no part of my high school education, for sure.

7) This is a futile question—but how many assistants and secretaries do you have ? ( some people think I have a dozen working for me ! )

My current salary is $18K a year, and has averaged perhaps $12K over the last 25 years, so not only do I not have any help, but who in the heck will want to carry on my work when I go to my dirt nap (as the soldiers say)? I will be 76 in August, and I do feel sad to see the foundation billions going where they are going, and to contemplate the death of the only journal now in the world for the academic papers of secondary students (in any subject area). It should be supported, IMHO, not just to recognize and celebrate excellent academic work (and what’s wrong with that?) but to continue to challenge and inspire the HS peers of our authors to read a history book, do some research, and attempt a 6,000-word history research paper of their own.

8) What is your web site where people can get more information?

Our website, which has now some 673,000 visitors from more than 100 countries, including Oman, Senegal, Latvia, Vietnam, Malawi, Brunei, Iran, Slovakia and Libya…is at www.tcr.org. My email is fitzhugh@tcr.org, and if someone contacts me, I am very likely to send them the Emerson Prize-winning papers from this year and some other stuff. Subscriptions are $40 a year, and they do help us to keep going.

9) What have I neglected to ask ?

I wish someone would explain to me how and when the decision was made that our secondary students were incapable of reading a single complete history book in high school. Our authors find and read history books on their own, but schools do not assign them. On top of that, how did our high school students’ writing get dumbed down to the level of the 500-word college “essay,” and other examples of personal writing for which they need to read nothing or to learn about anything beyond themselves? I didn’t think a whole lot about this in my ten years as a high school teacher in Concord, MA, but now, after 25 years of seeing what kind of serious academic work high school students can do (and they have raised our standards year after year, not me), I can’t believe that we continue to insist on such low standards for the academic work of high school students in the United States. Of course, there are teachers out there who want their students to do as much serious academic work as possible, but there is not a large number of them, sad to say. And the kids pay dearly, for a long time after they leave our high schools, for the poor preparation in reading and writing which we now give them.

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