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An Interview with Will Fitzhugh: The UnCommon Core of Learning: Researching and Writing the Term Paper

Jun 5, 2013 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) Will, you have been advocating for the high school term paper for years—why the persistence?

I have worked on The Concord Review for 26 years for several reasons. It pays almost nothing, but we have no children, the house is paid for and my wife has a teacher’s pension. Most of all, I am constantly inspired by the diligent work of high school students from 39 countries on their history research papers. I thought, when I started in 1987, that I would get papers of 4,000, words. But I have been receiving serious readable interesting history research papers of 8,000, 11,000, 13,000 words and more by secondary students, who are often doing independent studies to compete for a place in this unique international journal.

2) I remember with fondness, my term papers in both high school and college—and the feeling of accomplishment I received. Am I alone in this regard?

We did the only study done so far in the United States of the assignment of term paper in U.S. public high schools and about 85% of them never assign even the 4,000-word papers I had hoped for. Most American high school students just don’t do term papers. Teachers say they are too busy, and students are quite reluctant to attempt serious papers on their own, so they arrive in college quite unprepared for college term paper assignments. Many of our authors say that their history papers were the most important and most satisfying work they did in high school.

3) People write and talk about “curriculum issues“—are there any curriculums that you are aware of that focus on library research and writing?

As you know the hottest topic in American education now is “The Common Core Standards,” which are quite explicit in saying over and over that they are “not a curriculum.” They say that nonfiction reading is important, but they recommend no history books, and they say nonfiction writing is important, but they provide no examples, of the kind they might find, for example, in the last 97 issues of The Concord Review. To my mind, the CC initiative is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” as the man said. As you know, by a huge margin, the focus for writing in our schools is on personal and creative writing and the five-paragraph essay, even for high school students.

4) Let’s discuss some of the skills needed to write a good term paper—what would you say they are?

The most important skill or effort that leads to a good term paper is lots and lots of reading. Too often our literacy experts try to force students to write when they have read nothing and really have nothing to say. So the focus becomes the students’ personal life, which is often none of the teachers’ business, and there is little or no effort to have students read history books and learn about something (besides themselves) that would be worth trying hard to write about. Many of our authors learn enough about their topic that they reach a point where they feel that people ought to know about what they have learned—this is great motivation for a good term paper.

5) You have been publishing exemplary high school research papers from around the world for years—how did you get started doing this and why?

I had been teaching for enough years at the public high school in Concord, Massachusetts to earn a sabbatical (1986-1987). That gave me time to read What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know, Horace’s Compromise, Cultural Literacy and some other books and articles that helped me understand that a concern over students’ knowledge of history and their ability to write term papers was not limited to my classroom or even to my school, but was a national issue. I had usually had a few students in my classes who did more work than they had to, and it occurred to me that if I sent out a call for papers (as I did in August, 1987) to every high school in the United States and Canada and 1,500 schools overseas, I might get some first-rate high school history essays sent to me. I did, and I have now been able to publish 1,066 of them in 97 issues of the journal. [Samples at www.tcr.org.] No one wanted to fund it, so I started The Concord Review with all of an inheritance and the principal from my teacher’s retirement.

6) Has the Internet impacted a high school student’s ability to research? Or is it a different kind of research?

I read history books on my iPad and so can high school history students. I also use the Internet to check facts, and so can students. There is a huge variety of original historical material now available on the Web, as everyone knows, but I would still recommend to students who want to do a serious history research paper that they read a few books and as many articles as they can find on their topic. This will make their paper more worth reading and perhaps worth publishing.

7) It seems that getting a paper into your Concord Review almost always guarantees admission to a top notch college or university—am I off on this?

Thirty percent of our authors have been accepted at Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale, but I have to remember that these serious authors doing exemplary papers for my journal are usually also outstanding in many other areas as well. A number of our authors have become doctors as well, but at least at one point in their lives they wrote a great history paper!

8) I was recently on the East Coast and was reading The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. I was astounded by the quality of writing. There are still good writers out there—but do we treasure, promote and encourage good writing?

Those papers can hire a teeny tiny percent of those who want to make a living by their writing, and they provide a great service to the country, but for the vast majority of our high school students, reading and writing are the most dumbed-down parts of their curriculum. Many never get a chance to find out if they could write a serious history paper, because no one ever asks them to try. And remember, we have nationally-televised high school basketball and football games, but no one knows who is published in The Concord Review and they don’t ask to know.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

My greatest complaint these days is that all our EduPundits, it seems, focus their attention on guidelines, standards, principals, teachers, and so on, and pay no attention to the academic work of students. Indiana University recently interviewed 143,000 U.S. high school students, and found that 42.5% do one hour or less a week on homework. But no one mentions that. Our education experts say that the most important variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality (and thus all the attention on selection, training, assessment and firing of teachers). I maintain that the most important variable in student academic achievement is student academic work, to which the experts pay no attention at all. But then, most of them have never been teachers, and so they usually do not know what they are talking about.

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