History Books

Apr 10, 2012 by

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review –
I majored in English literature at Harvard, and had such wonderful professors as B.J. Whiting for Chaucer, Alfred Harbage for Shakespeare, Douglas Bush for Milton, Walter Jackson Bate for Samuel Johnson, and Herschel Baker for Tudor/Stuart Drama. In my one year at Cambridge after graduation, I had the benefit of lectures by Clive Staples Lewis, F.R. Leavis, Joan Bennett, and R.T.H. Redpath.
But in high school and in college I didn’t read any history books and I didn’t think twice about it. Many years later, when I was asked to teach United States History at the high school in Concord, Massachusetts, I panicked. I read Samuel Eliot Morison’s Oxford History of the American People to get started and I have been reading history books ever since (thirty years), but I never knew enough history to be as good a history teacher as my students deserved.
Since 1987, (I left teaching in 1988) I have been the editor of The Concord Review, the only journal in the world for the academic papers of secondary students, and we have now published 1,022 history research papers by high school students from 46 states and 38 other countries. This has only increased my understanding that high school students should be not only encouraged to read complete history books (as I never was in school) but assigned them as well. It is now my view that unless students in our high schools get used to reading at least one complete history book each year, they will not be as well prepared for the books on college nonfiction reading lists as they should be.
In addition, as adherents to the ideas of E.D. Hirsch know well, understanding what one reads depends on the prior knowledge of the reader, and by reading history books our high schools students will learn more history and be more competent to read difficult nonfiction material, including more history books, in college.
When I discuss these thoughts, even with my good friends in the education world, I find a strange sort of automatic reversion to the default. When I want to talk about reading nonfiction books, suddenly the conversation is about novels. Any discussion of reading nonfiction in the high schools always, in my experience, defaults to talk of literature. It seems virtually impossible to anyone discussing reading to relax the clutches of the English Departments long enough even to consider that a history book might make good reading material for our students, too. Try it sometime and see what I mean.
I realize that most Social Studies and History Departments have simply given up on having students read a history book, even in those few cases where they may have tried in the past. They are almost universally content, it seems, to leave the assignment of books (and too much of the writing as well) entirely in the hands of their English Department colleagues.
One outcome of this, in my view, is that even when the Common Core people talk about the need for more nonfiction, it is more than they can manage to dare to suggest a list of complete history books for kids to read. So we find them suggesting little nonfiction excerpts and short speeches to assign, along with menus, brochures, and bus schedules for the middle schoolers. Embarrassing.
Nevertheless, if asked, what history books would I suggest? Everyone is afraid to mention possible history books if they are not about current events, or civics, or some underserved population, for fear of a backlash against the whole idea of history books.
But I will offer these: Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough for Freshmen, 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 in high school.
Obviously there are thousands of other good history books, and students should be free to read any of these as they work on their Extended History Essays or the very new Capstone Essays the College Board is beginning to start thinking about. And of course I do realize that some history took place before 1620 and even in countries other than our own, but these books are good ones, and if students read them they will actually learn some history, but perhaps more important, they will learn that reading a real live nonfiction history book is not beyond their reach. I dearly wish I had learned that when I was in high school.
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