In Praise of The Concord Review

by Robert Pondiscio
January 10th, 2011

“Most kids don’t know how to write, don’t know any history, and that’s a disgrace,” says the redoubtable Will Fitzhugh. “Writing is the most dumbed-down subject in our schools.” 

He should know.  Since 1987, Fitzhugh has published The Concord Review, the only academic journal to publish history papers written by high school students:  924 of them penned by teenagers from 44 states and 39 nations, according to the New York Times, which gives Fitzhugh a long-overdue star turn.  But as the Times points out, Fitzhugh’s labor of love is falling on hard times.  The Review’s reputation, writes Sam Dillon, has always been bigger than its revenues.

Last year, income from 1,400 subscriptions plus charitable donations totaled $131,000 — about $5,400 short of total expenses, even though Mr. Fitzhugh paid himself only $18,000. This year, with donors less generous in the recession, Mr. Fitzhugh had to stop printing hard copies of the review, publishing its most recent issues only online, at tcr.org.

Fitzhugh tells the story of a history department chair at one school who no longer assigns research papers, but has students do PowerPoint presentations instead.  “Researching a history paper, Fitzhugh observes, “is not just about accumulating facts, but about developing a sense of historical context, synthesizing findings into new ideas, and wrestling with how to communicate them clearly — a challenge for many students, now that many schools do not require students to write more than five-paragraph essays.”

Fitzhugh is clearly on to something.  There is broad agreement that one of the competencies crucial for college success is the academic writing.  So if the ability to produce a good research paper is so important, why does The Concord Review struggle to keep its head above the water?  The Times suggests Fitzhugh’s “cantankerous” personality is an issue.  Or perhaps some educators see it as a showcase only for an elite.

“All but four of the 22 essays published in the two most recent issues, for example, were by private school students.  But it was not always so. In the review’s first decade, more than a third of the essays were from public school students. Mr. Fitzhugh said he would love to publish more from public school students, but does not get many exemplary submissions.

“It’s not my fault,” Fitzhugh said. “They’re not doing the work.”

You call that cantakerous?  If so, give us more cantankerous educators.  Lots more.

6 Comments »

  1. [...] In Praise of The Concord Review « The Core Knowledge Blog. [...]

    Pingback by In Praise of The Concord Review « The Core Knowledge Blog « Parents 4 democratic Schools — January 10, 2011 @ 11:21 am

  2. This brings to mind the high school English teacher whom I queried about sentence diagramming. “Oh, Mr. Meyer,” she giggled. “That’s so old-fashioned.”

    Comment by Peter Meyer — January 10, 2011 @ 11:46 am

  3. I enjoyed the article on Will Fitzhugh.

    If students are to write research essays, they will have to learn to focus for extended periods of time. They will have to learn to persist when confused, bored, or frustrated.

    In Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov cites the “Age Plus Two” formula for determining a student’s optimal attention span. At that rate, there will be no history papers, no serious books read, no playing of musical instruments at a high level.

    Focus doesn’t have to be maniacal. There is “down time” even within focused work. You’re reading something: you pause to think about it. You’re in a discussion: you say something and then listen to others. You’re at the library, doing research: some of that time is spent walking up and down the stairs, locating the books in the musty shelves, or coming upon books by surprise. When practicing a musical piece, you can take a moment to shake your arms and shoulders so they don’t get too tense. Even when listening to a lecture, it is possible to let the mind wander a little, to think about a point that came up.

    But all of that requires a degree of tranquility, and tranquility is a big part of what’s missing. Even in schools that are praised for their focus and high standards, kids are kept active at every moment. Nothing is left to chance. The idea of sitting still and thinking is unheard of. Why? Because if it were not all spelled out like that, kids would lose control. This is a huge problem, and instead of addressing it head-on, schools expect teachers to cater to it.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — January 10, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

  4. @ Diana — great comments.

    My question as a parent is how in the world did education ever get to this point and why? If kids are not writing research papers in middle and high school (much less not studying history) how will they be ready for college research papers? Why has American education been so dumbed down and why did parents and educators allow this to happen? Really sad…

    Comment by tim-10-ber — January 10, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

  5. That’s the role of these state K-16 councils and now the MOUs with state public colleges and universities that are a part of both the SBAC and PARCC Common Core assessment applications.

    The assumption is that these relationships are a good thing for K-12 because they help ensure that what goes on in school will be preparatory for an academic college experience.

    No. In practice they change the nature of what colleges can ask of students to the output of the public K-12 system. So the answer is that the colleges will also quit requiring such a research paper.

    I have studied our state K-16 council and its actions seemed antithetical to what would produce students with the requisite academic knowledge and skills. It made no sense until I realized who John Goodlad was and how he wanted, as he has written about repeatedly, to use the schools to change the social, political, and economic structure of American society.

    If a state or school district hires people from his National Network for Educational Renewal, no one should be surprised that the emphasis is on affective behavior of students, not academic knowledge and skills.

    The answer is that busy parents and taxpayers take words at face value and do not pay attention to the implementation of reforms until there is an unambiguous bad outcome. Then there is a cry for reform and the same failed ideas are repackaged with a more palatable name.

    Doesn’t Balanced Literacy or Guided Reading just sound far more desirable than Look-Say, Miscue Analysis, Psycholinguistics, or Whole Language?

    Nomenclature-the real reason the reading wars went dormant. If course renorming the verbal SAT helped too.

    Comment by Student of History — January 10, 2011 @ 3:38 pm

  6. It was great to read Fitzhugh again. We can reinterpret old-fashioned wisdom, but excellence like his doesn’t go out of style.

    Comment by john thompson — January 11, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

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