Yetis, UFOs and Term Papers

by Robert Pondiscio
August 9th, 2011

Update:  Cedar Reiner posts a research paper-length blog post on this from his perspective as a college professor and cognitive scientist.  Stick with it.  The conclusion is worth the wait.

Ask a high school student – any high school student – when they were last required to submit a research paper.  Not a five paragraph essay or a “personal response,” but a paper – an in-depth piece of academic research and original writing, drawing upon deep reading of multiple sources.  Think footnotes.  A bibliography.  The MLA Handbook.  Research papers are the academic equivalent of the Yeti or UFOs: sightings are rare and those who argue for their existence are routinely dismissed as cranks or nuts.  You may be surprised to learn, therefore, that research papers are the sum and symbol of all that ails American education.

You didn’t know? 

Writing in the New York Times, Virginia Heffernan becomes, by my rough calculation, the 18,938th pundit to suggest that the real problem of American education is its adherence to a 19th century model.  What we need, she writes, is a “digital-age upgrade.”   She cites the wholly imaginary “statistic” that 65% of today’s grade school aged kids “may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet.”   Thus, we can’t keep preparing students “for a world that doesn’t exist.”

“Abigail won’t be doing genetic counseling. Oliver won’t be developing Android apps for currency traders or co-chairing Google’s philanthropic division. Even those digital-age careers will be old hat. Maybe the grown-up Oliver and Abigail will program Web-enabled barrettes or quilt with scraps of Berber tents. Or maybe they’ll be plying a trade none of us old-timers will even recognize as work.”

(Psst!  Have a look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the 10 most common occupations for Americans.  Shockingly low-skill, low-pay, and low-tech, isn’t it?   Clearly there are some old-timers who don’t recognize what work looks like right now.  Digital careers?  Tens of millions of Americans are still working with their digits.)

We cannot, Heffernan insists, “keep ignoring the formidable cognitive skills they’re developing on their own.”  Set aside for a moment the curious notion that we should reimagine education around skills kids are developing on their own.   No, what’s really “inhibiting today’s students” is their teachers’ and professors’ insistence that students write papers.  “Semester after semester, year after year, ‘papers’ are styled as the highest form of writing,” she writes. “And semester after semester, teachers and professors are freshly appalled when they turn up terrible.”  Heffernan’s touchstone for her attack on research papers is Now You See It, a “galvanic” book by the MacArthur Foundation’s Cathy N. Davidson, which argues, per Heffernan, against the “industrial-era holdover system that still informs our unrenovated classrooms.”

“Ms. Davidson herself was appalled not long ago when her students at Duke, who produced witty and incisive blogs for their peers, turned in disgraceful, unpublishable term papers. But instead of simply carping about students with colleagues in the great faculty-lounge tradition, Ms. Davidson questioned the whole form of the research paper. “What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school — the term paper — and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?” She adds: ‘What if “research paper” is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?’”

Online blogs directed at peers, Davidson observed by contrast, “exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.”  At Flypaper, Kathleen Porter-Magee, struggling heroically to overcome the handicap of her own industrial-era education, answers with an elegant and persuasive blog post of her own:

“Heffernan seems to have missed her own point. As she implies, we are no better at predicting what today’s elementary students will be doing in twenty years than Hanna-Barbera were at painting what 21st century life would look like in the Jetsons. And so, our job as educators is not hitch our wagons to the latest education fad in response to changing—and often fleeting—technology, but rather to identify the timeless knowledge and skills that all students must master to succeed in any environment.”

Ten years ago, legendary Yeti hunter Will Fitzhugh, the editor of The Concord Review and an unsung hero of American education, oversaw a study of the state of the research paper in U.S. schools.  The results will surprise only digital fetishists who confuse contemporary schools with Dickensian workhouses:  While 95% teachers surveyed believed writing a research term paper is “important” or “very important,” 62% never assigned a paper of 3,000-5,000 words in length; 81% never assign a paper of over 5,000 words.  And that’s ten years ago.  Unless there has been a renaissance of scholarly rigor that I’ve somehow overlooked, I suspect the percentage of 2011 high school graduates who have ever produced a research paper of any length or substance is now a single-digit number.  A small one.

Why?  Writing a research papers, as anyone can tell you, is not an “authentic” learning task.   The average student is already far more likely to “demonstrate mastery” by creating a poster, an advertisement, a blog post, or a series of tweets than writing a research paper. If the future of education means an end to the tyranny of the paper, rest assured the future is already here. The fresh-thinking offered up by Heffernan and others who wring their hands over our anachronistic schools is as least as old as John Dewey, and its triumph is very nearly complete.  Just ask a high school student. 

What Heffernan is offering up, sorry to say, is a blander version of 21st Century skills, which privileges skills over content, and devalues actual academic work.  The sad parade continues.  We talk about rigor and academic achievement while dismissing the legitimate products of scholarship as inauthentic and anachronistic.

“Pardon my age, but if 65 percent of jobs in the future will have new names, they will all still require basic literacy, patience, honesty, responsibility, probably some knowledge of math and science, an ability to listen and to follow instructions, etc. In short, nothing new,” says Fitzhugh via email.  “I don’t forsee the day when ‘witty and incisive blogs’ will be able to take the place of legislation, annual reports, history books, judicial opinions or any  of the other vital tasks of a literate society,” he concludes.


  1. Even students privileged to write term papers are often handicapped by their computers. Digital writing encourages a real laziness of thought, but frequently doesn’t save effort.

    I was shocked as a graduate student, even at a prestigious institution like Oxford University, at the way my fellow students wrote their theses. Even the brightest among us would write up to 100 pages and then DELETE MATERIAL back to the assigned 30-40 page length. What a waste! A few days pondering the best organization for an argument would have saved my peers weeks of effort!

    At my school, I’m notorious as the teacher who makes her students hand write everything. And I remind them that we write in order to learn to think and communicate. Even for students who will never write another academic word after high school, writing and research are valuable exercises in learning to be human.

    Comment by Alison F. Solove — August 9, 2011 @ 3:49 pm

  2. This posting points out part of what is a larger problem in modern American high schools: the very low level of academic achievement. If you doubt this, wherever you live ask a few high school kids who are strong students. 100% of these kids will tell you that other than the students taking accelerated courses (AP, IB, or honors courses), most kids are just marking time and accomplishing nothing meaningful. Bring up the same topic with foreign exchange students, and 100% of them say the same thing.

    Sad to say, most of the education establishment isn’t really bothered by this dismal academic story. Genuine learning is far down the list of priorities, much behind higher salaries and the solvency of pension systems. A majority of parents is also complicit in this culture of time-wasting non-achievement; high school is a no-additional-cost-to-parents babysitting/warehousing service. As long as the high school hands out diplomas for just showing up, most parents don’t complain. I’m not being cynical – the anecdotal evidence to support these statements is abundant everywhere across the United States.

    A great irony is that the more left-wing western European countries – so admired by liberal teachers’ groups – don’t shoehorn every last kid into high school courses that they’ll never benefit from. They don’t make a fetish out of every kid sitting in academic classrooms until age 18.

    As to the main point made in this posting, here’s a little real world perspective. For most professional jobs, good writing skills are extremely valuable and can distinguish a skilled writer from his peers. My first career as a federal bank regulator required a lot of report writing, typically 20-50 pages in length. The ability to write well and edit other people’s writing was a great way to move ahead much faster than one’s peer group.

    Comment by John Webster — August 9, 2011 @ 5:17 pm

  3. Here, also, is yet more evidence that our society no longer agrees on what “genuine learning” is–assuming it ever did. To repeat my two cents from yesterday, it’s time for the public schools in this country to diversify rather than homogenize. Let some schools be classical and rigorous for those parents who still value such notions, and let others be anti-intellectual, “21st-Century Skills” diploma mills. Views like Ms. Heffernan’s are only going to gain more traction as the digital era progresses. When the discussion reaches the point where we are actually considering abolishing the research paper in the secondary grades, then the time for compromise has come and gone. Let the Balkanizing of American public education begin.

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — August 9, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

  4. Many of the best blogs I come across are those by individuals who are published authors, current or former journalists, wonks at think tanks, and/or people who hold graduate degrees (who presumably had to write a thesis/dissertation in order to earn those degrees). You know, people who’ve had a fair amount of practice with traditional writing.

    Most Gen Y’ers I know don’t take the time to write full blog posts but rather limit their thoughts to Twitter, Facebook status updates, etc. or dispense with the written word entirely and just use videos.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — August 9, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

  5. This is a question as much as a comment. Is anyone else troubled that this digital media push is just the latest chapter in the postmodern/deconstruction/critical theory assault on academics in general and objective standards generally?

    New name, different tactics, same strategy. It goes to the very essence of whether the purpose of education, K-12 and higher ed, is about the transmission of cultural knowledge of what works?

    Or is education now primarily about changing who students are and what they value from the inside out? About radically changing the nature of our society and what we value going forward?

    With DeMan, Foucault, Derrida, Althusser no longer acceptable sources to cite, are professors using the rise of this new tool, a computer, to pretend that access to its archives and memory are an adequate substitute for factual information and practice in analysis within an individual’s own neural circuitry?

    And coincidentally that “this is a new era” emphasis gets us back to the subjective, emotional, anything goes assault from the 1960s and 1970s?

    Comment by StudentofHistory — August 10, 2011 @ 7:27 am

  6. Student,

    Is it an assault on academics? I don’t believe so.

    Students who ARE well grounded academically should be much better navigators in this digital media push? It should make them able to find answers to their more sophisticated queries easier, faster, and more thoroughly. I don’t really see it as threatening but something that should be celebrated for making all learners more versatile.

    Wish I had access to it growing up. I could have gone even faster in school, as difficult as that may be to wrap one’s brain around. Paul Hoss, even faster? How could that be? Oh, it be, baby. It be (Elaine Benis).

    Comment by Paul Hoss — August 10, 2011 @ 6:28 pm

  7. Paul,

    It is if that is all there is. Secondly, Davidson is part of the crew recruited by Stanley Fish to radicalize the Duke English department in the early days of the Canon Wars.

    She now teaches a graduate English class where part of their assignments are to go on wikipedia and make sure postings have the right attitude and reflect critical theory priorities.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — August 10, 2011 @ 9:20 pm

  8. [...] Pondiscio adds a delightfully snarky reply, beginning by pointing out that “65% of future jobs” is a silly Potemkin number and [...]

    Pingback by Research papers vs blogs: Defending “antiquated” teaching from 21st century education reform | Cedar's Digest — August 10, 2011 @ 10:20 pm

  9. Robert-

    Thanks for linking to Cedar Reiner’s response.

    One more point to be made has to do with the notoriously weak definition of research commonly used in education. If it is written by someone in the field and is published, it is research. Reiner writes a nice reasoned, supportive response.

    Because Davidson is a professor, it does not matter if her assertions have any validity for purposes of being introduced into classrooms as the latest research. In fact you can write with the intent of masking assertions that would destroy academics if actually implemented and that’s still treated as valid research. After all, if everyone is weak, we can close the achievement gap.

    Davidson is the author of “In the Aftermath of a Social Disaster” in January 2007 justifying signing on to the notorious Duke 88 faculty letter prejudging the Duke lacrosse players. Her reasoning was poor there and it is poor in her digital assertions. The social disaster is that her poppycock will nevertheless be cited by education professors and implemented in classrooms without any obligation to justify it.

    Davidson seems to be one of those professors who believes if everyone cannot think equally well, no one may. School and university thus become more of a chaining process than a freeing one.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — August 11, 2011 @ 12:56 pm

  10. Student,

    This Davidson character sounds like a pip, a LDH clone. And at Duke, no less.

    I don’t see how marginal students will survive in the digital media push. Hack, many won’t even know where to begin looking for information when they need it. That’s why, in and of itself, I’m not concerned this will be able to carry students through school. They’ll still have to acquire much “stuff” along the way.

    “The social disaster is that her poppycock will nevertheless be cited by education professors and implemented in classrooms without any obligation to justify it.” I learned a long time ago, Student, this is the case with many in our subjective profession. A few names spring immediately to mind; Alfie Kohn, Monty Neill, Deborah Meier, Valerie Strauss (WaPo “Answer Sheet”), Jonathan Kozol, and let’s not forget LDHammond, etc., etc. Not only is the poppycock of this cohort cited, these folks actually have a following, a misguided following to be sure, but a following nonetheless.


    Comment by Paul Hoss — August 11, 2011 @ 5:55 pm

  11. [...] Research papers went out of fashion long ago in high schools, points out Robert Pondiscio, who quotes Will Fitzhugh of the Concord Review. He also links to a thoughtful post on All Things Education by Cedar Riener, a college psychology professor, who assigns both long research papers and short responses. [...]

    Pingback by What Elroy Jetson needs to learn — Joanne Jacobs — August 12, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

  12. Count me as a follower of the writers whom you name, Mr. Hoss.

    Comment by Harold — August 13, 2011 @ 2:22 pm

  13. My son had to do several research papers while in high school (AP US and AP English), and the school I taught at last year required all students to write one as a final project. Conversely, I never had to do one when I was in school, and learned them easily and with little fuss in college.

    Color me unimpressed with the so-called importance of research papers. Most students will never be able to do one in any real sense, so they are just wasting time better spent honing their ability to express their thoughts in shorter chunks (paragraphs, expository essays). And any student bright enough to write one will be able to do it just fine when he or she gets to college. The students who can’t do it in college never would have been able to do it in high school anyway.

    That doesn’t mean I agree with Heffernan; I just don’t see the big todo about research papers in high school. Teaching writing is important. The form is not.

    Comment by Cal — August 13, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

  14. Research papers remain, to my mind, a perfectly fine–and completely authentic–student work product. But I’m not merely defending research papers as legitimate academic work as much as pointing out how ridiculous it is to use papers as a symbol of what’s wrong with education. Given their relative rarity it is roughly akin to blaming square-rigger ships for the slowdown of the U.S. economy.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 13, 2011 @ 4:22 pm

  15. @Cal:

    I would think the big to-do is about college readiness, a professed goal of most, if not all, public school districts. Students are certainly not going to master the form at that age (hell, I’m not sure most college graduates ever master it), but shouldn’t they have some practice and familiarity with it before their first day of college? I’m not getting the difference between your position and Heffernan’s.

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — August 13, 2011 @ 6:07 pm

  16. Ask a high school student – any high school student – when they were last required to submit a research paper.

    Actually, my daughter wrote two last year for her 9th grade math class (public high school in CA — though an intensive class).

    Comment by Rachel — August 22, 2011 @ 9:52 pm

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