By: Robert Holland
The never-ending quest for magic formulae that universally educate all children brings to mind this lyrical lament from a 1980 Johnny Lee country tune: “I was lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.”
Rarely does anything loveable, or even merely useful, come from wandering the maze of government agencies, huge foundations, textbook publishers, and assorted ed-tech or pedagogical soothsayers. A reviewer of a century’s worth of grandiose schemes, designs, and boondoggles—Common Core being the latest—would be hard-pressed to identify more than a few that have succeeded.
By contrast, a spark of inspiration for helping children can emanate from an individual who has no institutional axe to grind and is willing to sacrifice for the cause.
Will Fitzhugh fits that mold perfectly.
Three decades ago, Fitzhugh quit his job as a history teacher in Concord, Massachusetts, cashed in his small pension, and put all his energies into creating a quarterly journal to be filled with the finest history essays written by high school students. His mission was to show students—and the rest of the world—what they are capable of producing.
Operating without the gargantuan grants that fuel the merchants of ed-biz faddism, The Concord Review has published 1,196 scholarly articles under the bylines of student authors from 45 states and 40 countries. Fitzhugh imposes no arbitrary word limit on submissions. Published essays average 7,500 words, complete with endnotes and bibliography.
The Concord Reviewis the only quarterly journal in the United States devoted exclusively to publishing secondary students’ writing about history. The range of topics is eclectic and the writing is engaging. Here is a small sampling of topics over the past year: “Machine Politics,” “Black-Jewish Relations,” “The Scopes Trial,” “Food Guide Pyramid,” “Coups in Pakistan,” “Sino-Soviet Split,” “Roaring Twenties,” “Chinese Feminism,” “Abraham Lincoln’s Brigade,” “Mussolini’s Vision,” and “Habermas in Korea.”
Fitzhugh’s blog makes plain how The Review’s essayists have justified his confidence in them. Many students have written him to say they reached a point in reading about history that they strongly felt a need to tell people what they had discovered.
In short, as Fitzhugh put it, “reading and writing are inseparable partners.” When motivation springs from knowledge gained, writing can follow a natural progression of writing, reviewing a draft, revising for clarity and correcting omissions, reading for additional content, and rewriting again.
In other words, The Review’s authors exhibit “all the natural things that have always led to good academic writing, whether in history or any other subject.”
Unfortunately, in most high schools, writing is a heavily regulated and restricted process far removed from the ideal of students being able to express something they have learned. Fitzhugh describes the current practice:
“When teaching our students to write, not only are standards set very low in most high schools, limiting students to the five-paragraph essay, responses to a document-based question, or the personal (or college) essay about matters which are often no one else’s business, but we often so load up students with formulae and guidelines that the importance of writing when the author has something to say gets lost in the maze of processes.”
Learn something then write about it. Now there is a novel concept.
Fitzhugh has developed a Page Per Year Plan (and even copyrighted it) that, if ever implemented widely, could lead to substantially increased time devoted to student reading and writing.
His idea is that all public high school seniors would be expected to write a 12-page history research paper. However, that requirement would not just be plopped on them. They would have written an 11-page paper as juniors, a 10-pager as sophomores, and so back down the year-by-year ladder to a 5-page paper in fifth grade, and even a one-pager on a topic other than themselves in the first grade.
With a Page Per Year Plan in place, Fitzhugh figures that “every senior in high school will have learned, for that 12-page paper, more about some topic probably than anyone else in their class knows, perhaps even more than any of their teachers knows about that subject. They will have had in the course of writing longer papers each year, that first taste of being a scholar which will serve them so well in higher education and beyond.”
It is highly doubtful that a government-run school system would ever adopt anything as rigorous, yet sensible, as this page-per-year ladder to writing success. Perhaps there are private-sector innovators including homeschoolers bold enough to give it a try.
Meanwhile, anyone looking to find evidence of a love of writing by inspired students will continue to find it every three months in the pages of The Concord Review.
Robert Holland([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy for The Heartland Institute.