Will Fitzhugh’s crusade to get high school history teachers to assign research papers to allegedly college-prep students made the New York Times.
“Most kids don’t know how to write, don’t know any history, and that’s a disgrace,” Mr. Fitzhugh said. “Writing is the most dumbed-down subject in our schools.”
His mood brightens, however, when talk turns to the occasionally brilliant work of the students whose heavily footnoted history papers appear in his quarterly, The Concord Review. Over 23 years, the review has printed 924 essays by teenagers from 44 states and 39 nations.
Publishing in the Concord Review is the equivalent of winning a national math competition, says William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions.
In the most recent issue, a senior from Montclair, N.J., writes of Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure as a New York police commissioner; a New Orleans student profiles a 19th-century transcendentalist philosopher; and a senior from Seoul documents the oppression of Korean residents on a North Pacific island.
Fitzhugh started teaching history at a Massachusetts high school in 1977. Already, the long research paper was out of fashion. But a sophomore’s well-researched, 28-page paper on America’s strategic nuclear balance with the Soviet Union persuaded him he hadn’t been asking students to work hard enough. In 1987, he started the review. it’s won praise but little financing.
Most essays come from students at private schools. Few public school history teachers assign long research papers, Fitzhugh says.
He recently asked the head of a history department at a New Jersey high school if he assigned research papers.
“Not anymore,” Mr. Fitzhugh quoted the teacher as saying. “I have my kids do PowerPoint presentations.” Mr. Fitzhugh said he scoffs when some educators argue that research papers have lost relevance because Google has put so much knowledge just keystrokes away.
Researching a history paper, he said, 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.
In 2002, the Shanker Institute, a research group associated with the American Federation of Teachers, funded a nationwide survey of public school history teachers. While 95 percent said assigning long research papers was important, 80 percent said they never did because they had too little time to read and grade them.