The End of the High School History Term Paper?

Roundup: Talking About History

Michael Winerip, in the NYT (March 3, 2004):

IN 1987, Will Fitzhugh started The Concord Review, a scholarly publication that printed the best high school history research papers in America. His intent was simple: to recognize students who produced high-quality research, to show teachers and students what could be done, and to thereby raise the standard for high school writing.

On one level, he succeeded brilliantly. In 17 years, he has published 627 student papers in 57 issues of the quarterly, tackling some of history's most challenging questions. In a 6,235-word paper, Rachel Hines of Montgomery High in Rockville, Md., asked: Did Chaim Rumkowski, the Jewish leader of Poland's Lodz ghetto, do more good or harm by cooperating with the Nazis? Aaron Einbond of Hunter High in New York City explored to what extent John Maynard Keynes's economic ideas were truly revolutionary, and to what extent they were borrowed from others.

Jessica Leight of Cambridge Rindge and Latin in Massachusetts wanted to know why Anne Hutchinson suffered so much more at the hands of the Puritans than her brother-in-law, the Rev. John Wheelwright, when both attacked the leadership. Jennifer Shingleton of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., questioned whether Abigail Adams really was a feminist, or was being taken out of 18th-century context by contemporary feminist historians.

Britta Waller of Roosevelt High in Kent, Ohio, wrote about the Ferris wheel."Fascinating," Mr. Fitzhugh says."The guy who invented it died brokenhearted. I tell people, the topic doesn't matter, it's the quality that matters, so a kid learns the joy of scholarship. If you learn what it means to go in depth, you also realize when you're being superficial."

Some of America's best-known historians - Arthur Schlesinger Jr., David McCullough, Shelby Foote - have praised the Review. And the published students - who often include their Review papers with their college applications - have prospered. Seventy-four went on to Harvard, 57 to Yale, 30 to Princeton.

And yet for much of the time, Mr. Fitzhugh has felt like a boatman on the Lewis and Clark expedition, paddling upstream on the Mississippi and making little headway. He fears the high school research paper is on the verge of extinction, shoved aside as students prepare for the five-paragraph essays now demanded on state tests, the SAT II and soon, the SAT."I'm convinced the majority of high school students graduate without reading a nonfiction book cover to cover," he says. Mr. Fitzhugh is offended that the National Endowment for the Humanities sponsors a $5,000 history essay contest with a 1,200-word limit."I have kids writing brilliant 5,000-word papers, and they're not eligible," he says. He is saddened by a letter from the chairman of the history department at Boston Latin, that city's premier high school."Over the past 10 years, history teachers have largely stopped assigning the traditional term papers," Walter Lambert, the chairman, wrote.

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Andrew Haeberlin - 5/17/2006

In the history department at the College I went to school at it was a simple fact of life that all the students who knew how to write a paper their freshman year were the people who had taken university courses (not the "university level" APs, most of which are taught on a level barely above standard high school classes, but actual classes at the local university) and developed their writing habits and styles there.

It's a sad fact, but I learned more from one specific history teacher about how to write a paper than I did from every other instructor I ever had. His key insight? He told me to stop wasting my time puttering around, cranking out five paragraph essays to satiate the local mania for "test winning" papers, take some classes at the Uni. and challenge myself.

This isn't to say that the notorious five paragraph essay has no use what so ever. There is a certain segment of the student population which is never going to study history at an academically advanced level and expecting some of those students to write a 10,000 word term paper would be utter folly. But the fact that some of the best and brightest, the kids who could really shine in a serious academic enviornment, get shunted into AP classes which prepair a person for nothing more than passing a single test on one day is a real shame.

Daniel Sauerwein - 1/30/2006

This is very sad as how are kids going to succeed in college without knowing how to write a proper paper. As an aspiring historian who will someday be teaching these students, I will face a greater "dumbing down" of curriculum to allow these students to get through college in the name of fairness. We need to take standards back a few years and make them tough like they once were and if that means little Johnny or Jenny can't get into college, so be it. The true reward will be reaped with that small initial sacrifice as schools will toughen up curriculum and students will be better prepared for the rigors of college and our society as a whole will be more educated and better for it.