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The Making Of A Relic

By Will Fitzhugh — March 01, 2002 7 min read
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History research papers once helped teens develop analytical skills. But today’s classes would rather write fiction.

It seems likely that the history research paper at the high school level is now an endangered species. Focus on creative writing, fear of plagiarism, fascination with PowerPoint presentations, and lack of planning time have been joined by a notable absence of concern about term papers in virtually all the work on state standards. As a result, far too many American high school students never get the chance to do the reading or writing that a serious history paper requires. They then enter college with no experience in writing papers, to the continual frustration of their professors. And the employers who later hire them—the Ford Motor Co., for example—have had to institute writing classes to ensure that these people are able to produce readable reports, memos, and the like.

A few years ago, a survey of state English and social studies standards by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation showed that term papers are, indeed, ignored. The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Standards for Success program, with its focus on high school and college articulation of standards and expectations, likewise includes no term papers. Neither has the American Diploma Project in Washington, D.C., working to define academic expectations of high schools, colleges, and employers, yet found a place in its deliberations for history research papers. One problem for these groups and others, of course, is that serious term papers cannot be assessed in a one-hour objective test. But their impact on students— and the consequences of never having done one—can be incalculable.

In the early 1980s, when I was teaching American history to high school sophomores in Concord, Massachusetts, each of my students had to write a biographical paper on a U.S. president. One student chose John F. Kennedy, and I lent him a copy of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s A Thousand Days. The boy took a look at the rather large book and told me, “I can’t read this.” I said, “Yes, you can,” and eventually, he was able to finish it. Five or six years later, out of the blue, I got a call from the student. He was now a junior at Yale and wanted to thank me for “making him” read Schlesinger’s tome. It was the first serious work of nonfiction he had ever read, and being able to get through it had done something for his self-confidence. Of course, he was the one who’d forced himself to read the book, but the anecdote points up one of the great advantages of working on a history term paper. The experience often will mark the first time a high school student discovers that he or she is capable of reading a book on an important topic.

When I was an alumni interviewer for Harvard College, I asked one high schooler what he thought he might major in. History, he replied. I had said nothing about my own interest in the subject, and all he knew about me was that I was an alum. But after he gave his answer, I naturally asked what his favorite history book was. Before long, it became clear that, while this student had achieved good grades and advanced placement scores, he’d studied only textbooks. No one had ever handed him a good history book and encouraged him to read it. More than likely, he’d never had to write a serious history paper either. If he had, he’d have been forced to read a book or two in the field.

In the March 14, 2001, issue of Education Week, Victor Henningsen, director of the history department at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, had this to say about term papers: “There’s no substitute for the thrill that comes from choosing a topic of your own and wrestling with a mass of evidence to answer a question that you’ve posed, to craft your own narrative and your own analysis. We’ve been teaching kids to write research papers here for a long time. Kids don’t remember the advanced placement exam, but they do remember the papers that they’ve written, and so do I.”

Far too many American high school students never get the chance to do the reading or writing that a serious history paper requires.

Since 1987, I have been the editor of the Concord Review, a quarterly journal of history research papers written by high school students. We’ve published 528 papers (averaging 5,000 words, including endnotes and bibliography) by students from 42 states and 33 foreign countries. Out of some 22,000 public and private high schools in the United States, we receive about 600 essays a year, from which we publish 11 in each issue. If you do the calculation, this means that more than 21,000 high schools do not even submit one history essay for consideration in a given year. While this may not prove that exceptional history essays are not being written at those schools, it’s not an encouraging sign.

As for what teachers expect in their high school history classes in lieu of research papers, I have only anecdotal evidence. I met with the head of the history department at a public high school in New Jersey once, a man very active in the National Council for History Education, and asked him why he never sent papers from his best students to the Concord Review. He said he didn’t have his students do research papers anymore; they make PowerPoint presentations and write historical fiction instead. When I asked the now- retired chair of history at Scarsdale High School in New York why, even though he subscribed to the Concord Review, he never submitted student papers for consideration, he too said he no longer assigned papers. After the A.P. history exam, he would hold what he called the trial of James Buchanan for his role in helping to precipitate the Civil War. His students would then write responses on that subject instead.

After I published her paper on the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the class valedictorian at a high school on Long Island wrote me to say she felt weak in expository writing and offered some reasons.

Here are her words: “I attend a school where students are given few opportunities to develop their talents in this field. (It is assumed students will learn how to write in college.)” I feel confident in saying that, on the college side, there is the expectation that students will learn at least the rudiments of putting together a research paper while they are in high school. College humanities professors—slow to learn, perhaps—are routinely surprised when they find that this is not the case. And rightly so. What is at work here?

For one thing, creative writing often rules at the high school level (and earlier in many cases). Even the director of Harvard’s Expository Writing Program for undergraduates has said she thinks that teenagers don’t get enough chances to write about their feelings, relationships, anxieties, hopes, and dreams and that they shouldn’t be pushed to work on research papers until college. The National Writing Project in Berkeley, California, a program that reaches hundreds of teachers and thousands of students each year, takes a postmodern approach to what it calls “literatures” (its quotes) and never comes within a mile of considering that students could use some work on research skills or expository writing.

High school kids are fully capable of writing long, serious history papers. And they will get a lot out of doing so.

I have actually seen what teenagers can do, and it is more like the following, an excerpt from an essay published a few years back in the Concord Review. (More examples are at www.tcr.org.) This passage concludes an essay by a high school junior who went on to major in civil engineering at Princeton, get a Ph.D. in earthquake engineering from Stanford, and is now an assistant professor of engineering at Cornell:

As is usually the case in extended, deeply held disagreements, no one person or group was the cause of the split in the woman-suffrage movement. On both sides, a stubborn eagerness to enfranchise women hindered the effort to do so. Abolitionists and Republicans refused to unite equally with woman suffragists. Stanton and Anthony, blinded for a while by their desperation to succeed, turned to racism, pitting blacks and women against each other at a time when each needed the other’s support most. The one thing that remains clear is that, while in some ways it helped women discover their own power, the division of forces weakened the overall strength of the movement. As a result of the disagreements within the woman-suffrage movement, the 1860s turned out to be a missed opportunity for woman suffragists, just as Stanton had predicted. After the passage of the 15th Amendment, they were forced to wait another 50 years for the fulfillment of their dream.

High school kids are fully capable of writing long, serious history papers. And they will get a lot out of doing so, not only in terms of reading nonfiction, but also in learning to write nonfiction themselves. These days, too many of our students are not given that chance to grow. Colleges may continue doing what they can to help teenagers master the rudiments of expository writing, but much of what these high schoolers have lost can never be recouped in remedial coursework.

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