Social Studies

Future Perilous for The Concord Review

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 17, 2004 4 min read
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For Will Fitzhugh, the success of The Concord Review is in the numbers: 17 years, 58 issues, 638 essays, nearly 1,100 subscribers in 34 nations. The quarterly journal of scholarly high school history essays has also spawned the National History Club, with 63 affiliates and 2,000 student members at middle and high schools in 29 states.

Unfortunately, those numbers don’t pay the rent, or the printing bill, or annual awards payments for the best entries, or Mr. Fitzhugh’s meager salary.

Now, after his latest funding requests to two prominent foundations were denied, Mr. Fitzhugh is pondering the future of the renowned publication and related projects. At 68, the good-natured editor and founder, a former high school history teacher, is contemplating retirement. But without a stable source of funding and enthusiastic leadership, the publication will likely founder.

“Will is tireless, and he’s created a wonderful publication, but there is no institutional sponsor, and when [he] gives it up, there isn’t anyone to maintain it,” lamented the education historian Diane Ravitch, a founding and current board member for TheConcord Review. “People talk a lot about caring about kids’ learning history, but when it comes right down to it, no one puts the money up.”

The Concord Review has attracted lavish praise from some of the nation’s top historians and endorsements from Ivy League universities and high school teachers for setting a high standard for student research and writing. At a time when many teachers are no longer assigning extended research papers because of the time it takes to grade them, the Review is the only outlet for scholarly papers in history for high schoolers.

“It is a forum for students to show their best work, and it inspires teachers to assign these papers,” said Robert P. Hines, the history-department chairman at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Md. Mr. Hines has submitted student papers to the journal since its inception.

Unattainable Prizes

Despite its reputation for promoting and highlighting academic excellence, TheConcord Review has repeatedly failed to persuade grantmakers to support the endeavor. That failure perplexes Mr. Fitzhugh, in light of the resources available for some of the nation’s top science and math competitions.

He also bemoans what he views as minimal standards for the “Idea of America” essay contest, financed through President Bush’s $100 million We the People initiative to improve history education. The contest, which provides $10,000 in prize money, is limited to 1,200-word papers.

“It’s a dumbing-down message in general,” said Mr. Fitzhugh, pointing out that many essays submitted to the Review epitomize the theme of the national contest, but they’re “too long and too good to be eligible. ... When kids do serious work, we make every effort to ignore them.”

A recent issue of the Review, for example, includes a 13,000-word manuscript by Brandon Hopkins, a senior at the Waterford School in Sandy, Utah, that outlines the intellectual and philosophical debates marking the beginnings of the Revolutionary War.

Bumpy History

From the beginning, Mr. Fitzhugh believed that publishing such work would guarantee the journal’s financial success. The Review got off to an ambitious start in 1987, when Mr. Fitzhugh quit his teaching job, tapped in to a $100,000 inheritance, and began publishing the journal out of his home in Concord, Mass. (“History Journal Gives High School Students a Showcase,” June 16, 1999.)

For 14 years, he toiled on his own, without compensation, to keep the publication afloat. For the 1992-93 and 1995-96 school years, the quarterly publication was suspended for lack of money.

By 1997, however, the journal seemed to be turning a corner. Officials at Boston University had given preliminary approval to a partnership in which the university would provide money and logistical support, but the agreement never became final.

Over the past few years, the enterprise has survived on the modest support of a single sponsor, John E. Abele, the founder and chairman of the Boston Scientific Corp., which designs and manufactures medical equipment. Mr. Abele’s grant of about $185,000 a year has allowed Mr. Fitzhugh to rent office space, hire an assistant, and draw a salary of $36,000.

It has also helped jump-start the National Writing Board, a group of outstanding history teachers and experts who review and evaluate student essays in history and English based on international standards. (“Respected Journal Rates Student History Papers,” March 14, 2001.)

For now, the founder is continuing his stubborn quest to secure the project’s future. But he knows he can’t sustain it singlehandedly.

“I would love to turn this over to someone after the 70th issue,” Mr. Fitzhugh said. “But with the salary I’m making, it’s going to be hard to find a replacement.”

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