Social Studies

History Journal Gives High School Students a Showcase

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — June 16, 1999 6 min read
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At age 18, Jonah Knobler has accomplished what usually takes a young historian years: the publication of his work in an acclaimed academic journal.

This spring, his analysis of the effects of U.S. immigration policy on Jews prior to World War I appears in The Concord Review, alongside essays on child labor and longtime U.S. senator and former presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

Now in its 12th year of gathering outstanding history essays from around the country, the quarterly journal has become an important outlet for recognizing student work in a field of study that, for high school students, is often overlooked.

The Concord Review.

“There is no shortage of math contests and science contests,” said Mr. Knobler, who graduated last week as valedictorian at Sycamore High School in Cincinnati and will begin his freshman year at Harvard University in the fall. “But there is virtually no recognition, short of publishing a book, if your talent lies in the humanities.”

‘A National Concern’

That’s what led Will Fitzhugh to quit his job as a history teacher in 1987 and begin publishing the journal out of his home in Concord, Mass.

Concerned that schools were becoming anti-intellectual and holding students to low standards, he thought the venture could fuel a national--even international--interest in student research and writing in the humanities.

“As a teacher, it is not uncommon to have your consciousness end at the classroom wall. But I came to realize that there was a national concern about students’ ignorance of history and inability to write,” he said.

During his 10 years of teaching at Concord-Carlisle High School, the 62-year-old educator said in a recent interview, he always had a handful of students who did more than he asked, and whose papers reflected serious research.

Those students “just had higher standards, and I was always impressed by that,” Mr. Fitzhugh said. “I figured there have got to be some wonderful essays just sitting out there. I wanted to recognize and encourage kids who are already working hard, and to challenge the kids who are not.”

Within a year of his sending out thousands of letters to public and private schools, a steady flow of submissions began.

Expanded Mission

Will Fitzhugh left his job as a history teacher 12 years ago to launch The Concord Review, a quarterly journal for outstanding history essays by high school students. “I came to realize that there was a national concern about students’ ignorance of history and inability to write,” he says.
--Benjamin Tice Smith

This year, Mr. Fitzhugh is expanding on his premise by organizing a National Writing Board to rate student papers and projects in history and English. The board will follow what Mr. Fitzhugh describes as an international standard that he is devising along the lines of the Advanced Placement exams and the evaluations used in the International Baccalaureate program.

Once formed, the group of veteran teachers and other education experts will review papers twice a year and issue grades on a scale of 1 to 6. Strong grades could be used to bolster students’ college applications, Mr. Fitzhugh believes.

“Colleges have expressed a great deal of concern over the writing and attendant reading capabilities of their freshmen,” Mr. Fitzhugh wrote in announcing the board earlier this month. The new board will help them better gauge the work of their applicants, he added, and will “also encourage more interest on the part of high school instructors of history and literature in the amount and quality of academic writing they require of their students.”

Over the years, The Concord Review has acquired a following among some prominent scholars.

The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the education historian Diane Ravitch, and Chancellor John R. Silber of Boston University have praised the Review for highlighting student achievement.

The journal is “a wonderful opportunity for high school students to publish and to take their history seriously,” said Ms. Ravitch, who is on the publication’s board of directors. "[It] gives the highly proficient history student a chance of showing off his or her best work.”

In the beginning, Mr. Fitzhugh believed the journal could be self-supporting. Surely, he thought, thousands of scholars and teachers would jump at the chance to read the best student essays from around the world.

But the Review has struggled since its inception, with too few subscribers to pay for its printing. Mr. Fitzhugh said he has put more than $100,000 into the nonprofit publication, and even cashed in a retirement account.

This year, the journal reports a little more than 800 subscribers from 37 states and more than 20 countries. Subscriptions cost $35 a year.

Mr. Fitzhugh has found some private support: John E. Abele, founder and chairman of the Boston Scientific Corp., which designs and manufactures medical equipment, has agreed to pay for three years’ printing costs. But Mr. Fitzhugh said he has been turned down for grants from 130 foundations, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the U.S. Department of Education--more proof, he believes, that academic achievement does not get the credit it deserves.

But his resolve has not diminished. “One of my hypotheses from the start was that I could find the essays, and that turned out to be true,” he said. “The other was that I could get teachers to support it, and that turned out to be false. There are schools where kids have been published that haven’t subscribed.”

“We do a great deal to acknowledge and celebrate high school athletic achievement,” Mr. Fitzhugh said, “but when comes to academic achievement, we’d rather not talk about it.”

Incentive for Hard Work

Alison Mara Friedman agrees. As a student at Sidwell Friends School, a private school in Washington, she wrote two essays she thought were pretty good.

“With most people, when they get a paper back, it ends up in the bottom of their locker, or their parents see it and that’s it,” said Ms. Friedman, who just completed her freshman year at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

One of her high school papers was on Chinese poetry, which was published in the Review in fall 1997, and another looked at the history of the Chinatown in the nation’s capital. That second paper was awarded this year’s Emerson Prize, the Review‘s top honor, which comes with a $3,000 scholarship.

“The Concord Review is a place for the papers to go,” Ms. Friedman said. “You just want it to go somewhere else after you put so much work into it.”

William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, said the Review helps inspire students to undertake the often lengthy and grueling task of scholarly research and writing.

“We live in the age of the sound bite and the short attention span. If you have to explain something in more than five to 10 seconds, it’s lost,” said Mr. Fitzsimmons, who has agreed to be on the writing board Mr. Fitzhugh is organizing. “Most serious work requires many of the skills that have to be employed in good writing and good research.”

The Review, he added, “provides an additional piece of evidence from an outside body that [an applicant] has gone above and beyond what is required.”

Meanwhile Mr. Fitzhugh remains optimistic that the journal he launched will survive. He even has hopes for what he has already named The Walden Review, a sister publication that would publish literary essays. “There is a need to encourage these kids, and I think this is an endless opportunity to provide the right message.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 1999 edition of Education Week as History Journal Gives High School Students a Showcase


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