Reading & Literacy Opinion

The State of the Term Paper

By Will Fitzhugh — January 16, 2002 7 min read
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Will standards framers' neglect be a factor in the term paper's demise?

It seems likely that the history research paper at the high school level is now an endangered species. A focus on creative writing, fear of plagiarism, fascination with PowerPoint presentations, and lack of time to meet with students to plan papers (and to read them carefully when they are turned in) are factors in its decline. They have been augmented by a notable absence of concern for term papers in virtually all the work on state standards. And the combination has produced a situation in which far too many high school students never get the chance to do the reading or the writing that a serious history paper requires. As a result, students enter college with no experience in writing papers, to the continual frustration of their professors. And the employers who hire them after college—the Ford Motor Co., for example—have had to institute writing classes to ensure that they can produce readable reports, memos, and the like.

A few years ago, a study of state English and social studies standards prepared by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation showed that term papers were included in none of the standards. The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Standards for Success program, which is working on high school/college articulation of standards and expectations, also includes no term papers. And the American Diploma Project in Washington, now working to define academic expectations of high schools, colleges, and employers, has yet to find a place in its deliberations for history research papers.

One problem, of course, is that serious term papers cannot be assessed in a one-hour objective test. Yet their impact on students—and the consequences of never having done one—may be incalculable.

In the early 1980s, when I was teaching American history to high school sophomores in Concord, Mass., each of my students had to write a biographical paper on one of the U.S. presidents. One student managed to get John F. Kennedy, and I lent him a copy of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s A Thousand Days. The boy took a look at that rather large book and told me, “I can’t read this.” I said, “Yes, you can,” and he did it. Five or six years later, I got an unexpected call from that boy. He was then a junior at Yale and wanted to thank me, he said, for “making him” read that book. It had been the first serious work of nonfiction he had ever read, and being able to get through it had done something for his confidence. Of course, he’d made himself read the book, but the anecdote points up one of the great advantages of the history term paper: Such an assignment often will be the first time a high school student finds out that he or she is capable of reading a book- length work on a topic of importance.

‘Kids don't remember the Advanced Placement exam, but they do remember the papers that they've written.’

When I was an alumni interviewer for Harvard College, I once was asked to talk to a boy at a local suburban high school. I asked him, among other things, what he thought he might major in. History, he said. The boy knew nothing about me other than that I was an alum, I had said nothing about my own interest in history. But when he said this, I naturally asked what was his favorite history book. It soon became clear that while he had good grades, Advanced Placement scores, and other markers of success, this student had read nothing in history beyond his textbooksand no one had handed him a good work of history and encouraged him to read it. Neither had he ever been forced to do a serious history paper, no doubt, for if he had, he might have read at least a book or two in the field.

As Victor W. Henningsen, the head of the history department at Phillips Academy at Andover, said of such papers in these pages last year: “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 [at Andover] 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.” (“Respected Journal Rates Student History Papers,” March 14, 2001.)

Since 1987, I have been the editor of The Concord Review, a quarterly journal of history research papers written by high school students. We have published 528 papers (an average of 5,000 words, with endnotes and bibliography) by students from 42 states and 33 other countries. Out of some 22,000 public and private high schools in the United States, we are sent about 600 essays a year, from which we publish 11 in each of four quarterly issues. If you do the calculation, that means that perhaps 21,000 high schools or more across the country do not send even one history essay for consideration in a given year. This doesn’t prove that good, long history essays are not being written at those schools (many may not know of The Concord Review‘s existence), but to me it’s not an encouraging sign.

As to what teachers are expecting in their high school history classes in lieu of research papers, I have only anecdotal evidence. For example, I once asked the head of a history department at a public high school in New Jersey—a man very active in the National Council for History Education—why he never sent papers from his best students to The Concord Review. His reply was that he didn’t have his students do history research papers anymore; he had them do PowerPoint presentations and write historical fiction instead. When I asked the now- retired head of history at Scarsdale High School in New York why he had three subscriptions to The Concord Review, yet never sent any of his student papers to be considered, he too said he no longer assigned research papers. After the AP history exam, he said, he held what he called “the trial of James Buchanan for his part in the coming of the U.S. Civil War.” He had his students write their responses to that instead.

Many students enter college with no experience writing papers, to the continual frustration of their professors.

The class valedictorian at a high school on Long Island wrote me, after publication of her essay on the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in the Review, to say that she’d always felt weak in expository writing. She offered some possible reasons for that. 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 quite confident in saying that, on the college side, there is the expectation that students will learn at least the rudiments of a research paper while they are still in high school, and that college humanities professors are routinely surprised (slow learners) when they find that this has not happened for their students.

Creative writing rules at the high school level (and even earlier) in many cases. The director of the Expository Writing Program at Harvard College has said she thinks in fact that high school students don’t get enough chances to write about their feelings, relationships, anxieties, hopes, and dreams, and that they really shouldn’t be pushed to work on history research papers until college. The National Writing Project in Berkeley, Calif., a program that reaches hundreds of teachers and thousands of students each year, teaches a postmodern approach to what it calls “literatures” (quotes are absolutely necessary) and never comes within a mile of considering that students could use some work on their research skills or their nonfiction expository writing.

High school students are fully capable of writing long, serious history papers. They will also get a lot out of doing it.

I have actually seen what high school students can do, and it is more like the following excerpt from an essay published a few years back in the Review (more examples are at http://www.tcr.org). This passage concluded an essay by a high school junior who went on to major in civil engineering at Princeton, get a Ph.D. in earthquake engineering at 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.

As this excerpt suggests, high school students are fully capable of writing long, serious history papers. They also will get a lot out of doing it—not only will they read more nonfiction, but they’ll also learn how to write it themselves. These days, too many of our students are not being given that chance.

Colleges will no doubt continue to do what they can to help them master the rudiments of expository writing after high school. But much of what these students have missed cannot be made up in remedial courses.

Will Fitzhugh is the president of the National Writing Board and the founder and editor of The Concord Review, in Sudbury, Mass.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2002 edition of Education Week as The State of the Term Paper


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