The Education Action Network

Taking Back America By Taking Back Our Schools

by Will Fitzhugh
16 December 2013
In 1891, when Mr. James Naismith (he got his MD in 1898) put two peach baskets with the bottoms out at about 10 feet up at each end of the gymnasium in Springfield, Massachusetts, how many high school students do you think could make the three-point shot? Zero.
Today, when people see the exemplary history research papers published in The Concord Review, the most common reaction is: “These were written by High School Students?!” The reason for this disbelief is that most adults (even Edupudits, etc.) today no more expect high school student to write 11,000-word research papers than people in 1891 expected them to be able to make a three-point shot or dunk the basketball.
Theodore Sizer, late Dean of the Harvard School of Education and Headmaster of Phillips Academy, Andover, wrote, in 1988, that:
Americans shamefully underestimate their adolescents. With often misdirected generosity, we offer them all sorts of opportunities and, at least for middle-class and affluent youths, the time and resources to take advantage of them. We ask little in return. We expect little, and the young people sense this, and relax. The genially superficial is tolerated, save in areas where the high school students themselves have some control, in inter-scholastic athletics, sometimes in their part-time work, almost always in their socializing. At least if and when they reflect about it, adolescents have cause to resent us old folks. We do not signal clear standards for many important areas of their lives, and we deny them the respect of high expectations. In a word, we are careless about them, and, not surprisingly, many are thus careless about themselves. “Me take on such a difficult and responsible task?” they query, “I’m just a kid!” All sorts of young Americans are capable of solid, imaginative scholarship, and they exhibit it for us when we give them both the opportunity and a clear measure of the standard expected. Presented with this opportunity, young folk respond. The Concord Review is such an opportunity, a place for fine scholarship to be exhibited, to be exposed to that most exquisite of scholarly tests, wide publication. The Concord Review is, for the History–inclined high school student, what the best of secondary school theatre and music performances, athletics, and (in some respects) science fairs are, for their aficionados. It is a testing ground, and one of elegant style, taste and standards. The Review does not undersell students. It respects them. And in such respect is the fuel for excellence.”
Since 1987, The Concord Review has published more than a thousand 6,000-word, 8,000-word, 11,000-word, 15,000-word, and longer history papers by secondary students from 46 states and 38 other countries, and, as we only take about 5% of the ones we get, evidently several more thousands of high school students have written serious history papers and submitted them. But I was recently asked, “How many high school students do you think could actually write papers like that?”—Suggesting that it must be a very small number indeed! As small perhaps as the number of high school students who could make that three-pointer in 1891?
Some examples: Colin Rhys Hill, of Atlanta, Georgia, decided to write a 15,000-word history research paper on the Soviet-Afghan War; Sarah Willeman of Byfield, Massachusetts, decided she wanted to write a 21,000-word paper on the Mountain Meadows Massacre in Utah in 1857; Nathaniel Bernstein, of San Francisco, chose to write an 11,000-word paper on the unintended consequences of Direct Legislation reforms in the early 1900s in California; and Jonathan Lu, of Hong Kong, wrote a 13,000-word paper on the Needham Question (why did Chinese technology stall after 1500?)…(send to for pdfs of these papers).
“Where there’s a Way, there’s a Will,” I sometimes think. If peach baskets exist, some day somewhere a high school student or two will try to shoot a ball through one. Obviously by now the number of such students who can make a three-point shot is very large. We even have nationally-televised high school basketball games in which they can demonstrate such an achievement. If an international journal for the academic history research papers of secondary students exists, perhaps some students will actually write and submit them?
Most people may tell a high school students that they are not capable of doing the reading and the writing for a long serious history research paper. Most of their teachers do not want to spend the time coaching for and reading them. But my advice to any prospective high school author is (pay no attention to the people who tell you that you are only capable of writing a five-paragraph essay), and:
Prepare yourself over hours, weeks, months, and years of practice. 
Make sure your feet are behind the three-point line. 
Take the shot.

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