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The End of the High School History Term Paper?

Michael Winerip, in the NYT (March 3, 2004):

IN 1987, Will Fitzhugh started The Concord Review, a scholarly publication that printed the best high school history research papers in America. His intent was simple: to recognize students who produced high-quality research, to show teachers and students what could be done, and to thereby raise the standard for high school writing.

On one level, he succeeded brilliantly. In 17 years, he has published 627 student papers in 57 issues of the quarterly, tackling some of history's most challenging questions. In a 6,235-word paper, Rachel Hines of Montgomery High in Rockville, Md., asked: Did Chaim Rumkowski, the Jewish leader of Poland's Lodz ghetto, do more good or harm by cooperating with the Nazis? Aaron Einbond of Hunter High in New York City explored to what extent John Maynard Keynes's economic ideas were truly revolutionary, and to what extent they were borrowed from others.

Jessica Leight of Cambridge Rindge and Latin in Massachusetts wanted to know why Anne Hutchinson suffered so much more at the hands of the Puritans than her brother-in-law, the Rev. John Wheelwright, when both attacked the leadership. Jennifer Shingleton of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., questioned whether Abigail Adams really was a feminist, or was being taken out of 18th-century context by contemporary feminist historians.

Britta Waller of Roosevelt High in Kent, Ohio, wrote about the Ferris wheel."Fascinating," Mr. Fitzhugh says."The guy who invented it died brokenhearted. I tell people, the topic doesn't matter, it's the quality that matters, so a kid learns the joy of scholarship. If you learn what it means to go in depth, you also realize when you're being superficial."

Some of America's best-known historians - Arthur Schlesinger Jr., David McCullough, Shelby Foote - have praised the Review. And the published students - who often include their Review papers with their college applications - have prospered. Seventy-four went on to Harvard, 57 to Yale, 30 to Princeton.

And yet for much of the time, Mr. Fitzhugh has felt like a boatman on the Lewis and Clark expedition, paddling upstream on the Mississippi and making little headway. He fears the high school research paper is on the verge of extinction, shoved aside as students prepare for the five-paragraph essays now demanded on state tests, the SAT II and soon, the SAT."I'm convinced the majority of high school students graduate without reading a nonfiction book cover to cover," he says. Mr. Fitzhugh is offended that the National Endowment for the Humanities sponsors a $5,000 history essay contest with a 1,200-word limit."I have kids writing brilliant 5,000-word papers, and they're not eligible," he says. He is saddened by a letter from the chairman of the history department at Boston Latin, that city's premier high school."Over the past 10 years, history teachers have largely stopped assigning the traditional term papers," Walter Lambert, the chairman, wrote.