By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist
Copyright 2002, The Boston Globe
May 5, 2002
This is what passes for high-quality student writing about history these days:
"Mesopotamia. The Renaissance. Christopher Columbus. The Constitution. Civil War. Normandy. Martin Luther King Jr. Sputnik. Vietnam. History is more than a series of events; it's more than just stories and pictures; it's more than just people. History is a unique combination of people, places, events, and circumstances that come together to reveal the character of the peoples, nations, and worlds of the past. Thus, when I look at history, a variety of thoughts and interpretations come to mind. Without the past, there would be no present. To me, that means that the study of history is more than just learning facts and studying ways of life. Rather, history is a discovery of ourselves -- a lesson in who and what we are."
That is the opening of high school junior Sarah E. Lee's 1999 grand prize-winning entry in Prentice Hall's nationwide "What History Means To Me" writing competition. In announcing the award -- a $2,500 scholarship -- Prentice Hall, the well-known textbook publisher, pronounced Lee's essay "excellent."
I would pronounce it flabby, trite, and somewhat dull. It reflects no real intellectual effort. It incorporates little research. It is mostly not about history but Lee herself ("Without Christopher Columbus's spirit of daring and pride, where would I be? How have Sputnik and other satellites influenced my character and personality by what I see and hear every day?") And it's short: the whole thing is just four paragraphs long.
Lee's entry was not atypical. The 2000 grand prize-winner, Julija Zubac, wrote about how "as a little girl in faraway Europe, I easily recognized a historic place when I saw one. There was something so incredibly fascinating about walking along old streets or crossing a bridge that had been crossed for hundreds of years." Andrew Goodman-Bacon concluded last year's winning essay with "What will be my place in history? Unlike my values and personality, coming so largely from my heritage, the question of my future will only be answered by me. My personal values and many of my wonderful opportunities are because of history -- to me, history means me."
Is this really the best history writing that high school students can produce? No, but it is typical of what they are expected to produce -- soft little compositions based on feelings and impressions, not research and evidence. As Will Fitzhugh recently wrote in a bracing commentary for Education Week, in far too many high schools the rigorous history term paper "is now an endangered species." It is being killed off by "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)." [Read Fitzhugh's essay online at www.edweek.org/ew/newstory.cfm?slug=18fitzhugh.h21 ]
High school students are capable of far more difficult work than their teachers seem to believe. No one knows that better than Fitzhugh, who founded and edits The Concord Review, a journal of serious essays on historical topics by high school students throughout the English-speaking world. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the journal's board.) Unlike the Prentice Hall competition, which asks students to write no more than 750 words on their feelings about history, The Concord Review invites essays of 4,000 to 6,000 words -- plus endnotes and bibliography.
Students who undertake such essays may not win $2,500 scholarships. They are rewarded instead with a fine sense of accomplishment, enhanced research and writing skills, a deepened interest in history, and considerable knowledge of the subject they studied. For their readers, the reward is likewise great: the pleasure of reading good history. For proof, just open the latest issue of The Concord Review (or visit www.tcr.org).
Here, for example, is an excerpt from Kimon Ioannides's essay on the Civil War naval battle of Hampton Roads:
"On March 8, 1862, in the midst of the American Civil War, the CSS Virginia steamed out of Norfolk, Virginia and headed for Hampton Roads, an estuary that empties into the Chesapeake Bay. She was 263 feet long, and her decks extended fore and aft of a 172-foot box along the waterline. Her builders armed her with 10 guns of various sizes and, strangely, a ram. More importantly, they also covered the box with three inches of flattened railroad irons. Though the Virginia must have looked unusual among the other ships of her time, her armor made her almost invincible."
And Adrian Cook's on the Congo Reform Association:
"Many of the Congo Reform Association's aims were too idealistic and too difficult to achieve. The idea of free trade in the Congo was at odds with the notion that European powers could exploit their colony's resources for their own benefit in return for administering those colonies and looking after their subjects. . . . Europeans regarded forced labor and taxes as the only way that indigenous people could be made 'civilized' and productive. In Roger Anstey's words, the Congo's authorities were the 'state, companies, and church,' and all were symbols of oppression."
And Catherine Roche's on the early 20th-century labor abuses that inspired Upton Sinclair's The Jungle:
"The average age of those killed in mines was 32 years old. Open flames used for light to see by often ignited the toxic fumes circulating in the poorly-ventilated mine shafts. Explosions spread fires, crumbled the mine's infrastructure, and consumed the miners' oxygen. In some cases, the entire work force of a mine would be killed as the result of a single explosion."
And Emily Taylor's on the Bonus Army of 1932:
"Veterans from across the country made their way to Washington. They came by foot, in automobiles, hitchhiking, and riding the rails. They came with their wives and families, and their travels were full of hardship."
That is the kind of work high school kids can produce. But today fewer and fewer of them do. Until teachers once again expect and require it, fewer and fewer of them will.