History Books

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
29 July 2008
Katherine Kersten tells me that at Providence Academy in Plymouth, Minnesota, high school history students are required to read James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom [946 pages] and Paul Johnson’s History of the American People [1,104 pages] in their entirety.
It seems likely to me that when these students get to college and find reading lists in their courses in History, Political Science, Economics, and the like, which require them to read nonfiction books, they will be somewhat ready for them, having read at least two serious nonfiction books in their Lower Education years.
For the vast majority of our public secondary students this may not be the case. As almost universally, the assignment of reading and writing is left up to the English departments in the high schools, most students now read only novels and other fiction.
While the National Endowment for the Arts has conducted a $300,000 study of the pleasure reading habits of young people and others, no foundation or government agency, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, has show an interest in asking whether our secondary students read one complete nonfiction book before graduation and if so, what book would it be?

Although I studied English literature at Harvard and later at Cambridge University, and I still find the reading of novels a pleasure, in the last thirty years most of my reading has been in history, and I am greatly puzzled by the apparent willingness of Edupundits and educators to leave all assignments of complete books in the hands of the English Departments.
When our students reach Higher Education, they can no longer rely on their ability to read novels alone. They will be expected to manage fairly serious nonfiction books, in history and in their other courses. How did we decide to leave them so unprepared to do that?
Of course, fiction, poetry and drama may be the focus of concern for the National Endowment for the Arts, but would not the reading of history books in the schools be a focus of interest for the National Endowment for the Humanities? So far, apparently not.
Somehow a consensus has emerged that high school students do not need to be assigned complete nonfiction books and that the History or Social Studies Departments may confine their homework to short readings and readings in a textbook. Have we decided, for some odd reason, that the work of historians is perhaps too difficult for our high school students? They may be capable of studying Calculus, Latin, Chemistry and Chinese, but a work by David McCullough, for example, is judged to be beyond their ability to read or understand?
I realize that English is required every year in high school and that Social Studies Departments have in some cases almost completely cut their ties to the field of History, but even in the other Social Studies there are complete nonfiction books which could be assigned. But it appears that they are not.
The high schools are at fault, of course, for not encouraging or requiring teachers to assign serious complete nonfiction books as a preparation for Higher Education and for good jobs, but why have our Edpundits, Eduscholars, and University Professors, of Education and other disciplines, been so indifferent and so careless as to have no curiosity about whether our high school students are reading one nonfiction book before graduation or not.
If our students were taking no math courses, or science courses, or language courses, or literature courses, there would surely be concern and studies and the like. But if our students come to think that all books are novels, as many now do, and graduate quite unprepared to take on a serious nonfiction book, as they now are, no one seems to notice or to mind.
I have no children, but if I did, I would certainly want them to attend a secondary school like Providence Academy, in Plymouth, Minnesota, which would introduce them to at least a few great history books before they graduate, and I wish that those who do have children in high school could now have that opportunity in much greater numbers.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
Consortium for Varsity Academics® [2007]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007
www.tcr.org; fitzhugh@tcr.org
Varsity Academics®