Marcia Reecer, American Educator, [AFT] Winter 1993/1994, pp. 19-23
“Wanted: Essays for a history quarterly devoted to the work of students.” Will Fitzhugh has been putting out calls like this since 1987 when he embarked on the first issue. One of the few magazines that prints only the work of students—and the only one that specializes in scholarly articles—the Review has published essays from as far away as Tasmania and Singapore, but most come from American high school students.
You might not know this if you picked up the magazine—or read it. It is all type, including the cover, and has the old-fashioned (some might say stuffy) look of a scholarly journal. But there is nothing stuffy about the articles. They are lively, straightforward explorations of ideas and events that obviously fascinated the writers. One of Will Fitzhugh’s favorite stories is about the officer of a foundation who, having turned down the Review’s application for financial support, glanced at one of the essays. Before he knew it, he had read the whole 150-page issue [386 pages in Summer 2020 issue].
Fitzhugh got the idea for The Concord Review when he was teaching history at Concord High School in Concord, Massachusetts. Every year there were a couple of students who really got into the long essays he assigned them. They caught fire, and for these kids, it was no longer a question of how many pages they were supposed to produce or the number of books required for their reference list. The subject took over, and the students were hungry to find out all they could.
But when the essays came in, Will Fitzhugh was struck by how little he could do to recognize their excellence. Of course, he could give the writers As, and that was important, but it didn’t seem commensurate with what they had accomplished. There must be some other and better way to recognize this kind of achievement. Also, he reflected that if his students wrote essays like this, there must be lots of kids all over the country doing similar things. And so The Concord Review was on its way . The idea was neat and obvious—the way a lot of the best ideas are: Give high school students a vehicle for publishing their excellent history essays and an audience of their peers.
What kinds of articles appear in The Concord Review, and who writes them? Fitzhugh asks for 4,000-6,000-word essays, but he has accepted ones that are shorter [and longer ones up to 14,000 words]…Essays are sent in by students from private and public schools (about fifty-fifty), and American history is the most popular subject. Some writers try to answer difficult questions about recent history. For example: Was the United States soft in its treatment of Nazis after World War II? What were the origins of U.S. involvement in Vietnam? Is U.S. immigration policy traditionally racist? Others go for constitutional issues or topics in social history, or the implications of historical movements or events. The essays vary in quality—the way they do in any magazine—but the general level is extraordinarily high.
It is no surprise that The Concord Review has gotten a lot of praise. Al Shanker devoted two of his “Where We Stand” columns (New York Times) to it, and Will Fitzhugh has gotten warm letters from famous names in education like Theodore Sizer and Diane Ravitch as well as from teachers and students from all over the world. The Review has been called a hopeful sign—in the midst of much gloom—of what our kids can accomplish. And many people have noted its relevance to proposed education reforms. It is right in line with the idea of performance-based assessments. And, at a time when there is talk about setting standards for excellence by locking some people in a room and asking them to define excellence, The Concord Review demonstrates what high standards are in the most concrete way possible: It shows the kind of work that pre-college students can do—and are doing.
Perhaps most important is the assumption it makes about writing. Writing is, or is supposed to be, a way of telling an audience something you want them to know. But it’s all too easy for students to think of writing as an assignment, a sort of trick they perform for the teacher. In fact, the way writing is taught often encourages this attitude, and as John Bruer points out in Schools for Thought, his book on cognitive psychology and learning, even the best students often suffer from it. In making the assumption that students can produce serious and excellent pieces of writing based on intellectual work they have done, the Review demonstrates a simple and elegant way to get around the destructive practice of treating student writing like exercises.
But how relevant is all this to the real world of what goes on in most classrooms? How many American students write long essays? And if they did, how many teachers in this country would have time to grade the essays, much less supervise kids as they did the research and the writing? Unfortunately, there is a lot of substance to these questions.
The simplest response is that the thousands of students who take AP history every year are working to a standard comparable to the one represented by the Review, and every AP history class must produce essays as good as the ones Will Fitzhugh got from his students in Concord High School. Giving these kids a chance to read The Concord Review would show them what students their own age can do and give them a standard and a reward to aim for.
To respond on a more fundamental level, The Concord Review may seem to have little relevance for the many students in our high schools who can’t even produce a good paragraph. But if we believe in high standards for all our students—not just the ones who are currently doing excellent work—the standard the Review sets has a great deal of long-term relevance.
In a speech given to the Urban League, its president, John Jacob, said that instead of lowering our ideas of what students can do, we must raise them and demand high academic performance of every student. Among the specific standards Jacob mentioned is that every African-American student, and in fact every student, be required to write a 25-page paper in order to graduate from high school. And Al Shanker sees The Concord Review as a possible catalyst in this effort. Why not, he says, organize large school districts to work toward producing special issues of the Review. This would take a number of years, but it would focus resources and attention where they’re really needed—toward getting students to work and think and write.
In the meantime (and to come back to planet Earth), The Concord Review is in financial trouble, despite its soundness and promise. Will Fitzhugh has never had the money to promote it properly. As a result, his subscription list is too small to support the magazine. And, though the number of teachers who know about the Review and use it as a teaching tool and submit their excellent student essays grows year by year, it is smaller than it should be. Will the magazine fold after this year? So far, Will Fitzhugh has found a way to scrape together the money for each issue, but each issue could be the last.
Fitzhugh remarks that we have many ways of rewarding and encouraging excellence in non-academic areas like sports but few in academic areas, and he likes to compare the idea behind The Concord Review to the Westinghouse science competition. Perhaps his magazine for kids who love history—and love to write it—will find a well-heeled corporation to offer it long-term support. Fitzhugh hasn’t given up hope, but a financial angel, however important, wouldn’t take the place of what he’s really after—a bunch of faithful subscribers and a flood of papers by kids who can hardly wait to tell other kids what they’ve discovered about Oliver Cromwell or the Harlem Renaissance or the sinking of the Titanic or glasnost or…
Marcia Reecer, Ph.D. [Bryn Mawr], is assistant director in the Office of the President of the American Federation of Teachers. She has been an elementary, high school and college teacher.
Very interesting!Thanks for sharing! Very interesting.