An Interview with Will Fitzhugh: About Academic Excellence and Writing

Michael F. Shaughnessy:

1) Will, you recently gave a talk in Madison, Wisconsin. What exactly did you speak about?
WF: A group of professors, teachers, business people, lawyers and community people invited me to speak at the University of Wisconsin in Madison about the work of The Concord Review since 1987, and about the problems of college readiness and academic writing for high school students.
The Boston Public Schools just reported that 67% of the graduating class of 2000 who had gone on to higher education had failed to earn a certificate, an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree by 2008. Also, the Strong American Schools program just reported that more than a million of our high school graduates are in remedial education in college each year.
I recommend their report: Diploma to Nowhere, which came out last summer. While many foundations, such as Gates, and others, have focused on getting our students into college, too little attention has been paid to how few are ready for college work and how many drop out without any degree.
2) “We believe that the pursuit of academic excellence in secondary schools should be given the same attention as the pursuit of excellence in sports and other extracurricular activities.” This is a quote from The Concord Review. Now, I am asking you to hypothesize here–why do you think high schools across America seem to be preoccupied with sports and not academics?
WF: In Madison I also had a chance to speak about the huge imbalance in our attention to scholars and athletes at the high school level. I had recently seen a nationally televised high school football game in which, at breaks in the action, an athlete would come to the sidelines, and announce, to the national audience, which college he had decided to “sign” with. This is a far cry from what happens for high school scholars. High school coaches get a lot of attention for their best athletes, but if the coach also happens to be a history teacher, he or she will hear nothing from a college in the way of interest in his or her most outstanding history student.
When Kareem Abdul Jabbar was a very tall high school senior at Power Memorial Academy in New York, he not only heard from the head coaches at 60 college basketball programs, he also got a personal letter from Jackie Robinson of baseball fame and from Ralph Bunche at the United Nations, urging him to go to UCLA, which he did. That same year, in the U.S., the top ten high school history students heard from no one, and it has been that way every year since.
The lobby of every public high school is full of trophies for sports, and there is usually nothing about academic achievement. For some odd reason, attention to exemplary work in academics is seen as elitist, while heaps of attention to athletic achievement is not seen in the same way. Strange…The Boston Globe has 150 pages on year on high school athletes and no pages on high school academic achievement. Do we somehow believe that our society needs good athletes far more than it needs good students, and that is why we are so reluctant to celebrate fine academic work?

3) Many years ago, Gavriel Solomon once wrote “Telelvision is easy and print is hard.” Have we become a nation of watchers instead of writers?
WF: A student has to learn how to read, but not how to watch tv. Too many of our students have never read a nonfiction book in school, so when they get to college lots of them are in remedial reading courses, and as the Diploma to Nowhere report says: “While more students took remedial math, a student’s need for remedial reading makes him or her much more likely to drop out. Some experts refer to college remedial reading as the kiss of death. One study found that of the students who took remedial reading, more than two thirds were in three or more other remedial courses and only 12 percent eventually earned a bachelor’s degree. For the students in remedial reading, the issue is unfortunately simple–if you can’t read well, you can’t perform well in any other college classes. Without basic literacy, students are stuck without a collegiate future.”
Playing video games, watching television, instant messaging, exchanging gossip and photos, and the like, all combine to make this generation of students less able to read and write and more likely to fail in higher education.
4) Your journal, The Concord Review is literally a beacon of writing and scholarship. Has it gotten the recognition you feel it deserves?
WF: High School artists, dancers, singers, and so on, are eligible for $4 million or more in complete college scholarships. Athletes get college scholarships. Exemplary history students at this level receive basically no attention and no money for their work in history. For most people, if student academic work can’t be pasted on the refrigerator door, it has no value. There are exceptions, of course, in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Both the Intel Science Talent Search and the Siemens-Westinghouse Competition offer a $100,000 first prize for high school students. But for high school students whose achievements are in writing and scholarship there is no attention apart from The Concord Review, and there is almost no support for that.
The people at the Gates Foundation told me: “We are mostly interested in Math, Minorities and Science.” Even after 21 years of The Concord Review people (with a few exceptions) don’t believe that high school students can be scholars, or that they can write academic papers worth giving to their HS peers to read, as examples of good writing and for the history they contain.
5) Many years ago, there was a book entitled Dumbing Down Our Kids, by Charles J. Sykes. Has America begun to lower standards and focus less on academic excellence?
WF: Of course there has been a strong federal push, almost as strongly resisted, to promote accountability for some levels of student competence in math, reading, and writing, but the standards are very low, and for some people they are not low enough. The Massachusetts Teachers Association spent $600,000 on ads to defeat the MCAS, the state test given at the 10th grade level before awarding a high school diploma. And, as I said, of those who pass the MCAS and get their diploma, only about a third complete college at any level. Anti-intellectualism in American life has not gone away since Douglas Hofstadter’s day, and it is especially strong in the schools, where many social studies teachers would rather get students out of the classroom protesting something, or they want to teach them only social justice issues, while they let military history, political history, economic history, and diplomatic history just slip through the cracks and disappear.
6) Will, over the past 20, 30, 40 years, more and more children with special needs and exceptionalities have been “mainstreamed” or “included” in regular education classrooms. Has this stretched teachers beyond what they are capable of doing?
WF: I understand there is no pressure to have poorly-coordinated gym students pushed onto school football, basketball, soccer and baseball/softball teams. The coaches would not allow it, saying that they could not prepare their best athletes for success in sports if they had to deal with all those klutzes during their practices. But teachers have been faced with an analogous situation for a long time. Disabled and disturbed students, who need and demand a lot of personal attention, just reduce the time and effort that teachers can devote to the other 28 students in their classes.
Of course, in the name of inclusion, this just degrades the quality of education for all the students in every classroom in which it occurs, just as it would destroy any sports team where that was the situation. This is just one more example of the ways in which we treat sports with more seriousness than we give to academics. And students get that message all the time. If the coach were forced to fail at his job, students might conclude that sports can’t be that important, but when a teacher is prevented from doing good academic work, students can conclude that academics must not be that important. Is this the message we want to be sending?
7) Almost all teachers know about No Child Left Behind and Annual Yearly Progress. Have these things taken precedence over in-depth scholarly research and writing?
WF: Teaching to the test can be a real problem, whether it is helping students get ready for the Bar Exam or for No Child Left Behind tests. However, I have never understood why those who complain that they can’t teach history, because the testing forces them to focus on reading, can’t assign some history reading while they are at it. My understanding is that students who are provided with a demanding academic curriculum tend to do well on the state tests, whether they were ever “taught to the test” or not. For too many educators, in my view, complaining about the tests is just one more way to avoid the hard work of talking to students about the nonfiction books they have read, or about the serious research papers they have written.
School systems can’t be forced into bankruptcy, as the Big Three automakers may be, but perhaps some should be. The Washington, DC public schools are considering asking for legislation that will allow them to declare a “state of emergency” which might let them give more attention to the academic work of students than they are now forced to give to the Teachers’ Union.
8) How can people learn more about your journal, The Concord Review and how can teachers encourage their students to submit their exemplary work?
I am happy to report that our website ( is about to pass 400,000 visitors. It has submission forms, sample essays, a topic list from the first 75 issues, and, at last, video clips of interviews with the late historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Bill Fitzsimmons (Dean of Admissions at Harvard) and Sarah Valkenburgh, one of our Emerson Prize winners. I may also be contacted by students, teachers and others who are interested in academic writing at the high school level at: We encourage students to submit their best history research papers on any historical topic, ancient or modern, domestic or foreign. While we publish only about seven percent of the ones we receive, we have published 835 papers by students from 44 states and 35 other countries since 1987.
The Concord Review remains the only journal in the world for the academic papers of secondary students, and I have been happy to publish exemplary history papers by freshmen and sophomores as well as by juniors and seniors. Students and teachers will learn more from the website, and should feel free to send me an email at any time. I am always looking for the best papers I can find.
Published November 23, 2008
“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 01776-3371 USA
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Varsity Academics®