High School Research Papers
by Will Fitzhugh, Editor,
The Concord Review
Some people say that high school seniors cannot be expected to write a 12-page history research paper, and in many cases they are right. The reason may not be that they are too lazy or too preoccupied with their autobiographical "personal essay" for college admissions officers to enjoy, but simply that they have never had much practice with history term papers.
If we had in place the Page Per Year Plan, which I have suggested, we would ask every first grader to write a one-page paper on some nonfiction (non autobiographical) topic, every fourth grader to write a four-page paper, every ninth grader to write a nine-page history research paper, and thus, every twelfth grader would be well prepared to write that 12-page research paper which would enable him or her to know more about that historical topic than anyone else in their graduating class. Using a sort of systematic desensitization technique, we would bring all students to the point at which they could write a serious history paper (and read the nonfiction book or two to prepare for it) before they leave high school.
Why is this a useful idea? It seems that many too many of our high school students reach their first year of college with no idea how to go about writing a term paper. In addition, many too many of our students may now graduate from high school without ever having read a single serious nonfiction book. College professors complain that the freshmen they see are simply unprepared for work in the humanities. An analogous situation would be if the college basketball coach got his new recruits out on the floor the first day of practice, only to discover that not one of them could dribble, pass or shoot. What were you doing in high school!?, the coach would roar, and many college professors of history and literature are saying much the same thing.
Now, if it were the case that high school students are simply incapable of producing a 12-page or a 5,000-word history paper, with endnotes and bibliography, we would have a problem, but I have evidence to the contrary. Since 1987, The Concord Review has published 550 history research papers (average 5,000 words, with endnotes and bibliography) by high school students from 42 states in this country and from 33 other countries. A group of 51 of these essays, including our Ralph Waldo Emerson prize winners from the last eight years, are on the website, at www.tcr.org.
We do not tell students what historical topics to write about, and, as a result, we have been able to publish serious papers on the Mountain Meadows Massacre in Utah, on the Armenian Genocide, on Abigail Adams, on Barbed Wire, on the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, on Muslim Spain, on the Whitlam Government in Australia, on Julia Morgan, on the Kamikaze Pilots, and a huge variety of other subjects.
But what about the quality of the writing by these high school kids? The best way to answer that is with selected passages from some of the papers:
This passage concluded an essay written by a Junior in high school. She went on to major in civil engineering at Princeton, got a Ph.D. in earthquake engineering at Stanford and is now an assistant professor of engineering at Cornell...
As is usually the case in extended, deeply-held disagreements, no one person or group was the cause of the split in the woman suffrage movement. On both sides, a stubborn eagerness to enfranchise women hindered the effort to do so. Abolitionists and Republicans refused to unite equally with woman suffragists. Stanton and Anthony, blinded for a while by their desperation to succeed, turned to racism, pitting blacks and women against each other at a time when each needed the other's support most. The one thing that remains clear is that, while in some ways it helped women discover their own power, the division of forces weakened the overall strength of the movement. As a result of the disagreements within the woman suffrage movement, the 1860s turned out to be a missed opportunity for woman suffragists, just as Stanton had predicted. After the passage of the 15th Amendment, they were forced to wait another 50 years for the fulfillment of their dream.
The following can be found in a paper on John Maynard Keynes, written by a Sophomore in a high school in New York City, who has now graduated from Harvard in physics...
Galbraith argues that Keynes's conclusion about the role of government was not revolutionary because it was already being put into action by the United States government before The General Theory was written.64 This observation is not untrue---throughout the 1930s the government deliberately ran a deficit and starting in 1933, with the New Deal, began public-works projects, such that by 1936, government income was only 59 percent of spending.65 For this reason, Galbraith says, many viewed The General Theory not so much as presenting a radical new solution, but as justifying actions already shown to be necessary.66 But, in fact, even if the actions of the New Deal were politically necessary, economists still believed them to be theoretically unsound. Keynes's proof that the government action was theoretically correct was more revolutionary than Galbraith describes it to be. Economists were convinced that the New Deal and similar policies that could be observed in other countries were not correct. According to George Soule, not until the publication of The General Theory were theorists able to accept the solutions that seemed politically necessary.67 Perhaps the way that The General Theory is most revolutionary is that it emphasizes problems and ideas that had been little considered before, and in doing this, it caused a great change in the problems analyzed by economists. One such new emphasis is on aggregates instead of individual prices or individual supply and demand functions.68 The General Theory relates to employment and output in the entire economic system, instead of individual businesses. The aggregate supply and demand functions are ideas that had not been given much attention in the past. Instead economists focused on the effects of supply and demand on individual goods or resources. Other aggregates original with Keynes are income, employment, investment, and consumption. According to Seymour Harris, this use of aggregates constitutes a change in emphasis to matters of macroeconomics instead of microeconomics.69 Gottfried Harbeler as well as Harris say that Keynes was not the first person to study aggregative systems---R. Frisch, Jan Tinbergen,70 and even Karl Marx71 had already used the concept of aggregates. These studies of aggregates, however, were not nearly as widely accepted as Keynes's,72 and for this reason Harris says that "Keynes was responsible, more than anyone else, for the revolutionary shift of emphasis to macro-economics."73
Here is a section from an essay (13,800 words) on a pioneering woman architect, Julia Morgan, by a Sophomore in a high school in Pasadena, California. She is now in medical school at the University of Pennsylvania.
However, most criticism of Morgan was concerned with her architecture. Some critics believed that she was a follower, a "journeyman," and lacked artistic originality. Early in her career, Chaussemiche once commented, "She will make a very good architect. Her taste in ornamentation, however, will require correction. In common with compatriots, Miss Morgan mixes styles a little too much, but this slight fault will pass away."18 Despite the criticism, the real testament to Morgan's accomplishments is the current rediscovery of her work. In an ironic way, she is successful by her own criteria. Morgan once stated that "my buildings will speak for themselves," yet, "she could not help to be pleased to know, however, how well her constructions speak for themselves."19 If Morgan was a success, can she also be called a pioneer? I feel that this is an accurate description of Morgan's role as a professional woman. She patiently broke new ground for others both at the Beaux-Arts and in California in general, and "with a minimum of fanfare, collected many firsts during her 85 years."20 In fact, Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective describes Morgan as "the most prolific…of the pioneer women architects."
And perhaps one last example, written on the first Great Awakening by a Junior at a school in Connecticut. She is now at Harvard Medical School.
In addition to the divisions caused by the establishment of separate churches, the emotional extravagance of the itinerants ultimately led to increased opposition to the revival. The tactics of James Davenport, for example, alienated not only members of the established church but also his friends and colleagues. Although lower classes continued to believe in him and God's salvation, Davenport's fanaticism heightened class conflict and disrupted congregations throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut. In his rebellion against the ministry, Davenport attacked conventional education and even denounced reading the Bible. Therefore, on July 20, 1742, the grand jury of Suffolk County indicted him for committing heresy and serving as an instrument of Satan and then exiled him from Massachusetts on the grounds of insanity.32 Davenport returned to Connecticut where he continued to preach until the crisis which occurred at Christopher's Wharf, New London on March 6, 1743, the infamous bonfire. This incident furthered the decline of the separatist movement and embarrassed New Lights, who claimed that anarchy did not have to result from the revival. Influenced by Reverend Eleazar Wheelock, Davenport ultimately recanted his principles and admitted to his emotional enthusiasm.33 Other itinerants such as George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent also contributed to a rising opposition and the decline of the New Light influence. Whitefield charged that ministers had "in a great measure lost the old spirit of preaching" and claimed that universities were places of darkness. In these accusations and other radical teachings, Whitefield alienated the upper classes and the ministers of established congregations. Similarly, Gilbert Tennent opposed learned ministers and thus insulted and threatened the tradition of an educated ministry.34 In denouncing conventional education and the established ministry, the itinerants not only inspired divisions between Old Lights and New Lights, but they also increased conflicts between social classes. The Awakening, moreover, became a struggle of power between the established clergy and the itinerants, who ultimately disrupted unity within the Congregational Churches of Connecticut. The conflicts and divisions which emerged from the radicalism and excesses of the Great Awakening led to its inevitable decline in the early 1740s.
The immediate objection will be that these are extraordinary students, and that most students can't do this well. This will certainly be true as long as most students don't try. Just think of how many little girls had not tried gymnastics before Olga Corbut did her stuff in Munich. And now think of some of the accomplishments of girls in gymnastics these days. And consider the effect of Martina Hingis, Venus Williams, Michelle Kwan, and Mia Hamm, among so many other role models in athletics.
Of course the role model problem in academic work has been a bit more difficult. One of the purposes of The Concord Review has been to put the work of the Michelle Kwans and Mia Hamms of history research papers before their high school peers to see if they might be inspired to do better work themselves. No one expects a high school history student to put in the kind of hours that Sarah Hughes spent at the rink as a youngster getting ready for her gold medal at the Olympics, but that is a far cry from the effort needed to produce a decent 12-page history paper.
It is strange to contemplate the clear division between our practices in sports and in academics, often with the same students. In athletics there are clear national standards, for instance. We place role models in athletics before students on a routine basis and do not do it at all in the case of academics, for the most part. Student-athletes are widely recruited for their athletic performances in high school, but essentially never for their academic work. Colleges ask for personal essays, not evidence of the academic writing they have done in school. Imagine if college coaches were satisfied with grades given in various sports. They are not. They want to know all the details of a high school sudent's performance on the court and on the field that they can get, and they can get lots and lots of detail. The media spend a lot of space on high school sports and virtually none on high school academic success. The Boston Globe gives in excess of 100 full pages a year to reporting on high school sports. They have three 16-page supplements on school sports each year. There is no coverage of high school academic achievement.
The thing to remember is that the students who are written up for sports and recruited for their athletic accomplishments are the same ones, in many cases, who are being ignored for their academic achievement. Their friends also see this happening. As they are not stupid, it is easy for them to see what the general society thinks is more important.
The outcome is that too many students get little chance to read serious books, write research papers, or to believe that good academic work is as important as hard work on the athletic field. I am not arguing that athletics are unimportant or that they do not benefit those who participate in them. But why should serious academic work be treated so differently? High school students hear what adults say about the importance of reading, writing and academics in general. They also observe how we treat them. And they draw their own conclusions and apportion their valuable time accordingly...
I believe we can do a better job of encouraging high school students to do serious academic work, at least in history, by showing them that some of their peers are writing fine serious papers, and by reporting on and honoring them when they do the same...
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