Keeping essays to that length, about 20 double-spaced typewritten pages, made sense to Fitzhugh, who was a high school social studies teacher when he started the Concord Review in 1987 to publish these papers. But if students wrote more than that he was fine with it.
Because of his willingness to indulge the adolescent urge for something extra, the average paper used by the Concord Review is now 9,000 words. The quarterly journal has so far published 1,427 history papers by high school students (and four middle school students) from 46 states and 43 other countries in 131 issues. The torrent of submissions is so great he can publish only about 5 percent of what he gets.
For decades Fitzhugh, now 85, has been receiving excited emails from students such as Jane Chen, whose teacher at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colo., suggested she expand a class project into a Concord Review article. Chen told Fitzhugh it was “a completely new experience for me. . . . I was free to pursue whatever aspect of my topic that I wanted to whatever extent that I wanted.”
What if more high school teachers encouraged dissertations such as Chen’s examination of the light shed on the Pentagon Papers by President Richard Nixon’s telephone transcripts?
Long research papers are usually required only by certain parts of the International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement high school programs and by some private schools. Many of the papers published by Fitzhugh come from students revising and expanding that schoolwork.
This year, the IB extended essay program, begun in 1975, produced 88,249 papers. The AP research essay program, begun in 2015, produced 24,021. Both covered many topics besides history. But neither shares Fitzhugh’s fondness for work of any length. To ensure no student gets an unfair advantage, IB limits essays to 4,000 words and AP to 5,000 words.
Fitzhugh first got the idea for big papers because he concluded that his students at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School in Concord, Mass., were better than the five-to-seven-page assignments he was giving them. One sophomore handed in a 28-page paper on the nuclear strategic balance between the United States and the Soviet Union.
“He was not meeting my standards, but his own,” Fitzhugh recalled. “This gave me a clue that perhaps I was not asking students for all they could do. Two of my colleagues proposed to the administration that they work with two or three volunteer students who wanted to work on a history paper for a year . . . for a one-semester independent study credit. This was turned down as elitist.”
Fitzhugh had a sabbatical in the 1986-1987 school year. He read a landmark book by reformer Ted Sizer, “Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School.” He realized many educators shared his concern about nonfiction reading, knowledge of history and academic expository writing.
“I was 50, feeling I hadn’t done much with my life,” Fitzhugh said. “I admired entrepreneurs, and desktop publishing had just become a possibility.” His father had left him $80,000. He sent a four-page brochure asking for papers from every high school in the United States and Canada, and 1,500 more schools abroad.
He taught one more year to pay for his sabbatical and then quit. The next 14 years he worked with no pay and no vacation from his dining room table. The first issue of the Concord Review came out in the fall of 1988. He sent the first four issues free to 1,000 private schools. They were the most likely to require student research. But at the beginning he got almost no response.
The project was always short of money. He tried to stretch the occasional grants he received from intrigued billionaires and foundations. Then he discovered a more reliable moneymaker — summer history camps. He charges $3,500 per student for a two-week online research and writing course, including one-on-one student-teacher contact.
The fall 2021 issue of the Concord Review has 11 essays, three of them from students abroad. Titles include “Tanzimat Reforms” (19th-century Ottoman Empire, 5,880 words) by Atharv Panditrao at Fremont High School in Sunnyvale, Calif.; “Green Goods Scam” (19th-century United States, 6,884 words) by Michael Benjamin Hoffen, an eighth-grader at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx; “Committees of Correspondence” (6,753 words) by Ruosong Gao at Cranbrook Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; and “Battle of the Somme” (8,172 words) by Ju Hwan James Kim at the United World College of South East Asia, a K-12 IB school in Singapore.
A paper on the Chinese population in Indonesia in the same issue had 13,076 words.
AP and IB officials say they admire what Fitzhugh, his authors and their teachers have done. Educators who want to encourage writing have been urging students to submit their work not only to the Concord Review but also to college undergraduate research journals now open to younger scholars and to publications run by their own high schools.
Like Fitzhugh, those teachers understand that seeing your name in print is a powerful incentive. It is admittedly a juvenile obsession, but it got me into journalism and is still keeping me at it.
According to Fitzhugh, experts often say teacher quality is the most important factor in academic achievement, but he thinks challenging academic work inspires the most learning.
Students who have tackled demanding tasks “now know they can do it,” he said. “We are not surprised by the breaking of Olympic records by young people inspired by the examples of their peers. Why be surprised if that works in academics too?”
Teachers who haven’t tried this could start with a few independent study projects. That can’t be dismissed as elitist if they let anyone do it who wants to try.