by Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review
1 July 2006

The Boston Globe reported recently that Michelle Wie, at 16, in addition to getting out now and then for a good game of golf, not only speaks Korean and English, but has also taken four years of Japanese, and is starting Mandarin Chinese. She is planning to apply early to Stanford. I would venture the opinion, however, that in her high school, not only has her academic writing been limited to the five-paragraph essay, but it is very likely that she has not been assigned a complete nonfiction book and will not be given such an assignment at any time in her high school years.

For the last two years, and especially since the National Endowment for the Arts’ large study of the reading of fiction in the United States, by young people and others, I have sought funding for a much smaller study of the assignment of complete nonfiction books in U.S. public high schools. This proposed study, which Diane Ravitch has called “timely and relevant,” has been turned down by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a number of large and small foundations and institutes so far.

I have a fair amount of anecdotal evidence, even from people who would be quite shocked to hear that high school English departments are no longer assigning any complete novels, that they understand that nonfiction books, for instance history books, are not being assigned at all.

One partner in a law firm in Boston, who went to Phillips Academy in Andover several decades ago, commented that there was no point in such a study because everyone knows there are no history books assigned in schools. Even at Andover in his day, he had only selections, readings and the like, never a complete book. A Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, sometimes thought of as a conservative place, told me, when I commented that I couldn’t find anyone who agrees that our high school students should read one book, that “The only hope is parents introducing their kids to reading, and that’s a mighty slim hope.”

For the last two decades, I have been working to encourage the writing of history research papers by our high school students, but it has become apparent to me that one of the many problems in getting students to undertake such a task is that so many do not read any history, and so have nothing to write about. But as I began to try to find out about the reading of nonfiction books, I have found more and more apathy and acceptance of the situation in which as long as the English department controls reading and writing in our schools, the reading will be fiction, and the writing will be personal, creative or the five-paragraph essay.

Now consider the fact that while most of our high school students are not fluent in English and Korean, and are not studying Japanese or Mandarin, tens or hundreds of thousands of them are expected to manage Chemistry, Calculus, and Physics. I don’t understand the view that reading a good history book is more difficult than Calculus, but there it seems to be.

Why is this important? ACT found this Spring that 49% of our high school graduates (half of the 70% who do graduate) cannot read at the level of freshman college texts. Common sense, buttressed by such work as that of E.D. Hirsch, Jr., for instance in his most recent book, The Knowledge Deficit, would lead to the assumption that perhaps the reason so many students need remedial work in college (63% of those in Massachusetts’ community colleges and 34% of those in Massachusetts’ four-year colleges, according to The Boston Globe), and the reason so many do not return for their sophomore year, may be because they have never faced a nonfiction book before, and they may have so little knowledge that they do not know what their professors are talking about.

These days, of course, there is a great deal of attention given to many educational issues, and one of the current Edupundit maxims is that the most important variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality. So lots of attention and many millions of dollars go into teacher training, re-training, professional development, and the like.

I believe the truth is otherwise. The most important variable in student academic achievement is student academic work. Those who concern themselves with teacher quality only assume that better teachers will lead to more student academic work, but if they would care to look, the examples of the lousy teacher with the diligent student who does well, and the superior teacher with a student who does no academic work, are everywhere to be found.

Ignoring academic writing and the reading of nonfiction books at the high school level can only prolong, it seems to me, the high levels of remediation and failure in college that we already have. I hope that it may soon become possible to discover if our high school students are indeed discouraged from reading a history book and from writing a serious term paper, and that then we might turn more of our attention to asking for the student academic work that alone can lead to the academic achievement we all wish to see for our students.


Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
National History Club [2002]
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