Something to take our minds off woe while we wait…

I know that the thoughts of the community here, and mine certainly, are with Rep. Giffords, the wounded in that horrible incident, their families, and the loved ones who have been lost.

I know what my first reaction is to the shooting, beyond grief for the individuals directly afflicted and longing for a society where this does not happen, but I think John’s right, and not just because the facts aren’t all in.  I’m trying to leave space in my head and my heart just for those who have been so horribly touched by this before picking up my cudgel again in what surely should be purely political battles.

So, just to provide a moment’s distraction, let me point out an article in The  New York Times that reminds us that even in hard times, the kids can be all right, thank you very much.

In it, reporter Sam Dillon tells the story of William Fitzhugh’s work on The Concord Review, which publishes exemplary research papers (what I remember as term papers) by high school students.

Fitzhugh comes off as a complicated character, which is one way of saying that he sounds like he could be a total pain in ass.  And the fact that his journal now publishes almost exclusively work from private school students — while public school work used to have a much higher representation — reminds us of the fact that the barriers to membership in the elite are there and real, and growing higher.

But three quick quotes/thoughts.  First, Fitzhugh reminds us of the joy of encountering really good work.

Mr. Fitzhugh said he has so far been unable to find the right person to succeed him, and the review’s future as an online journal remains uncertain.

But when he feels discouraged, he said, a new essay will often arrive, like, say, the 11,000-word paper that came in the other day from a student in Hong Kong examining the history of scientific inquiry in China.

Suddenly he is thrilled anew that the review has called forth impressive work from a young scholar on the other side of the earth.

“It’s a great essay, and I can’t wait to publish it,” he said.

Second, on a truth I know to be real from my own work as a teacher of writing and documentary film-making:

Mr. Fitzhugh…taught history for a decade at Concord-Carlisle [Public] High School in Massachusetts. When he started teaching in 1977, he was advised by colleagues to assign only short papers, five to seven pages — if at all.

But well into his teaching career, he received a high school sophomore’s thoroughly researched, 28-page paper on America’s strategic nuclear balance with the Soviet Union.

“That taught me I hadn’t been asking kids to work as hard as they could,” Mr. Fitzhugh recalled.

Amen and amen.  Students can do much more than they or you are sometimes prepared to believe.  If you don’t tell them that they can’t, they may delight you.  Moral, to self, as I prepare what I know to be a very demanding course: frame the assignments so that the students have a venue in which to do something satisfactory — while never eliminating the possibility of going for something extraordinary.

Last:  the piece provided a nice nod to oft-reviled teachers’ union chief Albert Shanker, who gave Fitzhugh early and eager support:

One of its earliest cheerleaders was Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, who before his death in 1997 wrote at least two newspaper columns and personal letters to the National Endowment for the Humanities, the MacArthur Foundation, and Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, extolling the review and urging them to provide it with financial support.

“We know that most of the youngsters in our schools don’t write very much or very well,” Mr. Shanker wrote to the endowment’s president, Lynne Cheney, in 1991. “There are probably teachers who don’t believe their students are capable of putting together a decent paragraph. The Concord Review shows them how much our students are capable of.”

Exactly. Our kids are capable of great things.  It is good always, and especially at times like these, to be reminder of this.

And now, back to thinking about those in peril and in sorrow.

Image: Rembrandt van Rijn, Titus at his desk, (Rembrandt’s son) 1655.

Explore posts in the same categories: good writing, words mattter, Writing

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2 Comments on “Something to take our minds off woe while we wait…”


  1. Welcome to Concord, MA (though I see the Review’s offices are in next-door Sudbury). Where a sizable fraction of the residents think that they are the second coming of Alcott, Emerson, and/or Thoreau. Makes for interesting public meetings.

  2. Tom Levenson Says:

    “Makes for interesting public meetings.”

    I’ll bet.


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