What I Learn From My Mail
I got an email the other day from Will Fitzhugh, who is the founder of the Concord Review. That is a journal that reviews, evaluates, and publishes the best high school research papers. He pointed out something to me that puts this whole content/nonfiction issue in another light: high school students almost never read nonfiction books. They may read textbooks that have bits of prose in them, they may read excerpts and handouts, they may be assigned full chapters. But they do not have the experience of following an author’s entire argument, his or her narrative, from beginning to end. Will has been trying to get funding for a study to test this contention, but no one seems interested. They are so sure it is true, they don’t want to spend money on proving the obvious.
Well folks, if this is an obvious truth, the obvious question is why we are not talking about it. It is one thing to be upset that content is being cut out of the elementary school years, but replacing nonfiction books with nonfiction bites in high school is, well, criminal. It deprives young people of access to the way a historian thinks, argues, writes, develops his work. Yes textbooks analyze passages and give historiographical commentary — in fact some are very good at that. But that dissection is not at all the same as the sensual pleasure of sinking into a book.
To be clear, I am not merely talking about storytelling — the historian who catches you up with well-wrought scenes and vivid dramatic action. I find a sensual pleasure in being carried along in an argument, a sequence of logic, a "take," a point of view. If high school students never get to go on a ride with a historian as he or she makes sense of the past, how can they ever know how to do it themselves?
Thanks, Will, for pointing this out — and folks, is he right?