Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Thirty years of 'varsity academics'

by Jeff Jacoby

OF THE THREE R's, says Will Fitzhugh, the founder and publisher of The Concord Review, the middle R has long been the most neglected. It was true in his own case — when he arrived at Harvard as a freshman 61 years ago, he had never had to write a single term paper — and it remains true now. On the whole, American students graduate from high school incapable of writing a coherent, well-researched essay. Most of those who continue to college don't become competent writers there, either.

For years, blue-ribbon panels and high-powered commissions have bewailed this state of affairs, to little visible effect. The last time the federal government measured writing skills among middle- and high-school students, it found that nearly 3 out of 4 could not pass a test of writing proficiency. Employers are forced to spend enormous sums on remedial writing courses for their workers — by one estimate, as much as $3.1 billion per year.

Fitzhugh, who worked for the Apollo space program, Westinghouse, and the Peace Corps before finding his calling as a teacher, didn't have billions when he launched The Concord Review in 1987. All he had was $80,000 he had inherited from his father, some familiarity with desktop publishing software, and the fervent conviction that what works for high school athletics could work for writing: Promote and praise the top achievers, and other students will be inspired by their example.

Three decades later, Fitzhugh's journal has become the world's foremost showcase for first-rate history research by secondary-school students. To date, the review has published 1,230 essays by authors from 44 states and 40 other countries, on an astonishing variety of historical topics. These are not short compositions of a few hundred gauzy words. On average, papers published in The Concord Review run 7,000 words, along with detailed endnotes. Among the offerings in the latest issue are a paper on the Opium Wars, written by Stephanie Zhao; an essay on Ronald Reagan and the Cold War by Siddharth Tripathi; and a study of the Treaty of Trianon by Milan Kende Loewer.

Alas, the world's foremost journal for such exemplary writing is still the world's only such journal. And the vast majority of high school students have never heard of it.

That wasn't what Fitzhugh anticipated when he published his first issue.

During his years of classroom teaching at Concord-Carlisle High School in Concord, Mass., Fitzhugh had always had a few students who did more than he asked them to do. Their research was more thorough, their analysis sharper, their writing longer and more careful. They earned good grades, but other students weren't encouraged to notice their work. While the school's best athletes were local heroes, the school's best students earned little acclaim.

Amid all the lamentation about the state of American education — and by the mid-1980s, the lamenting was considerable — Fitzhugh was repeatedly struck by the contrast between athletics and academics. High school athletes were held to very high standards, and those who met them were showered with encouragement. The best high school basketball players, swimmers, or runners were often profiled by the media in "All-Scholastic" special sections; the very best might even be recruited by college coaches, who kept abreast of the most impressive up-and-coming talent.

But there were no newspaper profiles of outstanding high school history students, no outreach from the chairmen of college history departments, no recognition from best-selling historians. No academic journal was interested in publishing the serious writing of high school students. No foundation offered lucrative prizes for top-notch scholarly writing by authors in their teens.

Fitzhugh decided to blaze a path. He quit his job, cashed in his pension, and devoted himself full-time to producing a journal that would show the kind of scholarly writing youthful students were capable of. He adopted "Varsity Academics" as his slogan and put out a call for excellent history essays. The journal's purpose, he says, was to serve as a new kind of peer pressure: to demonstrate to high school students everywhere what kids their age could achieve.

As word of The Concord Review trickled out, the superb history papers began coming in. So did tributes from supporters as varied as Albert Shanker, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., John Silber, and David McCullough. So did modest financial support from a handful of donors who grasped the potential of what Fitzhugh was doing.

But it has always been a hand-to-mouth existence. Fitzhugh never saw anything like the tens of millions of dollars that are poured into after-the-fact remedial writing instruction and into gimmicky feel-good campaigns by foundations more interested in boosting self-esteem than in challenging students to work hard. Over and over, Fitzhugh's grant applications have been rejected on the grounds that his journal is too elitist, or that it doesn't have a politically-correct edge, or that the study of history isn't, after all, nearly as important as he seems to think it is. A few high schools have embraced The Concord Review, but far more want nothing to do with a journal so committed to high academic standards.

Through it all, Fitzhugh persists, cheerful and determined — and passionate as ever about student achievement. It remains the case that most high school students are never required to write a serious research paper. But now there are 30 years' worth of Concord Reviews that open a window into an alternative universe. You want to see what high school kids can do? Spend some time with The Concord Review, and prepare to be inspired.


The non-Jewish students who fight BDS

As Apartheid Week rages in campuses around the world, there are students on UK campuses with no ties to Israel or Judaism who choose to fight for Israel. They talk about the accusations hurled at them ('You're Nazis'), the difficulty posed by pro-Palestinian groups disrupting pro-Israel events, and why they're defending Israel

Israel’s diplomats are working hard this month as events of the BDS Movement’s Apartheid Week take place in different places around the globe. These events, which began on February 28 and will continue through April 10, paint Israel in a negative light and expose tens of thousands of students to the boycott campaign and pro-Palestinian organizations that are operating on different campuses.

The discussions are mostly one-sided: Israel is hardly ever represented by anyone, and the pro-Palestinian organizations enjoy a monopoly in the battle for public opinion. Over the last few years, anti-Semitic groups have also made it onto campuses under the Apartheid Week guise, with swastikas and comparisons of Israel to the Nazi regime becoming commonplace.

But there has been an awakening over the past two years on several campuses in Britain, where students and activists started fighting for Israel’s image. They’re not only trying to balance the negative image of Israel painted by the boycott organizations, but they’re also organizing events and activities to present a different side of Israel.

The most surprising thing about these initiatives, though, is that many of the students at the forefront of Israel’s battle against Apartheid Week are not Israeli, nor even Jewish.

‘You support war crimes’

Khulan Davajab is one of them. She’s 21, one her first year studying Hebrew and International Relations at SOAS University of London, which specializes in Asia, Africa and the Near and Middle East. SOAS is considered one of the more prestigious schools at the University of London, but its campus is also considered one of the most anti-Israeli in Britain—a stronghold of the boycott movement.

Davajab was born in Mongolia, moved with her mother to the Czech Republic and arrived in London three years ago. Her affiliation to Israel started by chance.

“When I was 13, a friend of mine read a book about the persecution of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition and recommended it to me,” she says. “I started developing an interest in Judaism and in the history of the Jewish people, and I noticed Israel was getting a very negative and unfair treatment in the world. I started writing a blog about Israel, won a prize in an essay content about Israel, and went to visit it. I finally saw the country with my own eyes and realized the way in which Israel is being portrayed in the media was unfair and doesn’t truly reflect it.”

Last year, Davajab decided to study international relations and Hebrew, though even Hebrew studies failed to provide her with a refuge in the hostile academic institution.”On the first week of school, when I told people I was studying Hebrew, one of them lecturers asked me ‘Why are you studying Hebrew? So you could read the Israeli propaganda?'” she recounts.

“During lessons, the lecturers tell the students that Israeli prison guards sexually abuse Palestinian prisoners. They present Israel as Satan and say that Iran needs a nuclear bomb so it could deal with Israel’s aggression. When I try to balance the scale, I’m told ‘You’re supporting war crimes.'”

And how do the students react to such things?

“The students agree with the lecturers. I feel a lot of hostility when I express my opinion. My only friends on campus are Jews. Even the Israeli students on campus hide where they’re from, lying and saying they were from France or the US. When I enter a classroom, I often hear whispering, ‘There, the Zionist is here.’

“We had an event for Israel recently and pro-Palestinian activists attacked me and my friends, stole my phone and snatched my purse. It almost deteriorated to physical violence.”

But Davajab didn’t let the pro-Palestinian activists discourage her. Several months ago, she joined a leadership program through StandWithUs, a non-profit organization working to improve Israel’s image in campuses around the world. The organization’s leadership program was launched this year, training 35 young leaders—several of them not Jewish—in campuses across Britain using seminars, lectures and workshops providing practical tools to aid them in organizing pro-Israel activities on campuses.

Tamir Oren, StandWithUs’s representative in London, arrived in the UK several months ago and saw the massive campaign against Israel.

“The resistance hasn’t been anti-Israeli in a long time,” he explains. “We see a situation on campuses in which Jewish students experience anti-Semitism and are afraid of wearing a kippah. Other students bemoan the fact that pro-Palestinian organizations disrupt pro-Israel events, and there are quite a few incidents where swastikas have been drawn on walls.”

But Oren and his organization also see some encouraging signs. “This week, during the Apartheid Week events, our students held the ‘Shabbat Shalom’ event meant to show the beautiful side of Israel,” he says. “Another student led a delegation of entrepreneurs to Israel. We’re starting a dialogue in places where until recently no one agreed to even listen to the Israeli side.”

‘Dialogue instead of boycott’

Davajab also started organizing pro-Israel events on campus. “We brought a delegation of activists from the Yesh Atid party and they spoke to students here,” she says. “We also brought a delegation of students from the Hebrew University to present the reality in Israel rather than the lies and distortions. We received a lot of good feedback. So far, everyone was exposed to one narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and suddenly they get to hear the other side. Students tell me these lectures opened their minds, and that they no longer thought Israelis were murdering Palestinians in cold blood. They now see there’s another side to the conflict. The program gave me tools, but more than that, it helped me feel I wasn’t alone; that there were students like me at other universities.”

One of those students is Jonathan Farrell, 22, a BA student for international relations and Arabic at the University of Exeter. He grew up in Buckinghamshire, far from any major Jewish community.”I had no clue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I knew Israel was a tolerant place in a sea of intolerance,” he says.

When he began his studies, he joined a Friends of Israel group on campus. “Ironically, there was a Jewish organization at the university, but when we tried to recruit them for pro-Israel activities, they said they were an a-political organization and refused. So we started our own group,” he says.

Over the past three years, he and his friends have been organizing pro-Israel activities and events on different campuses. One of the more successful ventures was when they invited a profession of history and theology who told the students about the Jewish people’s millennia-old connection to the Land of Israel.

“A lot of students said they had no idea that Jews had lived in Israel in the past. Until then, all they heard was that Zionism was a racist movement and that the white Jews invaded Israel without having any ties to the place,” Farrell says.During Apartheid Week, Farrell and his friends held Israel Peace Week, which promotes love instead of hate, dialogue instead of boycott. “We’re holding a fair with food tastings, lectures, discussions and other activities,” he says. “This is how we explain that the only way to make peace is through dialogue, not boycotts.”

Do you feel a change in the attitude towards Israel on campus?

“I can’t say that there’s a lot of support for Israel, but I definitely see more balance and hesitancy. The students who used to just eat up what they were being told are now asking questions. The conversations are no longer one-sided. We are able to help students see the problematic nature of the Palestinians. Even the Palestinians on campus were surprised by us. They lost the one-sided control on campus that they had taken for granted. Every time they hold an event against Israel—we’ll be there with leaflets, signs and Israeli flags.”

Joe Sigolo, 19, an international relations student at Queen Mary University of London, started supporting Israel after Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014.

“I started studying the situation, in contrary to the distorted and negative way in which Israel is being described in the media. I was shocked because people in London—including Jews—presented Israel in such a negative manner. I noticed activists were using the anti-Zionist stance as a cover for ugly anti-Semitic views and decided to show the Israeli side of the story.

“When I first arrived at the university, the situation on campus was terrible. You couldn’t even mention the name Israel, or hint that you were in favor of Israel. I kept being attacked. When one of the professors said Gaza was a giant prison, I mumbled to myself ‘That’s not true,’ and the student sitting next to me told me ‘These are dirty Jews and you have blood on your hands.’ He yelled at me, ‘I won’t sit next to you’ and left.”

But Sigolo wasn’t discouraged either. “Education is the way to peace, and if we want to have a chance of peace, we have to give people information,” he says. The narrative on campus “is that Israel is (sterilizing) Ethiopian women because they’re black, and you have to fight these made-up stories. The pro-Palestinian organizations are trying to sabotage our activity, and my job is to give people correct information.”

StandWithUs representative Tamir Oren says that while non-Jewish students taking part in pro-Israel activity is impressive, they often have to pay a price. “They have to give up on friends, parties and leisure time to defend Israel,” he says.

What about the Israeli government?

“We don’t receive government support, among other reasons so we don’t get accused of being a government branch spreading propaganda. The special thing about our program is that it gives students a platform to tell the Israeli story through their own eyes. No official body can match their levels of familiarity and credibility.”


Evidence needed before education changes

Comment from Australia

The working lives of people entering the Australian workforce in 2017 are different to those of the previous generation. Technology and automation, as well as the decline in industries where entry level positions have a low skill requirement, are reducing the employment options for people with low academic achievement and without post-school qualifications.

These developments have had several flow-on effects. Youth unemployment has been increasing, going up to 14% in February, putting pressure on job services and the welfare system. Rather than be unemployed, more young people are staying at school to Year 12 (84.3% of youth in 2016 compared to 75% in 2006), compelling schools to accommodate a cohort of senior secondary students who are not academically motivated. More young people are going to university, many of whom are not well-equipped for university level study, which perhaps helps explain the recent data showing around one-third of university students drop out of their degrees. In addition, they often choose degrees that have low prospects of employment.

The obvious reasons for these problems are structural change in the Australian economy, and a mismatch between the industries that have employment demand and the education choices being made by prospective employees. Indeed, the bright light in the current employment situation is apprenticeships — 92% of individuals graduating from apprenticeships and traineeships are employed full time post-completion. It is not difficult to understand why: there is a direct match between training and employment.

These are real problems and require a response from our education and training systems. A recent report from the Mitchell Institute sets out the problem well and acknowledges the reasons posited above, but devotes much of its space to arguing that the most ‘ready solution’ is for schools to prioritise the development of ‘competencies’ and ‘capabilities,’ like creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.

It is hard to argue that these are not important capabilities but it is easier said than done. Schools are still struggling to teach the core curriculum, as shown by the decline in Australia’s results in international assessments. It is not at all clear that ‘capabilities’ can be taught in a general way, and whether they can be assessed. Further, no evidence is presented that employers see the lack of these capabilities as key impediments to youth employment.

A wholesale refocusing of the education system amidst the disruption of twenty-first century globalisation and automation without solid evidence is a big risk.


No comments: