By Bill Korach www.thereportcard.org
Rigorous writing is not required or taught in most high schools in America, but rigorous writing is de rigueur for admission to top colleges and is highly respected by employers as a critical skill. The Concord Review has published the best high school history papers in the world. TCR Publisher Will Fitzhugh says his authors are accepted at the greated universities in the world including Harvard, The University of Chicago, West Point, Annapolis and many others. Maya Krishnan wrote her paper for The Concord Review when she was a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, MD.
Ms. Krishnan has been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study for one year at Oxford University. Not every student can win a Rhodes Scholarship, but every student can benefit by becoming a better writer. Writing an excellent history paper not only teaches writing skills, also teaches the writer research and acquisition of knowledge. In her interview with The Report Card, Ms. Krishna discusses her paper and how the effort paid so many dividends.
Q: Your paper is 24 pages in length. What was the requirement of the International Baccalaureate class? Do you recall the length of the average submission from your class that year?
My IB History class required a paper that had a word count between 1500 and 2000. I ended up getting very interested in my topic and doing lots of extra reading. Eventually I realized that only a fraction of my research could end up in the IB History paper, so I mentioned to my history teacher, Robert Thomas, that I wanted to work on a second independent paper to go along with the class assignment. He was very enthusiastic about the project and encouraged me to develop the paper into a full-length submission.
Q: Who inspired you to take an interest in writing?
One of my high school English teachers, Daniel McKenna, was one of the first teachers who got me very interested in writing. In Mr. McKenna’s English class, literature and writing felt high-stakes – like there were crucial insights worth gaining from texts like Othello and Macbeth, and that intense critical analysis was the only way to find them. I remember getting very invested in a critical essay I wrote on some of James Joyce’s short stories in Mr. McKenna’s English class. I’ve enjoyed analytical writing every since.
This class was part of a very rigorous education in writing I got from the International Baccalaureate program at my high school, Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville MD. There were many great English teachers at Richard Montgomery, and students were regularly writing critical analyses of poetry and prose from the start of ninth grade. All students ought to be able to receive that kind of intense training in analytical writing from their schools.
Q: Did you have a “tiger mom” or were you self motivated?
I didn’t have a “tiger mom” and I generally followed my own interests, but my parents were always extremely supportive.
Q: Why did you select the topic of Soviet Realism? Are you interested in the Soviet Union, art, history or all of the above?
All of the above – In my tenth grade IB Art class we learned about the explosive creativity of Russian artists in the 1910s and 1920s. So many new styles of art like Suprematism and Constructivism were being developed at the time, and they were developed as part of a broader utopian desire to completely reshape society. I found the notion of remaking the world through art gripping and fascinating. Then in my IB History class we spend a long time studying early 20th century Russian history, and I learned about the violence that can follow extreme political ambitions to remake the world. My choice of topic came out of a desire to better understand the blend of power, promise, and danger that accompanies the urge to fashion the world according to a new image.
Q: How did you learn about TCR?
Several older students in my high school had already been published in TCR by the time I was working on my paper for my History class. I remember reading their essays in printed copies of the journal and being very impressed by their work, and I recall thinking that it would be great if I could submit an essay to the journal, too.
Q: How did your submission to TCR benefit you?
My submission was the first piece of academic work that truly felt like my own intellectual project. Although of course I had written essays before, they hadn’t been long enough to provide the opportunity for the kind of original thinking that an essay for TCR requires. It also made me realize how much responsibility comes with writing history — when I write history I’m making a claim about the way the world really developed, and what I write may shape the way other people think about the past, so I have to be extremely careful to represent reality to the best of my abilities. I had never felt that kind of responsibility before and it was transformative for me.
Writing a paper for TCR also prepared me well for college. My submission taught me how to do research, a skill that students are frequently assumed to already have by the time they enter college. I remember taking the bus to the library of a local university so I could use Jstor and access scholarly monographs. I felt a small jolt of excitement every time I came across a book or article that seemed relevant to my topic. It was an introduction to the thrill of research.
Q: There appears to be a trend away from history and from writing in high school. What do you feel writing and history contributed to your education?
I think the trend away from both writing and history is disastrous. Writing is more than a tool for communicating ideas – it’s a way of producing original and consistent thinking. To write on a single topic for ten, fifteen, or twenty pages, you have to move beyond the realm of received opinion and generate your own ideas. To defend an idea in that same space, you have to struggle to maintain a coherent line of argument. A two-page or five-page essay easily masks inconsistent or incoherent thinking. The long essay is the best way to learn to think.
Learning history taught me how to understand the deeper forces that influence the kinds of events I read about in the news every day. How can you understand what’s going on between Israel and Palestine right now without also understanding the history of colonialism, the history of European anti-Semitism, and the history of nineteenth-century nationalism? History provides students with the intellectual training they need to grapple with the complexity of real-world human affairs. Historical thinking is never going to lose its relevance.
Q: Do you agree with the modern notion that the purpose of education is utilitarian, that is to train you for the job market, or do you feel that the classical idea of education for its own sake is a better path?
I believe that the most useful education is one that teaches creative, insightful, and rigorous thinking. An education in the classics or an education in poetry can ultimately provide more lasting (and useful!) lessons than an education which caters to the latest trends of the job market. In a world where shifts in technology are constantly changing the kinds of jobs that are available, it’s probably more important for students to be engaged learners and thinkers than it is for them to master any one particular set of techniques. Reading, writing, and thinking are the ultimate twenty-first century skills.
Q: What careers are you considering?
I’m considering getting a PhD in philosophy and going into academia. I studied philosophy and computer science as an undergraduate and am eventually hoping to work on the philosophy of technology and the philosophy of computer science. I’d also considering entering the tech industry, but academia is my ultimate dream.
Q: I notice you have an Indian name, is English your first language?
English is my first language, but my grandparents lived with me when I was growing up and they spoke some Tamil with me. I don’t speak much Tamil myself, though.
Q: What do you expect to get out of your time at Oxford?
I’ll be spending one year studying computer science and one year studying philosophical theology. My hope is to gain a deeper understanding of the social and ethical implications of recent developments in computer technology. Human experience has changed in so many ways in the past several decades as a result of the personal computing revolution and the Internet, and I want to use my philosophical training to think about how we can responsibly manage these changes.