American history is a subject that has suffered from bad teaching, and public education in general is profoundly deforming in so many ways these days. This is why John Niemann, a veteran teacher at classical schools in the Twin Cities, saw a need several years ago and met it with the Saint John Paul II Educational Guild.
I write still awaiting a final presidential election decision. Whatever is decided, if anything has been, by the time you read this, the same cultural problems that are breaking down our society will be with us. One of the greatest of these is American education, which has been a manifest failure over at least the last four decades, not just in the STEM subjects so emphasized these days, but in a basic understanding of history.
American history is obviously a subject that has suffered from bad teaching… and indeed from not being taught at all. The conspiracy theory held by the 1619 Project and other left-wing groups has obviously been passed on to too many young Americans. One student told me that a young woman in her dorm was upset by seeing a number of American flags displayed. She did not know, she said, that “white supremacy” was so rampant in the Twin Cities. In truth, like most American students, recent students, and even not-so-recent students, she likely knows next to nothing about our country beyond a smattering of horrific tales of slavery, Jim Crow, and racism.
A 2018 survey administered by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that out of 1000 surveyed, only 36% could pass a test based on the test given to those applying for U.S. citizenship. The survey broke pretty cleanly by age: 74% of those over 65 passed it while only 19% of those under 45 passed it. While Ezra Klein, the millennial journalist, then at The Washington Post, was widely mocked in 2010 for his complaints about the U.S. Constitution being difficult to read because it was “written 100 years ago,” he was pretty representative of Americans. The Wilson Foundation survey found that only 13% of respondents knew when the Constitution was written (1787). Further, only 40% of the respondents knew which countries the U.S. fought in World War II. This brings us to another assumption that seems to have percolated—or been ground into—the minds of all too many Americans. It has been captured by a meme: “Everybody I don’t agree with is Hitler.”
I used to think the powerful force of Godwin’s Law (which holds that the further an argument proceeds, the more likely one side is to use the reductio ad Hitlerum) was motivated by bad faith. But it more likely comes from sheer ignorance. In September of this year, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany “released the U.S. Millennial Holocaust Knowledge and Awareness Survey, the first-ever 50-state survey on Holocaust knowledge among Millennials and Gen Z.” As it turns out, very few people in those generations know that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust (37%) or can name a concentration camp (52%). Eleven percent of respondents think the Jews are responsible for the Holocaust.
I could multiply the proofs of academic malfeasance in an essay of this sort many times over. It’s not just the primary and secondary schools Richard Arum and Josipa Roska demonstrated in their 2011 book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, that my colleagues in the Ivory Tower aren’t helping them figure out what Hitler did either. But higher education, even with so many people passing through over the last 40 years, still only serves a minority of Americans. And its bubble, leaking furiously due to many factors, most recently university responses to COVID, will be punctured in 2026 when the massive drop in American births in 2008 comes due in the form of a much smaller university freshman class.
Universities we may not always have with us—at least in the current numbers. The greater need is for new educational options at the primary and secondary level. Public education, when not subpar, is profoundly deforming in so many ways these days as to be disbelieved. One election result not disputed is the passage of a comprehensive sexual education bill in Washington State passed by popular referendum. Pushed by Planned Parenthood and other progressive groups, it will require every grade to have sex education—and will begin inculcating transgenderism and other ideas by sixth grade. Private education, even much Catholic parochial education, is not far behind and, depending on who’s running the school, is further ahead in the race to the bottom educationally and morally. Of course, the growth of independent schools, religious and otherwise, is a hopeful sign. So too is the rapid growth of homeschooling.
Homeschooling, however, is a difficult thing, especially once one gets into the upper grades. I can help my kids with their history, literature, religion, and Latin homework, but I confess that remembering how to make the trinomial a perfect square and other such mathematical operations that I, ahem, mastered during the Reagan administration is sometimes more difficult. Nevertheless, I usually rise to the occasion: “Why don’t you ask your mother about that one?”
Homeschoolers know this. Not every parent can teach every subject, which is why homeschool co-ops flourish. Parents who are good at one subject can help the kids whose parents can’t do it as well. Or tutors can be engaged. It is harder to make this work at the high school level, however. This is why John Niemann, a veteran teacher at classical schools in the Twin Cities, saw a need several years ago and met it with the Saint John Paul II Educational Guild.
The Guild provides a three-year Catholic high school curriculum in humanities, math, and science that fulfills the Minnesota high school requirements for math, natural sciences, and social sciences. The core courses meet two days a week—science/math for two hours in the morning and humanities in the afternoon (or vice versa)—and students are expected to read and write during the rest of the week so that they are able to join in “the great conversation” when they do come to class. The curriculum is distinctly traditional. The sciences proceed, intriguingly, in a way opposite that of most modern education programs: physics, then chemistry, and finally biology. The humanities curriculum starts with the ancient world in the first year, that expansive thing called the medieval world in the second, and gets to the modern world in the third year. The Guild’s approach to teaching the long history is refreshingly direct: “Students will read the great works of each age, both Catholic and secular, to gain a better understanding of our own post-Christian age and our place in it as Catholics.” While too many Catholic and Christian schools have abandoned “the vision thing”—or simply adopted that of secular educational outlets and sprinkled a bit of incense on it—the Saint John Paul II Guild is teaching students to know the facts of history (their students are aware of both Hitler and Stalin) but look at them through the lenses of reason and faith.
In addition to the core curriculum, they offer electives such as Latin, Greek drama, test preparation, and, this year, two courses desperately needed: “The Human Soul, Its Existence and Nature,” taught by the philosopher James Chastek (some will know him from his long-time blog “Just Thomism”), and “Catholic Civics,” taught by John Niemann himself. Though too many educators today convey the notion that students have a mysterious, ineffable “gender identity,” they are often the same ones who deny that souls exist. Similarly, while many educators, non-Catholic and Catholic, don’t teach about American rights and liberties, Mr. Niemann teaches this course with an eye to helping make Catholic citizens who will stand up for their rights and liberties. The course requires the reading of that “hundred-year-old” document, the U.S. Constitution, as well as Supreme Court decisions and dissents, Catholic teachings, and canon law.
Several homeschooling friends of mine have students studying with Mr. Niemann and his crew. They are all very happy with what their children are learning and how they are learning it. They learn to read critically, to be sure, but their criticism is based on knowing enough facts to make an informed judgment. We need more educational options if we are to stem the civilizational ignorance that afflicts our Republic and our churches. The Saint John Paul II Guild is small but growing—COVID safety didn’t shut it down. May it gain and inspire many imitators and emulators so that our children will learn why people they disagree with or dislike are not literally or even figuratively Hitler.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.