While visiting my daughter and her family in Elmhurst, Pennsylvania, I was standing in a line waiting to enter an Aldi. Near the doorway, an employee was sanitizing the handles of the carts shoppers had returned from the parking lot and talking to a customer and her teenage daughter. The Aldi employee mentioned her 16-year-old son and how much he missed school. “He told me he hasn’t learned a thing since the schools closed,” she said. “Not a thing.”
That remark snagged my attention, for it condemns the public education—the woman named her son’s school—given this young man. After 10 years of sitting in a classroom, he had grown accustomed to being spoon-fed information rather than seeking out knowledge on his own.
The events of the past five months should give us pause in regard to our system of education. The shuttering of our schools has granted many parents a deeper understanding of what their children are learning in the classroom, and many, I would guess, are unhappy with these findings.
Evidence indicates a dramatic uptick in the fall in the number of homeschooling students. Here in Front Royal, Virginia, for example, the Seton Home Study School, a Catholic outfit providing curricula, lesson plans, and testing services to students around the country and abroad, reported in June a 35 percent increase in enrollments for the coming academic year. School officials informed me that August is the banner month for enrollments, so these numbers will likely increase by the end of the summer. The same surge in enrollments undoubtedly applies to other companies catering to homeschooling families.
Concern about the failures of our schools are decades old. In Guy Benson’s online video post, for example, a journalist asks the ambassador to France, Jamie McCourt, whether she is worried that we might be in danger of losing the American Dream. McCourt responds by reminding her audience that the troubles of American education are nothing new:
“I am petrified. I’m not just worried. I mean, I think it’s been incrementally coming for many, many, many years. … The education of our children is a little bit different than when I grew up, certainly, because we’re less focused on the basics, we’re less focused on civics, we’re less focused on why certain things are important to our country. People need to understand why it is such a treasure, and there’s no place like it in the entire world.”
Are today’s students being taught that their country is “a treasure,” that “there’s no place like it in the entire world”?
Recent events suggest otherwise. The boarded-up shops in Manhattan, Minneapolis, and other cities, the looted stores, the howling mobs of young radicals, many of them college-educated, the cancel-culture crew, the Marxist slogans, the shrill and derogatory attacks on America itself, all reflect what these people were taught in the classroom.
So what can we do to restore those standards of education mentioned by Ambassador McCourt? How can we encourage critical thinking, the study of history and its nuances, a deeper knowledge of civics, and an appreciation for Western culture in general?
Let’s take a look.
Small Is Beautiful
One of my college professors attended grades 1–8 in a one-room schoolhouse in South Carolina. He was well-acquainted with the other students, other children from that small community, and with the teacher. He later graduated from Washington and Lee, and earned a doctorate in history from the University of Wisconsin. Several times, in his remarks on the value of his early education, he claimed he had learned much from overhearing the teacher instruct students in the upper grades while he was working on his assignments.
Many home-educated families enjoy a similar experience by forming co-ops, where parents, grandparents, and others offer classes in subjects ranging from mathematics to art. For years, I taught homeschoolers in such subjects as Latin, literature, and history, up to and including Advanced Placement courses. Most of them performed splendidly, in part because of the small class size, in part because we came to know each other well.
Our public schools and our universities might take a lesson from these examples. Because so many larger institutions take a factory-style approach to education, such a change would be difficult but not impossible to implement. Hiring more teachers and getting rid of many administrators would at least be a step in the right direction.
Get the Government Out of Education
In 1963, I entered Staunton Military Academy, now long defunct, as a seventh grader. Some of my classmates were from wealthy families and had the advantages of private education, yet in my two years at the academy, I stood at the top of my class, the product of Boonville Elementary School, a small town in Piedmont North Carolina with no public library. I credit my academic success to those Boonville teachers who taught and drilled us in the basics of mathematics, literature, grammar, history, and science.
All without the help of the federal government.
To demand, as the government does today, that 50.8 million public school students, a figure from the National Center of Education Statistics, can be educated according to federal directive is wrongheaded. Five years ago, for instance, Mason Classical Academy in Naples, Florida, abandoned the federal government’s Common Core curriculum. Instead, this charter school switched to phonics, basic mathematics, and classical literature, history, and fine arts. When third- and fifth-grade students from Mason took the required exams for Common Core, they ranked in the top two percent of Florida students.
Time to say goodbye to bureaucrats and return our classrooms to our teachers.
Cancel the Culture
Right now, “cancel culture” means a boycott or a nasty electronic mob attack on someone with whom they disagree. A celebrity makes a remark that some consider sexist and is swarmed by assailants via Twitter; the owner of Goya Foods speaks favorably of President Trump, and the Left urges a boycott of his company, which in this case backfired as others rushed to support Goya by purchasing its products.
Let me suggest that we flip “cancel culture” on its head and do our best to cancel the ugly, misinformed, and often cruel culture in which we live. Instead of the anti-American history taught in so many of our secondary schools—I am thinking specifically of Howard Zinn’s “A Young People’s History of the United States” and the New York Times “1619 Project”—why not use a more balanced textbook like Wilfred McClay’s “Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story?” Why not ditch sex-ed and instead teach civ-ed so that a high school graduate knows there are three branches to the federal government and how they work? Why not train our children how to write effectively, a skill needed by practically everyone in today’s workforce.
Most of all, why not teach our children how to teach themselves? With our public libraries and our electronic devices, we have at our fingertips the greatest learning tools in the history of the world, leaving us absolutely no excuse for our students’ abysmal test scores and lack of core knowledge.
This year, America is at a crossroads, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Civil War. Many in our country, some of them knowingly, some of them unwitting tools, are calling outright for socialism, which is the opposite of those principles—“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—embraced not only by our Founders but also by generations since then.
Often we hear the term “woke” these days, a term the Left uses to describe an awareness of social justice issues. Like cancel culture, we should take woke, make that expression our own, and apply it to education. Parents should look carefully at what their children are learning in school. They should examine the textbooks the kids bring home, and if fault is found, they should address their concerns to the school. They should demand more freedom of choice in education, particularly in regard to charter schools. If the system refuses their requests, and if circumstances permit, they should send their children to private schools, homeschool them, or establish learning co-ops, much like the old one-room schoolhouses.
We must be on guard. Remember that poison doesn’t always come in a bottle.
Hope and Effort
At the end of her article “Four Months of Unprecedented Government Malfeasance,” which appeared in the May 2020 edition of Hillsdale College’s “Imprimis,” Heather Mac Donald writes: “America’s Founders, schooled in a profound philosophical and literary tradition dating back to classical antiquity, understood the fragility of civil peace and the danger of the lustful, vengeful mob.
“Our present leaders, the products of a politicized and failing education system, seem to know nothing of those truths. Pulling the country back from the abyss will require a recalling of our civilizational inheritance.”
Pulling the country back from the abyss means rescuing and reviving education. Most of our politicians and cultural gurus, and even many of our teachers, display little interest in this rescue attempt; indeed, some seem determined to continue the race to nihilism.
So it’s up to the rest of us. We must roll up our sleeves and get to work, starting where we are and making sure our children receive an education worthy of the name.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.