The Good Story: Requiescat In Pace

What kind of madness has gripped the educational establishment? For decades, colleges and universities have churned out educrats trained in brown shirt tactics to rid the public schools of stories that have formed, inspired, and entertained students of all ages from time immemorial.  These educational “experts” are hell-bent on destroying stories that cultivate our appreciation of the permanent things, the natural and supernatural order in which man dwells. Their ideology demands the removal of stories that tap into our deepest longings; stories that plumb the depths of the unfathomable range of human endeavor between excellence and depravity. These swindlers fear stories that elucidate the deepest longings of the human spirit. In other words, the public schools have done their level best to eliminate the good stories from the curriculum.

Here I use “good story” to connote a broad range of literature from the parable, fable, fairy tale, myth, poem, novel, play, and short story up to and including the great works of the Western Canon. The good stories align with traditional anthropology that requires the cultivation of the cardinal and theological virtues to help man fulfill his intended purpose. The good stories delight the imagination and draw the reader into the contemplation of real things, particularly goodness, truth, and beauty.

The source of the conflict over the curriculum is the politicization of teaching and learning where the age old virtues that characterized the cultivated and civilized citizen of the West are being challenged and overrun by the “new values” promulgated by a teaching profession steeped in ideology.

Feminist ideology justifies ridding the schools of stories by a certain type of man. Egalitarian ideology justifies ridding the schools of stories about nobility. Liberation ideology justifies ridding the schools of stories containing perceived “oppression.”  Tolerance ideology justifies ridding the schools of stories about virtue and vice.  Multicultural ideology, decrying an illusory “white hegemony” that “subjugates” all peoples of color throughout history, justifies replacing the good stories of the Western Canon with any story whose author is not a dead, white, European male.

How successful have they been at ridding the schools of the good stories? Simply compare the table of contents from a sixth grade literature book from over 100 years ago to the table of contents of the most recent sixth grade literature book. Huxley’s dystopian vision of a “brave new world” with no desire to read the good stories strikes a horrifying parallel to our public school culture. In the revolutionary spirit, the public schools have replaced the good stories with poorly written mini-manifestos propagating the new values that agitate against the traditional virtues embodied in the good stories. The steady decline in the quality of literature used in schools has led to an intractable apathy concerning stories in general.

What We Have Lost
The story has been man’s most prolific and widespread art form. We probably have as incomplete a record of man’s story telling as the Darwinists have of the fossil record. What treasures lay buried deep beneath the sands of time? We will never know. Empirical study of bones and pottery has so enthusiastically seized upon our imaginations that the importance of storytelling is losing its customary value. Our desires have been trending towards things that disintegrate. St. Augustine reminds us that “unhappy is the soul enslaved by the love of anything that is mortal.” The good stories draw our gaze beyond ourselves towards immortal things.

Consider one notable example. The ancient Sumerian epic poem Gilgamesh was unearthed in the nineteenth century and is perhaps the oldest known good story. King Gilgamesh begins as a despotic tyrant. He is inconsolable after the death of his friend Enkidu and he goes on a perilous quest seeking everlasting life. He searches for the Mesopotamian Noah called Utnapishtim, who was granted immortality by the gods for his role in the great flood. Gilgamesh’s quest to acquire eternal life fails, but he ends transformed. The story contains the timeless themes of the cosmos: friendship, power, the journey, battling monsters, dreams, death and immortality and it brings the perennial questions to the forefront for contemplation.

In an audio lecture, Dr. Peter Kreeft says, “the image of a story is a journey, a road of life. It is built into the essential structure of the universe. From the acorn striving to become the oak, to the sinner struggling to become a saint, the universe is the story of time seeking eternity.” The story is the medium by which we can begin to understand the order of the universe and our place in it.

There is a tension in all good stories between their temporal elements and their allusions to the eternal themes that reside beyond the story. To paraphrase Dr. Kreeft, it is just this internal tension that most reflects the reality of our lives. In reading the good stories, we reach for eternity and often only find a sequence of events in which what we long for is never quite perfectly portrayed, except in the incarnation of Christ, the only perfect story capable of satisfying our very deepest longings.

Though imperfect, the good stories embody the DNA of the cosmos; they illustrate the grammar of human existence. They hold much more explanatory potential than a set of didactic facts. The good stories are an excellent means to meet the Delphic Oracle’s exhortation to “know thyself.” Aristotle makes the point in Poetics that often, the reality most pertinent to man cannot be sufficiently apprehended by a set of facts, but rather by a depiction of an action; in other words, a story.

Call to mind how Jesus Christ conveyed the higher realities to the Apostles and still to us today. He speaks to us in parables, in stories. He also made it clear that there is more than just listening to a story, there is grasping the larger realities that the stories point to, something that we are often not able to do on our own. Mark 4:33-34 reminds us that “with many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.” With the good stories we are frequently in need of a guide. Jesus guided the Apostles. Students in classrooms need teachers to guide them, teachers free from the grip of ideology and in possession of an understanding of the value, importance and use of good stories.

Further Manifestations of the Crisis
Only a few weeks ago, my vice principal told me “you must keep Homer away from the students, nobody deserves to have his ideas forced on them.” It is ironic and hypocritical that she suggests Homer’s ideas may damage students when she and like-minded colleagues are constantly pushing truly damaging multicultural, egalitarian, and tolerance ideology onto the students themselves.

I have been a witness to the systematic destruction of the good stories in the public schools. Every seven years, they adopt a new literature series from a very limited pool of approved choices. In each of the last three adoptions, there has been a precipitous drop in the quality of literature. The Common Core has addressed this problem in a very devious way. The new reading lists are peppered with good stories in an apparent nod to conservative critics. The Common Core’s agenda is to reduce all readings to informational texts. The good stories will be reduced to abstracts and be read without their context, and as fruit cut from the vine, they will wither.

For a glimpse of the current plan to further destroy the remnants of the good stories that remain on the periphery of the public school curricula, Jane Robbins from the American Principles Project  has penned a succinct description of the true intentions of the proponents of the Common Core Standards. She reports that,

Dr. Sandra Stotsky, who served on the Common Core Validation Committee but refused to sign off on the ELA standards, has expressed concern about their content-free nature. Stotsky describes them as developing “empty skill sets,” such as the ability to discern the main idea in a literary work—a skill … that can be employed on Moby Dick or The Three Little Pigs. Common Core expresses no preference. [And of greater concern], the shift away from literature and toward informational texts reinforces the principle that education—even English education—should be geared toward practical workforce development. Another result … is to pave the way for the introduction of state-approved values.

At the root of the destruction of the good stories is the secular humanist agenda striving for an egalitarian, multicultural utopia. The good stories are the causalities of the Culture Wars. These sophists who seek to establish the “dictatorship of relativism” bring to mind the warning of the prophet Isaiah (5:20): “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” The ideologues replace the hierarchy of virtues, an expression of objective reality, with a self-referential subjectivism in which equality is the highest good.

In a dreadfully ideological essay entitled “From brown heroes and holidays to assimilationists’ agendas: Reconsidering the critiques of multicultural education,” Sonia Nieto, Professor Emerita of Language, Literacy and Culture at the School of Education, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, articulates the political justification for removing good stories from schools. She writes that “teaching and learning must challenge racism, sexism, and other forms of social domination and intolerance. Thus, curriculum making should incorporate the sociocultural contexts of subject matter. This leads to the realization that multiple perspectives on truth exist and to competition for ideological hegemony.”

Schools should never have become a place to compete for “ideological hegemony.” The statement is an example of what motivates the movement to drive good stories out of the public schools. The good stories present an obstacle to ideologues who seek to impose upon the schools a secular humanist multicultural agenda.

The good stories have been almost completely exterminated in the public schools and what is gone from public classrooms is not likely to be restored anytime soon. Let us not commit the same folly in our homes. We ought to fill our children’s bookshelves with the great epic poems, fairy tales, fables, folktales, ancient myths, Greek tragedy, and mediaeval tales. When considering literature from this Dark Age, we can turn to Michael O’Brien for guidance; he has written two excellent books on children’s literature; A Landscape with Dragons and Harry Potter and the Paganizaton of Culture.

The good stories will endure because they reflect the eternal truths that govern human existence. They are food for the soul and strengthen us to grapple with reality in this vale of tears. T.S. Eliot’s words in the Four Quartets call to mind the circulatory nature of the cosmos and could aptly allude to a journey through the inner landscape guided by a good story: “We shall not cease from exploration, and at the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg

By

Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Catholic convert and a teacher with over twenty years experience in the public education system. He graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a degree in History in 1991. He is also a husband and father of 3 children and a catechist at his parish in Bakersfield, California.

  • Linda Wolpert Smith

    “Once upon a time”, a very long time ago now) in the time of my childhood (one which would now almost certainly be classified as “deprived”), I filled my abundant free time with reading. The stories I read, over and over again, provided permanent images. The characters (“Everyman”, so to speak) personified timeless struggles against a vice and toward a virtue. Identification of the vice and the virtue was left to the reader. Simple and sweet, these stories provided a context for thinking about goodness. The implications for a lifetime were anything but simple.

    Other, inner-life shaping stories, were those read from the pulpit at Sunday Mass. It would be impossible to exaggerate their effect upon children in the time before television and other electronic sources of entertainment. The Gospel stories, in all their beauty, accessible to all, provided true hope and an expectation that life, while difficult, even tragic, can be affected and healed by the power of goodness.

    These stories could not of course been enough … and I do not mean to suggest that they provided a clear path to virtue. No, the conflicts they documented and warned against do occur, in various, subtle disguises, and are not easily defeated. At most they provided “a place to come back to”; a venue to begin again after failure; a bulwark against despair.

  • publiusnj

    With all due respect: it’s the “Western Canon” (not the repeatedly used “Western Cannon”). “Canon” from the Greek via Latin word for “rule” or “model.” Although the author is a public school teacher with a sincere love for the Tradition passed on, he seems unfamiliar with this basic term that had been passed down from generation to generation up until the 1960s, anyway. What an awful decade the “Sixties.”

    • Name

      Could be the fault of over zealous and ill-designed spellchecking software…

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  • roxwyfe

    Maybe it should be “cannon” and then we can shoot these abominable “stories” out of one. When my daughter was in high school, I asked her about her required reading list for an English literature class. She looked at me like I had started speaking Martian or something. No required reading, no discussion, and very few papers required. Well, mean old mom fixed that. She spent her free time with her nose in lots of classical literature – from Homer (gasp) to Huxley to the Grimm brothers and many others. She developed a love of reading that she is passing on to my granddaughter. As long as there are some of us who love the classics, they will survive. Personally, my degree is in Letters – the ultimate classical degree. Not much value in the work place, but I loved every minute of it and wouldn’t trade it for a technical degree if it was offered to me.

    • Steven Jonathan

      Roxwyfe,

      My mentor always says of the classics “they may have no survival value, but they add value to survival.” I wouldn’t trade your “letters” degree for anything else either. You are a good mom.

      • roxwyfe

        Thanks, Steven. My daughter didn’t think so at the time, but now that she’s in college, she has thanked me several times for making her read these books and learning to do some critical thinking as we discussed them 😀

    • Facile1

      My mother also imparted to me a love for reading. I had a horrible lisp as a child and she would spend endless hours having me recite the poetry of Keats, Byron, Shelley, Tennyson, Milton, Donne, etc. I inherited her books of poetry when she died. She was a lawyer though and I am an engineer. I believe technical degrees can (and should) coexist with the classics.

  • tamsin

    Hmm. Good stories are means by which reason bridles the appetites.

    Why did the vice principal want to get rid of Homer?

    Then again, Plato’s Socrates also wanted to censor Homer in building the “perfectly just” society.

    • Steven Jonathan

      Tamsin,

      The vice-principal is simply a multi-cultural ideologue. She is tolerant of everything except the intolerance she sees as springing from the roots of our civilization. She is anti- anything having to do with the Great Western Tradition, except for those who have engaged in sawing off the branch on which we all sit. She thinks dead white European Males have oppressed the “peoples of color.” Homer is “white” to her and the poster boy for oppression and intolerance.

      Plato understood the power of poetry; she understands the power of political activism and has dreams of equal outcomes for all, especially those that just happen to share her accidents of birth. She is not unintelligent, just indoctrinated by liberation theology and the ideology of the dreadful universities in the US and Mexico.

      • tamsin

        I should add that what Plato’s Socrates objected to (as a thought experiment) in Homer’s poetry was the moral trainwreck within the Greek pantheon.

        I doubted the vice principal was objecting for the same reasons… and I was right! Thanks for the background.

        • Bono95

          Or maybe the vice-principal was Trojan.

          “And mighty Diomedes of the great war cry took his famed spear in hand and heaved it with a mighty thrust, aiming at Vice-Principius; he who was the husband of the ox-eyed lady Vice Principle. Nor did Diomedes cast vainly, for the strong bronze point shore through great round shield, the mighty corselet, and the fine tunic, piercing Vice-Principius through the breast and continuing on to emerge from his back. He collapsed in the dust; his armor clattering round about him. The ox-eyed lady, his wife, when the knowledge reached her fair ears, tore her hair with grief and with her eyes pouring volleys of tears, she declared that nevermore should the words of the goddess as Homer of the mighty tale had reported them be heard or read by any students of later generations lest they too should come to great grief by them.” 😀

          • Bono95

            “In her fit of grief and rage for her dear departed husband and even dearer power over children’s minds which had as yet not been robbed from her, Vice Principle, that great breaker of children, swiftly betook herself to Superintendent of the many-colored schools. Sitting at his illustrious feet and taking him by the knees, she supplicated him in winged words: ‘O Glorious Superintendent, proud son of Hades, Hoarder of Souls, and Moria, Maiden of Mind-rot, deign to hear my humble plea and of your great beneficence to grant it. Grant that nevermore shall any youth or maid under my watch should have their ears exposed to such wild, useless, and utterly white supremacist tales as those of the dreadful Homer, the terrible Chaucer, the fearful Erasmus, the horrifying Shakespeare, the sick-making Swift, the foul Dickens, the frightful Austen, or any other such perilous tellers of tales which might encourage children to think outside of pre-conditioned public educational norms. Instead, please provide such practical, digestible, easy to read and simple to understand works with many fine illustrations and which are penned by authors of all colors and nations and document characters of equally richly diverse backgrounds. Hear me, O Wonderful Superintendent.’
            And the Superintendent heard, nor did he disregard her plea, but immediately sent his swift-footed and swifter-tongued messengers to remove all the harmful thought-provoking books at once and to replace them with safe, simple, multicultural works for the proper edification of youths, maids, and those students who identified as neither or both youthful and maidenly. These messengers made short time of their work, and the students minds were spared both growing pains and inappropriate enrichment.”

            • Steven Jonathan

              Dear Bono,

              An Irish toast: “Here’s to long life and a merry one. A quick death and an easy one. A pretty girl and an honest one. A cold beer — and another one!”
              When you come of age, to the tavern we will go and share a beer and many a tale.

              • Bono95

                Thanks, Mr. Rummelsburg. I just might take you up on that offer, after my 21st birthday (April 21, 2016) that is. 😀

      • Facile1

        “Liberation theology”? While “liberation theology” is NOT endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church, one must have some exposure to Catholic thought (at least Jesuit) to be indoctrinated in it.

        As one must assume the vice-principal was employed by the same public school system Mr. Rummelsburg works (worked?) for, perhaps this is speculation on your part?

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      The great advantage of a classical education is that there is no “canon.” As Porson once remarked, it was the burning of the library of Alexandria that made classical scholarship possible. One can, and one is expected, to read the whole of the surviving Greek and Latin literature; leaving out the Fathers and the Jurists, anyone can do it in three or four years of steady reading.

  • Beth Ann Vosskuhler-Waleski

    I am certified to teach English in Ontario. When I was in teachers’ college, I had a prof (who I admittedly admired quite a bit) say that traditional English courses taught “cultural artifacts,” and we needed to prepare students to do workplace-type reading. In another class, yet another prof said we must gently introduce reading to students who don’t like it. How did these two courses exist in the same teachers’ college? It seems to me that if we are teaching that workplace-type reading, then getting reluctant readers to appreciate reading is a lost cause.

  • Adam__Baum

    The modern academy is largely a Godless concentration camp fueled by subsidy and usury. The mess at the elementary school isn’t “trickle down”, but flood down intellectual disorder.

    A different perspective on the fiscal situation at the headwaters:

    I rather enjoy the frequent topical intersections between Crisis and ZH.

    http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2013-09-18/guest-post-why-higher-education-system-unsustainable-ie-doomed

  • John O’Neill

    Growing up in a poor immigrant family I was fortunate enough to have gone to Catholic schools; at that time there was a plethora of priests and nuns willing to educate the great unwashed. I remember my altar boy Latin and my introduction to that great liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church and all its beautiful poetry. I still remember sitting in a classroom in a school surrounded by factories and the noises of the old industrial city and learning to read and translate Vergil’s Aeneid; “Armavirumque cano” it began. This was the launching point of my intellectual development; I realized that I was reading a piece of literature written over two thousand years before in the Latin language and I was being taught how to read and appreciate the intricate style of the great Vergil. I still thank God for the learned and holy priest who taught that class and I feel so sorry for Americanized children being forced into the shallow cesspool of the public school system of which I once labored against all odds to instill the same love of Vergil to my students. I also thank God that my parents were not Americans but honest immigrants who had lived by tilling the land back in Ireland. It makes me a great fan of Seamus Heaney, the great poet of the ancient European culture who grew up close to my ancestral roots and who recently passed away. I have no idea how the Americans got into their present situation and even less of an idea how they are going to get out of it. Frankly I do not see what Americans are trying to save of their culture. Sometimes I find it difficult to understand Americans when they speak their version of English; I find Latin and German more understandable. Parce nobis Domine.

  • Mack

    Well, now, I was raised on a farm in situational poverty, and am a convert, a Viet-Nam veteran, husband and father, Eucharistic minister, retired public-school teacher, and now part-time adjunct faculty instructor of no status whatsoever at a nice little community college. Never thought of myself as an “educrat” employing “brownshirt” tactics. But then, I worked my way through a Catholic university where I learned not to employ shabby name-calling in place of argument. Ya might want to back away from the Rush Limbaugh / Glenn Beck thing and take a peek into Chesteron and St. Thomas Aquinas.

    • Adam__Baum

      You might want to “back away from the Rush Limbaugh / Glenn Beck thing” as a pejorative and similar “shabby name calling” yourself.

      You may not have been a brown-shirted “educrat”, but then again, you aren’t Arne Duncan, but I’ll bet you know some dedicated shock troops of the schemes of mass indoctrination masquerading as a new educational paradigm, some might even be some very pleasant and civil folks with a taste for jazz, sportcoats with patches and a trendy, expensive coffee.

  • Tony

    Here are the things that teachers should look for when they’re assigning literature to young students:

    1. Beauty; artistic merit. That rules out everything shoddy, merely popular, drab, and kitschy; and everything whose only “merit” is political or ideological.

    2. Imagination and wonder. That rules out dumping merely “informational” texts upon the heads of the poor students; it also rules out political screeds of any sort, opinion pieces, and essays on current events.

    3. Specific appeal to youth: The Wind in the Willows, Tom Sawyer, the Odyssey, Anne of Green Gables, Oliver Twist, Captains Courageous, The Jungle Book, Silas Marner, The Secret Garden, A Wrinkle in Time.

    4. Centrality to the great western heritage. No culs-de-sac; no “units” on Zuni fables or something else that leads nowhere, intellectually, unless for the rare person in ten thousand who will pursue that study as an avocation.

    5. Profundity — deep examination of the human condition.

    The other day I asked my Honors freshmen, half of whom come from public schools, whether they recognized the names of Milton, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Dostoyevsky, and Cervantes. Most of the public schooled students recognized none of them at all. Fahrenheit 451, we are here.

    • Adam__Baum

      It is a brave new world.

    • grzybowskib

      Rule 1. Gee whiz. That eliminates pretty much everything that’s been produced in America in the last 50 or 60 years. And I suppose Rules 2, 4, and 5 will also rule out everything.

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  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    The reference to “educrats trained in brown shirt tactics” recalls Charles Péguy’s description of the school teachers used by Jules Ferry to replace the teaching orders as « Les hussards noirs de la République » [The Black Hussars of the Republic]

    Ferry made no bones about his mission, which was to “cast the country’s youth in the same mould and to stamp them, like the coinage, with the image of the republic.”

    Now Ferry was no left-wing ideologue; on the contrary, he was the minister of Thiers during the suppression of the Paris Commune, a brutal enemy of organized labour and the architect of colonialism in Algeria, but he was a violent Anti-Clerical, a « Bouffeur des curés »

  • Nick_Palmer3

    A sad state of affairs. It emphasizes the importance of parents and relatives reading to children, and discussing good books.

    I have seen the importance of stories in explaining and passing along culture in a different context. As a strategy and organizational consultant for the past 28 years, I have learned to ask people to relate the stories about the company that people inside discuss. These shared stories are perhaps the most powerful tool for helping a person to understand how he “ought” to behave if he hopes to be a successful employee. They reinforce lessons and convey abstract ideals.

    For example, in one multinational hospitality company, the story is told of the company’s founder complaining to his pre-teen great-granddaughter about the poor quality of corn the company had been purchasing for its restaurants. The bored girl left him. When someone next entered the room, the patriarch had passed away. The lesson is quite obvious — attention to detail and customer focus, to the end.

  • Cecelia

    Fabulous article and a reminder that we shouldn’t delegate education to our schools. As parents, we have a great influence, often more than we realize. Starting the students on good literature at a young age will help them seek and find good literature as they mature.
    Also, found it amusing that there was a typo in the table of contents of the most recent sixth grade literature book. They spelled Cal Ripken Jr.’s name wrong!

  • grzybowskib

    Love this! I especially love the TS Eliot quote at the end. One of my professors in college introduced me to the 4 Quartets and I’ve loved it ever since. 🙂

  • Peter Freeman

    To play devil’s advocate, the preface to the 1921 reader in the link above explains that it is technically for elocution. It isn’t really a literature reader. It also explains that they’ve swapped out some of the older texts for newer ones, and that they’ve selected excerpts (and most of the readings are very short excerpts) for their moral value…which sort of sounds like the same philosophy behind the Common Core (albeit from a different moral framework). It also points out that they’ve had to add biographical and contextual data to the excerpts–apparently, by 1921, students could not be expected to be familiar with the authors or works included, at least outside of a literature class proper.
    The idea of teaching vernacular literature as literature to children in a formal academic setting was a fairly late innovation to our education system…and, evidently, a somewhat shortlived experiment.

    • Steven Jonathan

      Mr. Freeman,

      I was limited in what was accessible online, for example I cannot show you how terribly dreadful our current literature reader is or the last 3 adoptions of readers, they are not available online. If I could put them in front of you I would be able to easily make the case that even in the last 20 years, a drop in the quality of literature is evident to all except the educational experts. To go back 100 years, the gap is so wide that it seems undeniable.
      I assure you that by any reasonable standard, our current “literature” readers are not really literature readers either.

  • John son of John

    “Truth and beauty” and more Christian virtue.

    God bless

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