The Empress Is Naked

The matronly administrator instructed 1000 students through a microphone in her thick accent “you better clap boys and girls; you could be up there some day.” A tepid round of applause reverberated in the amphitheater for the ninety-seventh time at a presentation of mock pageantry previously unmatched in our school district. Our leaders excel at finding novel ways to celebrate mediocrity. Ninety eight students were reclassified as English proficient after certain standards were lowered. Each one received a medal hanging on a gold satin ribbon shining splendidly in the spring sunlight. Each also received a bouquet of carnations intended to be distributed to each of their past teachers in honor of this magnificent accomplishment.

The farce and the apathetic student response are all too common.  Amongst the teachers there was a mix of uncomfortable silence, disingenuous smiles and an occasional display of emotion by the odd teacher yearning to believe the lie.

In 1983, the Department of Education delivered the report “A Nation at Risk.”  It confirmed that our public schools were in a state of degeneration.  The chilling assertion was made that America’s sworn enemy could do no more to destroy us than to foist upon us our current system of public education. The sober were not shocked. The educational architects frantically gathered their scientific devices and made strenuous efforts to formulate the remedy to this national emergency.

In 1998, “A Nation Still at Risk” reported that despite the best efforts of the educational elite, the schools had further degenerated with the added distressing fact that increasingly ill-educated students were hotly pursued by increasingly ill-educated teachers. Call to mind the veritable army of teachers recruited from the dysfunctional schools since 1983. I count myself among them.

Today, in 2013, the degeneration continues even faster as if transmitted by fiber optic.  Ironically, if you ask anyone climbing up the ladder of the ivory tower they will tell you everything is just fine.  One highly esteemed PhD proclaims; “I am not at all worried about our students of the future because we have finally figured it all out!” The teaching profession is accustomed to asserting what pleases the ego and the ear regardless of its tie to reality.  The cognitive dissonance required to be an employee honored by the public schools is not unlike what was required of those who surrounded the Emperor in the classic fairy tale.

In the public schools, we have abandoned literacy and the great stories. It is by these stories that we catch glimpses of the immutable realities that shape our lives. The enduring tales are like soul mirrors. There is indeed a striking parallel between Hans Christian Anderson’s classic fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes and the current state of affairs roiling around the conglomerate called Public Education.  In comparing our educational crisis to this classic fairy tale, we might recover some things that ought not to have been forgotten.

Public education has taken on a life of its own.  She has a specific character and a predictable personality.  I contend she is animated by the father of lies. We will call her the Empress. The Emperor’s invisible clothes in the tale can be likened to the programs the Empress uses to clothe her massive body of schools.  Just like the Emperor, the Empress is “so excessively fond of clothes” that she spends all her money on them.  These outward signs of vanity are garments woven from invisible threads invented by the swindlers we know as “educational experts.”

The Empress adorns herself with new and ever-changing signs of achievement.  One hour she shows off higher test scores, the next she touts diminishing dropout rates, after that she struts diversity, and then she puts on higher literacy rates. The higher test scores are generally an arbitrary measure of a lowered standard. The diminishing dropout rate is a narrower re-definition of the word dropout. Her claims to diversity are couched in the most rigid uniformity.  The higher literacy rates possess almost no similarity to what an ancient grammarian would call literate.  And yet still, the public applauds these invisible successes as if they were real.

What the swindlers in the fairy tale said of themselves bears an eerie resemblance to the very words used by the swindlers of today.

We are two very good tailors and after many years of research we have invented an extraordinary method to weave a cloth so light and fine that it looks invisible. As a matter of fact it is invisible to anyone who is too stupid and incompetent to appreciate its quality.

The genius of the swindlers is in playing on our human frailties.  Our desire for human respect can overwhelm our integrity.  The swindlers convince the Empress that whoever cannot see the invisible fabric of their new programs is an incompetent fool and not fit for service in the Empress’ classrooms.

In the tale and in our reality, the swindlers churn out their crafty wares in exchange for bags of gold and paltry celebrity.  These invisible garments are made of hot air and hubris. The threads of sophistry intertwined with the dark arts of fraudulence weave more than just an invisible fabric; they cast a spell like the snake in the garden that promises “you shall be like gods.” And thus the swindlers appropriate to themselves the attributes of God and create their own anthropology, their own system of weights and measures, and their own moral code. With the gravity of helium they make pronouncements on the human condition that often times require multiple university degrees to believe.

One of the latest invisible garments to be donned at our school is an outrageously arrogant reordering of the language acquisition process. The swindlers persuaded the Empress to decree that the usual way of acquiring a new language is to be changed.  “Research shows humans no longer learn to listen before they can speak and read before they can write” bellowed the herald.  “Now the new language learner will listen first, write second, read third and speak last!”

The sheer number of invisible garments worn and discarded by the Empress is immense.  The breadth and depth of the errors they propagate is astounding.  Their lack of truth is alarming.  They pretend wild diversity and promise great growth and prosperity.  In The Wonder of Being Human, Daniel Robinson observed that when a garment is first presented with the prescribed enthusiasm “in the thrill of it all, it is difficult to perceive this thing as just one more cadaver upon which posterity will learn the anatomy of confusion.”

The Emperor’s entourage in the tale is played on our side by Superintendents, principals, and the massive body of school teachers.  Like the characters in the story, we are forced to confront our gift of free will when we arrive at the crossroads to speak the lie or become a traitor.  The price tag on truth is high by the standards of this world and self-deceit is a sadistic courtesan. But alas, we are compelled to choose.

The folks of the kingdom out to watch the processions of the Emperors’ new clothes are like all the parents that send their kids to public schools.  The difficulty is nearly as problematic for them as it is for the court attendants. After all, parents are the first teachers of their children.

The child who shouts, “The Emperor is naked!” should be likened to our students, but we do not hear them. Their plain language is a fifty percent dropout rate, violence, addiction, and an apathy that mimics a coma. The swindlers have contrived our deafness by convincing us that children are like little adults. In kindergarten we lull them into submission by teaching them applied linguistics instead of Aesop.

The soul we see in the mirror of The Emperor’s New Clothes is our own.  Our only hope is embodied in the child.  Jesus Christ said in Mathew 18:3 “Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”  Origen tells us Jesus is not calling the Apostles to act their age, but to return to the innocence of youth.  The child in the fairy tale was not showing intelligence in recognizing the Emperors’ nakedness, but innocence because he was not sophisticated enough to repeat the lie.

Your homework boys and girls: read Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Editor’s note: The illustration above was produced by Roberto Weigand and is reprinted with permission of the artist.

Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg


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.

  • Reets46

    We’ve substituted the Bernstein Bears for Mother Goose, Aesop and Hans.

    • Steve

      I am afraid it is
      now much worse than the “bernstein bears”. You should see the new “literature” text books, and I use that term “literature” criminally loosely.

  • Yes, the motto was once “Ad aspera astra” (“Reach for the stars” in a loose translation). Now it is “Go for the lowest common denominator”.

  • JERD

    All true. There is however a root cause to chronic public school failure – the failure of the american family.

    Students are increasingly coming from broken homes. Single parent homes, divorce, and out of wedlock births increase the risk that a child will lack the motivation and discipline to succeed in school.

    At the end of the school day children are entering an empty house. If the family is intact, mother and father are busy with their careers. The child is left to his own devices – encouragement to do homework will not be one of them.

    If the family is not intact, the single parent will be working. Or, the single parent may be home, but dependent on government assistance. She will be physically at home, but spiritually and emotionally absent. The exhausted single parent, or the despondent government dependent cannot effectively engender the virtues in their children.

    The root cause of our education woes is the growing weakness of the American family.

    • But the schools have also capitalized upon and accelerated the disintegration of the family. They help to create the social misery which they then use as an excuse for their failures.

      • JERD

        Tony Esolen: Agreed. The voids left in the hearts of our children by absent and disengaged parents are being filled by the State and its institutions. The post modern values of the State are being inculcated in our children, in place of the virtues that stood the test of time and had been passed on by the healthy families that preceded us. As the influence of the family and its loving nurturing of children recedes, the State, and the wielding of its blunt power will expand. The ever rising influence of the State will act to accelerate the decline of the family, and in turn accelerate the power of the State. Our children and our culture are bound to suffer greatly.

      • Louis

        Children don’t usually live in situations of “social misery”. Those that do are the ones that need public schools the most. There they will always have enough to eat (free or subsidized meals for the needy), access to counseling and support, access to books and education, and you name it. I would love to be a child in today’s world. My own kids are incredibly privileged at their public school — a vast, well-stocked library, foreign languages, music, sport, and on and on.

        • JERD

          Would you “love to be a child in today’s” Detroit public schools?

          These kids don’t need “public schools the most.” They need to get out of them. They need a family that consists of their birth mother and their biological father, who have the freedom to choose a school that will teach their children and give them hope.

          Your children are fortunate. Be thankful that they have not been condemned to the combination punch of a broken family and failing schools.

          • Me

            The gap between rich and poor has grown over the last decade, which is causing the inner city poor even more suffering. Take away their public schools, and they have nothing left. I’m with those who have suggested getting involved in the community. Tutor, mentor, join Big Brother/Sister programs, foster, adopt, contribute, volunteer …

            • JERD

              Give the poor vouchers so the parents of these children can escape the failed schools their government forces them to attend. Volunteering is nice, and volunteers should be commended, but in the end a volunteer can’t take the place of a full time teacher, eight hours a day, five days a week, and ten months out of the year.

              Helping the poor does not mandate taking away a parent’s natural right to educate their children as they see fit. Charter schools for example have flourished when given a chance. Also, the Church would open schools in these neighborhoods in a nano second if the cash flow from vouchers were available to handle the costs.

              Under our current system, rich people have an education choice because they have money – they can pay private school tuition or move to wealthy school districts. Poor people are forced to attend decrepit public schools because they don’t have money to pay tuition and don’t have money to move out of their neighborhood. Empower the poor – give them vouchers.

              • Me

                The parents of the most disadvantaged kids in those schools wouldn’t care about or use vouchers because they don’t care about education. These very socially and economically disadvantaged kids are the ones who need help — lots of help — from society because their parents aren’t there for them. We need to give them a chance to do better for their own children by intervening on their behalf and filling in where their parents have failed them. The USA has been dropping like a stone in terms of upward mobility as the gap between rich and poor has widened.

        • I’m a college professor. I teach the kids that come from your schools. I am not impressed. Your kids don’t actually learn those foreign languages; they don’t get a broad education in English literature; they don’t learn much history; they don’t learn any geography at all; and they are exposed to the moral sinkhole. But I’m willing to concede that here and there you’ll find a public high school with a decent curriculum — but only for the privileged few.

          • Me

            I’ve taught home schooled college kids, and I’m not impressed. Yes, there are the occasional few that do well, but many of them come in needing remedial math and reading and have major deficits.

        • When forty percent of children are born out of wedlock, and a great many others are the victims of divorce, and many more, even if they don’t suffer those ills, are constantly in the company of those that do, I’d say that “social misery” characterizes what the majority of American children encounter in public schools.

        • Cha5678

          And hence why you can see why those running the farm operate, and fund candidates, to produce an increase in children living in social misery. It’s the same reason why public social worker unions, public health worker unions, public social service unions are fighting to expand and subsidize gambling, pot and vice. The protectors need to create the protected if they hope to have a job and all the influence that comes with it.

    • Steve

      A good society composed of good families composed of virtuous men and women would not tolerate the crimes the public schools commit against their children.

      I agree with your lament about the family , but I wonder if the breakdown of the family is a fruit of the root of decaying morals? I also think the terrible public schools may be a fruit of that root too. I assure you that the publicschools are going to great lengths to destroy good families. But still, that doesn’t let us teachers off the hook for our complicity in the shoah.

      • JERD

        It does seem like an endless circle doesn’t it? A classic chicken and egg problem. Ultimately, I think, too many of us have lost the sense of a creative God; a sense that all of us are made in God’s image; a sense that we are called to use our gifts not to satisfy our egos, our desires and our wants, but to love our children and our spouses – even when they disappoint us to terribly.

  • tom

    “A university training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society…It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them.”
    ― Cardinal Newman

    None of it’s happening….anywhere. Before we condemn the public school secularists, it ain’t going on at our formerly “Catholic” colleges, either. Instead, the bishop visits once a year to get an honorary degree he shouldn’t accept!

    • Clement_W

      Don’t forget that the Bishops are also human beings who have gone through the same mire as the rest of society. Cardinal Newman’s time was before the takeover of Education by the State and the evolution of unionization of blue collar labor to unionization of the Professions starting with the profession of teaching and now of even Medicine and Law.

      • tom

        True, yet most truths withstand the test of time, like “thou Shalt Not Kill.”…until 1973, anyway.

  • Clement_W

    Let us not forget that the current generation of Teachers/Educators is, at the least, the Fifth generation of the dumbing down of American Public Education. The “A Nation at Risk” of 1985 represents the last generation before the current one and thus would be 20% less indoctrinated than the current crop of experts. The reports that they write, if one looks at them carefully, are getting shallower and shallower in keeping with their own, geometric progression of shallower and shallower thought processes. Just as the physical clothing has been shedding and we have now arrived at a norm of public nudity in that bastion of ‘Progressivism’, San Francisco, CA, is it surprising that the Empress is NAKED too?

    • tom

      I think the “Risk” report actually came out in 1983.

      • Steve

        You are right Tom, it was a typo.

  • hombre111

    I was talking to my sister about this. She will retire from teaching fifth grade this year. She would add: Parents who insist that their child be passed on to the next grade even when he/she is failing the present grade. Parents who refuse to back the teacher. ADHD kids who require more time and attention than the rest of the kids put together. Kids who have simply given up (see passed on to a higher grade, above). Being forced to teach for the test. Large classes which diminish the time a teacher can give to each child. And on and on.

  • Caroline

    If you’re unhappy with your local public schools, here’s a suggestion: volunteer. When my daughter was in second grade, I read “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to small groups of her classmates. I took in some picture books about Hans Christian Andersen and Denmark that I got from the library and showed them Denmark on the map and on the globe. I baked a Danish apple cake for them, and we talked about the life of Hans Christian and where he lived. After we read the story, we discussed it, partly in terms of group think and conformity. The kids had wonderful ideas, related conformity of thought to bullying, etc. They were very interested to learn that Hans Christian was probably a bit “different” (he may have had Asperger’s), and they talked about the story from that perspective. I took six or seven kids at a time and rotated through, over a couple of days, until they’d all heard the story. I did one story a week with my daughter’s class and tried to use the story as a basis for a little unit study. It was a small thing, but if you have even three of four parent volunteers doing the same, you can add a lot of enrichment. Remember, some of these kids come from homes with no books at all. They otherwise wouldn’t hear many stories or learn about foreign lands and strange authors.

    • Bono95

      That’s a really good idea, Caroline. The school system (not to mention the kids) would benefit very much from that. I think your daughter and her fellow 2nd graders know more about Denmark than I do.

    • SarMos

      That is a good idea, and I remember parents volunteering their time in that manner when I was in grade school 20 years ago. I worked in a public school a few years ago as an advocate for children of migrant workers. The classroom teachers at this school would never have had time to allow for such enrichment. They spent their days as slaves to testing standards. The school was failing, the kids were mostly poor, they could have used what you suggest, but it couldn’t have happened (and not from a lack of the teachers wanting it, mind you). Might not be like that everywhere though.

      Everything Mr. R writes resonates with my experience working in the public school system. Call me a pessimist, but that intimate look at public education is why I homeschool my own kids now.

      • Steve


        School curriculums, aims, values, and ideologies propagated,are devastating in the best of conditions. In the migrant farm communities their corrosive effects on the human person are much more apparent. Affluence is a camouflage for the damaging effects of the public schools but surely these things take their toll. Good idea to homeschool, but even there, best not to abide any intrusion from the state.

      • fredx2

        Personally, I think the schools waste so much time. Every time they go into a group and do a project as a group, they are slowing everything and everyone down. Apparently the idea is that you have to learn to work in groups. But this is nonsense, people naturally learn to work in groups.
        It also diminishes the individual, making every one subordinate to the group and its collective ideas. So not that much work gets done at school

  • cestusdei

    Oh but they do know the Empress is naked. This is why so many in public education send their children to private, often Catholic, schools.

  • Bono95

    “The SHEER number of INVISIBLE garments worn and discarded by the Empress is immense”
    Did you intend that pun, Mr. Rummelsburg? 😀

    • Steve

      I will never tell!

  • Pingback: The Empress Is Naked | Jonah in the Heart of Nineveh()

  • ColdStanding

    Behold! For your edification, I present to you the 1872 classic: Public School Education by Fr. Michael Mueller, C. S. S. R.

    Lest you thought this was a recent problem or that nobody saw it coming.

    • Steve

      I will trump you a garden. No it seems what we are seeing now is rotten fruit from the poison tree of the failed Enlightenment project, no surprises but in degree disconcerting. Mary Shelly gets at it too in Frankenstein. Thanks for the link!

  • John O’Neill

    When I retired from the public schools almost ten years ago the big education thing was a program called Renaissance. In effect this program made it possible for every student in the school to get some sort of an award, merely for showing up. The principal pushed this as his pet project and any teacher that did not go along and toady up to him in this area was informed that he was not a team player. The students basically saw through the sham and regarded the program with contempt because they knew it was a con job. So public education became related to a sales pitch and the administrators and teachers pushing it where doing so in order to protect their well paid and privileged positions. Public schools are not about education but about providing jobs for sycophants to the local government controlled school board.

  • Ford Oxaal

    Parents should insist on vouchers (“change”, “choice”) — at a minimum, it might provide hope of some way out of schools that are proven failures.

    • They are only a way out of schools that are proven failures if there are schools willing to accept them. In Louisiana last year 10,000 students applied for vouchers; there were only private school slots for about 5,000. The voucher system in LA does not allow private schools to cherry-pick students; if a private school chooses to participate, they have to accept all applications. Once they tell the state how many slots are available in which grades, the state uses a lottery to pick the students who get it, if there are more slots than applicants. As a result, few schools will take older kids.

  • Micky

    Nice article. Read, too, Anthony Esolen’s brilliant book, “Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child.” Thank you both.

  • Proteios

    A bit silly. You effectively ignore all the good things the PS system is doing and focus on the bad things. I am at the front of the line in correcting the negatives, adopting sensible policies that don’t get caught up in current social trends and reemphasizing merit. Bt to ignore the benefits test makes this a cute little work of fiction that plays to an amused crowd. What you are doing is acting in your own play. The tailor dressing up the empress with nothing. Ironic? Maybe, but a real and informed article about the struggles and solutions of our current education system which, to me, has lost it’s way, would mean I wouldn’t be reading what you’ve wrote. Anyway, it was cute and amusing, although lacked any substance. Keep singing to the choir and maybe you can resubmit this in 20 years, when hollow calls to action like this, cause no change in our embattled education system.

    • Steve

      Proteios, I have so many questions for you based on your intriguing post, but please just answer 2.

      1. Tell me what is right about the public schools? Please Make a list.

      2. You say “I am at the front of the line in correcting the negatives” Please tell me what negatives you are correcting?

      I think you and I must be on different front lines. Your words sound like they are coming from the ivory tower. I teach in elementary school. I have an article on the literacy crisis in the American public schools that will amuse you less than this one, in fact, your very words and your ability to articulate may lend some credibility to my assertions.

      • The public schools educate everyone who walks in the door; rich, poor, black, white, handicapped or not. Private schools say they maintain higher standards, but one way they do that is by not admitting, counseling out or expelling kids who are unable or unwilling to meet those standards.

        • Steve

          Dear Ruth,

          Letting someone in the front door and educating them are two very different things. The prisons are more exclusive than the schools.

          By many different measures, private schools have higher standards and higher expectations. I am not saying that the private schools are good because in general they are not insofar as they imitate the public schools. The behavior standards are always better because to a certain degree the moral standards are less arbitrarythan in the “moral sinkholes” we call public schools.

          It is not so simple to claim that the public schools, by rights of exclusion, have higherstandards.

          • The bottom line is that private schools do not have to take everyone, nor do they have to provide an appropriate education for everyone. If you are running a basketball league that requires everyone to try out, it’s teams are generally going to beat the kids from the league that has to take everyone, especially if that league is in a town where all the tall kids’ parents have them try out for the try-out league.

            Are public schools perfect? No. The trouble is, no one has really come up with a viable alternative for ALL kids.


    The keys to the kingdom has been given. We each must take it apon ourselves the cross for others.

  • roxwyfe

    All too true. When my daughter was in junior high school, I would ask her about her required reading list for her English class. She looked at me like I had sprouted a second head. There was no required reading for a literature class!! Luckily for her, I had received a decent education and I made sure she read several of the classics of literature as well as a selection from other genres as well. She is now in college and doing well. Her professors comment on her ability to craft a well written paper. I wonder where she learned to do that???

    It’s way past time for our public schools to revert to actually educating and teaching students instead of teaching the test required for the no child left behind nonsense. In attempting to make everyone feel good about themselves instead of learning, we have pulled everyone down to the lowest common denominator. You can only go as fast as the slowest student in the class by this method and the fact is that not every one is equally gifted with intelligence and understanding. It is because teachers have to teach as those all students were truly equal that our schools are in the trouble they’re in today.

    • Dan

      Your daughter is fortunate that you made read the classics. Every so often I teach an SAT prep course and the students who do the worst are those that did not read quality literature. They are unable to reference anything when responding to the essay question.

  • SoCalChick

    Phenomenal piece! Sadly, political indoctrination has replaced true learning in our schools. It brings to mind Hitler’s youth … The self-congratulatory tone of these secularist education leaders is almost akin to whistling in the dark … they know it’s all lies, but they sweep this momentary lapse into character aside and parade forth in their invisible threads.

  • Note that you used my illustration without any permission