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

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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.

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