Thursday, February 16, 2023


The truth is that what’s destroying American education is the lack of actual content. The justifications for eliminating from the curriculum books with information in them have come in various forms. But at the heart of all of them is the idea that teaching is itself “oppressive.”

Bucking the Trends
By Naomi Schaefer Riley
February 14, 2023

A Wisconsin-based teacher named Daniel Buck once showed his high-school freshmen a documentary about the Great Depression, which mentioned that some American workers had moved to the Soviet Union during this period. When he asked the students why they thought this was, he writes, “the class gave me the silent stare that so many teachers dread.” He asked himself the questions he was taught to ask during his teacher training: “Had I framed the question poorly? Did I have an adequately accepting classroom culture?” As it turned out the problem was much more elementary. One student finally broke the silence: “Is the Soviet Union a country?”

Buck’s new book, What Is Wrong with Our Schools, is a powerful and succinct explanation of how we got here. As he notes, the kids in his district had learned “a smattering of U.S. and ancient history.” But any kind of instruction about the World Wars and the Cold War had been saved for later on in high school. “How could I possibly ask them to think critically about the Great Depression and the Soviet Union when they knew nothing about it?” he writes. “I might as well ask them to water a garden with an empty pail.”

While it is not uncommon or unwarranted to focus on the politicization of American classrooms—from critical race theory and gender-bending ideology to apocalyptic environmentalism and plain old cheerleading for the welfare state—the truth is that what’s destroying American education is the lack of actual content. The justifications for eliminating from the curriculum books with information in them have come in various forms. But at the heart of all of them is the idea that teaching is itself “oppressive.”

From John Dewey to the more recent pedagogical texts offered at almost every education school in the country, the message is clear: Students are best off when they are discovering things on their own. Memorization is to be avoided at all costs. Teachers are better off playing “guide on the side” rather than “sage on the stage.” Learning should be driven by student interest. Imparting skills is more important than imparting knowledge. The 21st century doesn’t care whether students know facts because they can look up everything on the Internet. All students need is to be trained in critical thinking.

What Is Wrong with Our Schools manages to debunk all of these myths in 200 pages, and if there’s any philanthropist out there willing to send a copy to every superintendent and school-board member in America, trust me, there are worse ways to spend money. Short of that, please give this book at baby showers. It will be much more useful than another onesie.

Let’s start with reading. Many American parents will recognize in their children’s classrooms the scenario Buck describes. Grade-school students are asked to pick books off the classroom shelf based on how many words they don’t know on a page. Once they have a “just right” book, they go off into corners of the room either in groups or alone and read. Middle-school students are asked to choose their own book or share one with two or three other kids and come up with subjects for discussion.

This choose-your-own-adventure strategy is at the heart of the Lucy Calkins Units of Study program, which has been employed in classrooms across the country for decades and was the subject of a New York Times exposé earlier this year for its extraordinary failure. As Buck explains it: “The child’s natural interest and personal will come to direct the curriculum, and we as teachers are only there to react. Unfortunately, there is little research to suggest such an approach works well for most students, not to mention that it’s a rather isolated affair.”

Buck contrasts this to the situation in class when he reads aloud Tom Robinson’s conviction in To Kill a Mockingbird. He does it so that students “can experience the build-up and disappointment together.” He writes: “Every year someone lets a ‘No!’ slip out; when the bell rings, my students walk out of the classroom talking about how affecting that scene is.” Much is lost when the classroom “transitions to Rousseau-influenced workshop models,” he says. “The individual child’s interest is so centralized as to atomize the class; we no longer commune around books.”

Buck criticizes the relentless focus on “relatability” in choosing what children should learn. He notes that kids have a natural curiosity about things outside of their experience, and teachers should be exploiting that. Moreover, teaching students actual texts and important pieces of knowledge makes it easier for them to acquire more knowledge as they go on. Citing the work of E.D. Hirsch, Buck notes that acquiring more knowledge helps build more connections and creates more hooks for students to hang future learning on. Asking students to start from scratch every day and come to new discoveries on their own is not only ineffective, it is also extraordinarily frustrating. Education, he argues, is not all questioning: “We open our minds to close them again around something concrete.”

Come to think of it: That might be Buck’s most radical suggestion. When was the last time you heard a teacher suggest that the class should actually try to arrive at answers?

Again and again, Buck cites evidence from studies of educational settings with the same conclusions. Project-based learning, student-driven classrooms, and skills-based curricula are failing our kids. Children need and want instruction on actual subjects with regular assessments on what they have learned along with all of their classmates.

How have we strayed so far from this older model of education? Of course, the nonsense on offer for teacher training is the root of the problem. But there are reasons that it has been so readily embraced. One of them is the fact that it allows principals and school boards to avoid the question of what should actually be taught. Buck is firmly on the side of teaching old books and teaching them to everyone, regardless of the reading level they are at. “Tradition provides the language and arguments we need to understand the present,” he writes. “Macbeth helps me to understand power-hungry politicians. The arguments between Booker T. Washington and WEB DuBois, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X help us to understand current debates over racial justice. These works provide the very language we use in our current debates. We cannot emancipate ourselves from tradition any more than an animal can emancipate itself from air.”

But Buck also sees the imparting of knowledge to his students as deeply practical: “Most people would consider a school a failure if its students were unable to comprehend a major newspaper.” He notes, “Professional writers assume a certain level of background knowledge. Otherwise newspapers would have sentences constructed out of endless appositive phrases and clarifications.…A writer in the New York Times will assume that we know certain foundational texts, major figures from history, general country locations and much more that they will not clarify. It would take too much time and too many words to do so.”

Educated adults should have a certain automaticity of knowledge—we don’t spend all day trying to get through a newspaper by googling where Germany is or what is contained in the Declaration of Independence or when Pearl Harbor was attacked. We should help students develop that, too. Not only in their academic subjects but in their personal habits, as well. When schools create expectations of punctuality, order in classrooms and hallways, and civil behavior, students are able to focus on the educational tasks in front of them. Throughout the book, Buck returns to this theme of how the leaders of schools are responsible for inculcating habits—habits that will free students to accomplish greater things. He uses Rousseau’s opposition to swaddling infants as a metaphor for explaining how the ideas that societal restrictions on children are detrimental to their proper development have shown themselves to be not only wrongheaded but deeply unhealthy and destructive.

When you start with the fundamental assumption that teaching is oppressive, it becomes all but impossible for teachers or administrators to put rules in place, let alone demand that students follow them. He notes the terrible consequences of recent bans on school suspensions or any kind of punishment for kids who misbehave. The students who are in the class cannot learn. Instead of thinking about the topic at hand, they are worried for their own safety. Buck, whose Twitter account I also recommend, regularly posts about the emails he gets from teachers who disagree with him on everything but who see an urgent need for school discipline both for their own safety and the well-being of their students.

Perhaps the fact that Buck is a teacher will allow this book to gain a greater audience. I am more cynical than Buck about some of these developments—student-driven learning can be a much easier lift for teachers who don’t want to do any actual work, such as creating lesson plans. Still, it’s fair to assume that most teachers do want their students to learn but have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to how best to make that happen. “The direct instruction part of [learning] is foundational,” Buck writes. “Without explanation, children cannot learn.… Phrased differently, students need a teacher.” From Daniel Buck’s lips to God’s ears.

Monday, February 13, 2023


Over the past decade, the social justice Left has pressed school districts to be “inclusive” of students with disabilities…School districts are pressured to keep the most extremely disruptive students in regular classrooms.

The Policies Promoting School Shootings
By Max Eden
Washington Examiner
February 10, 2023

The school shooting in Newport News, Virginia, involving a six-year-old who shot his teacher, fell from the headlines before we could learn our lesson from it. 

An article in the 74, a website dedicated to education news and commentary, was titled, “After three weeks and a flood of new details, VA school shooting grows more unthinkable.” According to the reporter, with every new detail about the events leading to a six-year-old shooting his teacher, the incident “becomes harder to understand.”

If only that were the case.

Unfortunately, the recent shooting is all too easy to understand. Teachers put their finger on a root cause quickly. At a school board meeting shortly after, teachers inveighed against the school board for its lenient school discipline policies. “It was just a matter of time before something like this happened,” one teacher said. “Teachers often joke about how students get sent into the office for discipline and come back ten minutes later with a snack and pat on the back.”

This is a common teacher complaint in school districts that eschew traditional discipline in favor of a social justice effort to fight the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Thanks to an Obama-era Dear Colleague Letter, it is now conventional administrative wisdom that teachers are biased against minority students and students with disabilities, that consequences harm students, and that discipline policies are successful insofar as they reduce disciplinary statistics. A week after the shooting, Newport News’s superintendent boasted that “the number of disciplinary incidents and student infractions across the school division declined by 40%.”

But, as one teacher said, “ask any teacher … why discipline incidents declined. Infraction numbers are down because incidents aren’t always officially reported. The message we are being given is that suspensions count against us.” School administrators who, like the Newport News elementary school principal, pride themselves on being “anti-racist,” blame teachers for misbehavior, sweep it under the rug, and claim credit for improving discipline even as conditions deteriorate.

Understand this, and the actions by administrators at the elementary school stop being inexplicable.

According to the lawyer of the teacher who was shot, administrators were warned three times that the six-year-old had a gun. The last time, administrators allegedly told an employee that he couldn’t search the student and should just wait it out because the school day was almost over. Such behavior makes no sense if you assume that school administrators put safety first. But it starts to make sense when you understand the pressure to prioritize statistics over safety. Such profound negligence is almost certainly not accidental, but rather policy-induced.

The other should-be-inexplicable-but-isn’t detail is the fact that this student was in a traditional classroom. According to reports, his misbehavior was so severe that the school required a parent to accompany him to class. The week the shooting occurred was the first week the parent’s presence was no longer required.

According to reports, this student has a severe disability. While education privacy laws prohibit confirmation, it seems all but certain that he had an “emotional and behavioral disability” (EBD). Over the past decade, the social justice Left has pressed school districts to be “inclusive” of students with disabilities. When the disability in question is physical or related to learning difficulties, it might be best to keep a student in a traditional classroom rather than educate him in a special classroom or at a specialized school.

But “inclusion” becomes extremely problematic with EBD students. School districts are pressured to keep the most extremely disruptive students in regular classrooms. Then, school district administrators are pressured to sweep their misbehavior under the rug.

As I argued in Why Meadow Died, it was the combination of these two policy pressures that enabled the Parkland school shooting five years ago. School shooters tend to display plenty of disturbing behavior before carrying out their attacks. If you press school officials to ignore the signs, you all but invite disaster. This is, according to a lawsuit, what happened in Oxford, Michigan, where school administrators allegedly willfully refused to refer a student to law enforcement after being warned he had a gun. And it is, according to this teacher’s lawyer, what happened in Newport News.

It’s a tragic reality that some students pose a clear and direct threat. So long as social justice policies pressure schools to keep those students in normal classrooms and ignore the warning signs, we should not be surprised when the “unthinkable” happens again and again.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023


        I want to add two further observations about the liberal arts in our high schools, one bad, one good. First, the bad. I know the degree to which historicism has taken over so much of our collegiate academic analysis. Historicism is part of the reason why much of what goes on in college looks like a defense of cultural relativism. But a kind of pop-historicism has set up shop in our high schools, and while it looks like part of a liberal education, it actually is the antithesis of it. 

        The code phrase is “looking at things in their historical context.” I know that many of you have used these words, perhaps thinking this is what good teaching and learning does. It certainly sounds benign. And I can imagine a level on which it is benign. If our students read, say, Dante, by all means they should try to understand him as he understood himself and not make him what we would like him to be. Nor does it hurt to know that he lived in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, that he was seriously involved in politics, and that he had a spectacular command of theology, biblical interpretation, and church history. Yet even all this and much of the rest of what we know about him we will learn from reading what he wrote, not reading all we can find in Wikipedia about medieval Florence. (Indeed, much of what we know about his “time and place” we will learn from him rather than him from his time and place.) But, still, what's the problem? 

        I worry that by “contextualizing” everything, we don’t explain things; we explain them away. By contextualizing them, we immediately make them “other.” With this, we set up a barrier to learning from the men, women, and events of the past since we do not inhabit their universe. If what Dante wrote and did and thought, he wrote, did, and thought because he was a late-medieval Florentine—if we can only truly understand him by understanding how he was a product of, or reflected, his “time and place”—then he can teach us very little, since we do not inhabit his world. Thus, the writers and thinkers of the past become not teachers but curios.

John Agresto, The Death of Learning (223-224). Encounter Books. Kindle Edition.

Friday, February 3, 2023


I have no hesitation in saying that liberal education in America is dying not by murder but by suicide.

        Perhaps there are universities that still proclaim the liberal arts to be the pinnacle of their offerings, but that’s not what the figures show, not what the world thinks, and not what American or foreign students go to university to study.

        Of course, there are any number of reasons, some even good ones, for this flight from liberal education. A few involve forces more or less beyond our control—the current and universal gravitation toward practical and professional training coupled with feeble job prospects for liberal arts graduates ranks high. But some of the decline is due to our own hubris, narrowness, and self-inflicted wounds. If the final obituary for the liberal arts is ever written, it may read: “This beautiful project died not from old age, not only from neglect, and not exactly from murder, but from self-inflicted wounds that look a bit like suicide.”

        …So, yes, you might think the liberal arts have weathered so many storms that they will weather this. But notice: Almost all the political attacks I’ve mentioned came from without. They came from ideologically driven public sentiment and from powerful politicians. They were promoted as part of the agenda of clearly sectarian political/religious institutions. These opponents of liberal higher education we could and did withstand. But today the dismantling of the liberal arts comes from the professors, students, and administrators within bedrock universities and liberal arts colleges. It comes from radicalized departments of history, literature, classics, American studies, and all the myriad of other studies connected to ethnopolitical interest groups. It comes from virtually every school and college of education. This is why I have no hesitation in saying that liberal education in America is dying not by murder but by suicide.

Jonn Agresto, The Death of Learning. [2022] Encounter Books. Kindle Edition.

Thursday, February 2, 2023


Robert Conquest, Harvest of Sorrow
New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, 232-233
An activist recalls [Stalin’s forced famine in the Ukraine]:

    “I heard the children…coughing, coughing with screams [from government-planned famine]. And I saw the looks of the men: frightened, pleading, hateful, dully impassive, extinguished with despair or flaring up with half-mad, daring ferocity.

    ‘Take it. Take everything away. There’s still a pot of borscht on the stove. It’s plain, got no meat. But still it’s got beets, taters ‘n’ cabbage. And it’s salted. Better take it, comrade citizens! Here, hang on. I’ll take off my shoes. They’re patched and repatched, but maybe they’ll have some use for the proletariat, for our dear Soviet power!"

    It was excruciating to see and hear all this. And even worse was to take part in it…and I persuaded myself, explained to myself. I mustn’t give in to debilitating pity. We were realizing historical necessity. We were performing our revolutionary duty. We were obtaining grain for the socialist fatherland. For the Five Year Plan.”

    He adds, “With the rest of my generation I firmly believed that the ends justified the means. Our great goal was the universal triumph of Communism, and for the sake of that goal everything was permissible—to lie, to steal, to destroy hundreds of thousands and even millions of people, all those who were hindering our work or could hinder it, everyone who stood in the way. And to hesitate or doubt about all this was to give in to ‘intellectual squeamishness’ and ‘stupid liberalism,’ the attribute of people who ‘could not see the forest for the trees.’

    That was how I reasoned, and everyone like me, even when…I saw what ‘total collectivization’ meant—how they ‘kulakized’ and ‘de-kulakized,’ how they mercilessly stripped the peasants in the winter of 1932-1933. I took part in this myself, scouring the countryside, searching for hidden grain, testing the earth with an iron rod for loose spots that might lead to buried grain. With the others, I emptied out the old folks’ storage chests, stopping my ears to the children’s crying and the women’s wails. For I was convinced that I was accomplishing the great and necessary transformation of the countryside; that in the days to come the people who lived there would be better off for it; that their distress and suffering were the result of their own ignorance or the machinations of the class enemy; that those who sent me—and I myself—knew better than the peasants how they should live, what they should sow and when they should plough.

    In the spring of 1933 I saw people dying from hunger [eventually about 14.5 million human beings were made to starve to death]. I saw women and children with distended bellies, turning blue, still breathing but with vacant, lifeless eyes. And corpses—corpses in ragged sheepskin coats and cheap felt boots; corpses in peasant huts, in the melting snow of the old Volgoda, under the bridges of Kharkov…I saw this and did not go out of my mind or commit suicide. Nor did I curse those who had sent me out to take away the peasants’ grain in the winter, and in the spring to persuade the barely walking, skeleton-thin or sickly swollen people to go into the fields in order to
fulfill the bolshevik sowing plan in shock-worker style.

    Nor did I lose my faith. As before, I believed because I wanted to believe.”