The Destruction of American Education, or, The Downside of the Maya Angelou-Style Personality Cult


shutterstock_111215234My younger cousin just graduated from Columbia University a couple of weeks ago. Before going to college, she attended a high school associated with the University of Chicago (where both of her parents are professors). Both of these places are widely seen as desirable places to go to school. They are well-established institutions of American “elite” education. My cousin, while no Albert Einstein, wasn’t there for sports or diversity. She even got a job after college at a very competitive consulting firm. Most people, upon seeing her resume, would consider her “well educated.”  

Walking through a bookstore the other day, she asked me if “Dickens is worth reading.” I thought she was joking. Dear readers, I was very wrong. It so happens, through all of high school and college, she had never been assigned Dickens, Chaucer, Milton, T.S. Eliot, Austen, or Melville! The list went on and on. Needless to say, nary a Bible was cracked during all this time either.  

Effectively, my cousin was raised without a heritage. Her American/English-speaking birthright was denied her. Though she thought herself in possession of a stellar academic background, she knows worse than nothing about her civilization. I say “worse than nothing” because her head has been crammed full of multi-culti garbage.

It will come as no surprise when I tell you that she read Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison in high school. Every minute we spend teaching kids to revere mediocrity is a minute stolen from the contemplation of beauty and genius.  

We spend a lot of time (and rightly so) discussing the degradation of the college humanities. But the rot starts much, much earlier — and lasts a lot longer.  

In the face of this, how can we do anything but homeschool our children? It’s only a matter of time until every public high school curriculum is degraded beyond recognition.  

Are there any rays of hope? Any places where this is being reversed? Are we losing ground everywhere?

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  1. MJBubba Inactive



    • #1
  2. True Blue Inactive
    True Blue

    I don’t even have kids yet, but this concerned me so much I think I’ll have to home school…

    • #2
  3. Sandy Member

    I agree: homeschool, but it is also true that reading begins at home, and your cousin’s parents ought to have assigned a few books, too.  I don’t like to say or even think it, but we are losing ground in our schools.  For a great many people, however, the Bible is the only book they will ever read at all, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    • #3
  4. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu

    I basically agree with you, and I’m hugely in favor of teaching the classics, but I will say that Dickens isn’t my favorite. Too flowery. I can’t read the Brontes for the same reason.

    • #4
  5. jzdro Member

    Hello Mr. True Blue,

    Here is one way in which things are even more deeply wrong than you fear:  History goes along with literature, correct?  To appreciate good literature, a reader must, among other things, have an idea of the time and place in which the author wrote, and an idea of the time and place in which the characters act  – correct?

    Your young cousin and thousands like her have no mental construct, no internal, self-constructed mental timeline of historical events.  Such a timeline is built by each student over the course of years, studying history first in primary, general terms, and then with each iteration filling in more detail, more nuance, more connections, more understanding.  For these young people, however:

    “480 B.C. ” has no meaning.

    “632 A.D.”  has no meaning.

    “1794”  or  “1815” has no meaning.

    “1787 in Philadelphia”  has no meaning.

    “1861-1865” has no meaning.

    “1914-1918” has no meaning.

    “June 6, 1944” has no meaning.

     . . . continued, as fast as I can copy and paste . . . 

    • #5
  6. jzdro Member

    I can only recommend that you put books into her hand, one at a time; read or re-read them with her (loosely; independently) and talk about them over enjoyable dinners out and enjoyable dinners in.

    M.F.K. Fischer got her start that way; did you know?  In one of her books she tells of her uncle, or uncle-equivalent, taking her out to dinner.

    What would you like?

    Oh, I don’t know; anything.

    At that, the good uncle went into high dudgeon, proclaiming it a moral crime to waste gustatory perception, mental challenge,  and any opportunity to develop aesthetic sense or express appreciation of the material advantages she enjoyed.  She took it to heart; the rest is culinary and literary history.

    We must nurture our minds, just as we must nurture our bodies; is that not so?  And far from being a harrowing procedure, the nurturing of the mind can be pleasant  – when the first skills are learned.

    . . . concluded, as fast as I can copy and paste. . .

    • #6
  7. jzdro Member

    So, I suggest that you invest effort in the literary and historical development of your young relation, with the understanding that results may not be apparent to you at speed, but may yet accrue.  And such is the bargain we make with fate when we raise offspring.  So, you will be prepared with some experience.

    Go for it! Defy the Norns!

    • #7
  8. A Beleaguered Conservative Member
    A Beleaguered Conservative

    In that great series Friday Night Lights, the students are assigned Melville, Homer and others.  Perhaps it is Texas, perhaps it is fiction.

    • #8
  9. kylez Member

    Is it okay if I don’t know who MFK Fischer is? :)
    I like all your points though.

    • #9
  10. jzdro Member

    Hi Kylez,

    “Is it okay if I don’t know who MFK Fischer is? :)”

    It’s perfect that you don’t, because I spelled her name wrong!

    It’s M.F.K. Fisher.

    I just scanned the list of her books on Wikipedia, and am guessing that that childhood story is somewhere in The Art of Eating.


    • #10
  11. Kozak Member

    My “favorite” example of the “genius” of Maya Angelou, the Dr Seuss of Poet Laureates :
    From her poem read at the inauguration of William Jefferson Clinton

    So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
    The African and Native American, the Sioux,
    The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
    The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
    The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
    The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
    They hear. They all hear
    The speaking of the Tree.

    To which I feel compelled  to add
    The Doctor the Lawyer the Indian Chief
    Our new President is a Liar and Thief

    • #11
  12. The Mugwump Inactive
    The Mugwump

    What you describe, good sir, is the leftist indoctrination of an elite ruling class as per Angelo Codevilla.  The program is fatally flawed by its own mediocrity in addition to its assumed moral superiority.  This is how mediocrities like Barack Obama and Sonya Sotomayor rise to prominent positions of power.  This is why their program will ultimately fail.

    The flip side is the utter failure of public schooling to provide even a basic skill set to the children of the middle and lower classes.  Such children will not be reading the wrong thing because they cannot read at all.  They are informed almost entirely by the popular culture and social media.  Putting aside the long term problems for a moment, Republicans have been slow to recognize this trend while Democrats continue to exploit it.

    • #12
  13. Podkayne of Israel Inactive
    Podkayne of Israel

    How did I deal with the embrace of mediocrity in American education? I moved to Israel, where I got married and sent my children to religious schools. I read them a lot of books of my choosing, and when they were older, provided Hebrew translations of the books I had enjoyed as a youngster.
    In school, they read very little fiction, and instead became very intimately familiar with the Bible. My primary regret with the Israeli religious school system is that it included relatively little science, particularly lab science. Their math background is better than adequate. Besides Jewish history and some world history, they got very little of what would be termed “social studies”.
    My eldest son is completing a degree in Economics and Chinese, after a stint in a combat unit of the IDF. Elder daughter is a licensed Israeli tour guide, with a solid background in history, archeology, local botany and geography, and navigation. Second daughter finished high school by equivalency exams, but these included physics and pre-calculus. She wants to study Economics and Statistics. We will see about the other two.
    Sometimes I think we did well, sometimes I wonder about what they missed.

    • #13
  14. Casey Inactive

    Math and Science
    Math and Science
    Math and Science

    Are we beating China yet?

    • #14
  15. Larry3435 Member

    “she had never been assigned Dickens, Chaucer, Milton, T.S. Eliot, Austen, or Melville!”

    May we assume from that list that you are an Anglophile?  Since I will honor Eliot’s own choice of citizenship, and therefore not count him as an American, your list includes only Melville from this side of the pond.  

    Would not Steinbeck, Hemingway, Twain, or even Poe belong ahead of Melville on that list?  Or did your cousin’s education actually reach those authors?  If so, perhaps she is not as ignorant as you think.

    • #15
  16. Nick Stuart Inactive
    Nick Stuart

    Unless parents have access to, and the means to afford, a good private school, homeschooling is the only alternative (I would go so far as to say homeschooling is the preferable alternative even in that case). The government schools are irredeemably wrecked, and even if you locate the 1 in 1000 school that’s really good this year, you have no way of knowing it’s going to be that way next year.

    • #16
  17. user_11047 Inactive

    This appalling lack of a basic education is primarily what has led to the need for Greg Lukianoff’s Herculean efforts with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). With no real background in history and literature, many students are easily led to believe the rot that has invaded our schools and universities and therefore accept speech codes and the like.   More troublesome, many then actively rebel against any ideas contrary to their own small-minded thinking.

    • #17
  18. Masked Man Inactive
    Masked Man

    May I propose an alternative that rarely gets discussed? I’m not sure how many parents have the knowledge, aptitude or temperament to home school.  I know I don’t. But, in that case, why not link up with 14 like-minded families, each contribute $7,500 (yes, a lot of money for some — but we’re talking about your kid) and for $112,500 you can hire Aristotle to teach your 5th grader. True, the classroom would probably be somebody’s paneled basement but who cares? You’d be exposing your kid to a master teacher who could influence his love of learning forever. I sent my son to a fine private school but if I were to do it again, I would seriously consider this approach.

    • #18
  19. Drusus Inactive

    When college education schools are designed to attract mediocrities, it is no wonder that those schools produce teachers who revere other mediocrities. They are more “accessible.” As a teacher, I speak of what I know.

    • #19
  20. ctlaw Coolidge

    True Blue:

    …Walking through a bookstore the other day, she asked me if “Dickens is worth reading.” I thought she was joking. Dear readers, I was very wrong. It so happens, through all of high school and college, she had never been assigned Dickens, Chaucer, Milton, T.S. Eliot, Austen, or Melville! The list went on and on. Needless to say, nary a Bible was cracked during all this time either…

    I call a bit of BS on this. In our PC world, how could your cousin not have been forced to read Austen?

    Austen was the only listed author I was forced to read. That being said, affirmative action accounted for less than 10% of my forced high school reading in the early 1980s. The remainder was merely entrenched union teachers forcing me to read their favorite works. Ironically, this meant that the majority of my “English” reading in my first two years was not originally written in English (mostly Russian and French origin).

    • #20
  21. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    Hillsdale College’s online history courses are free to register, and you can watch the videos at your own speed and discuss.  Homeschooling parents should take advantage of this resource.  They are also just starting a “Great Books” course.

    • #21
  22. Proud Skeptic Inactive
    Proud Skeptic

    There is…or at least there was…a middle school in Baltimore (a public, city middle school) that taught the classics.  My daughter’s class read The Iliad in its unabridged form in sixth grade.   She also took Latin.   Incidentally, this school was about 80% black. 

    After High School she went on to Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.  I was pleased with the education she got there.

    • #22
  23. AIG Inactive

    Not being much of a “humanities” person, I can barely remember what I read in HS. I think, some of the Greek classics, Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare, and yes Toni Morrison. But as I said, I was never much of a humanities person, so I really never cared, or remembered, what I read in HS.

    And most kids, don’t care either. So while I see the point that there are some “classics” being ignored, seems to me I read most of them even my inner-city NYC HS. So maybe things aren’t as “bad” as portrayed here. 

    On the other hand,  do you really think that reading Dickens and Austen will somehow make your cousin appreciate her “American/English-speaking heritage” more? I think there’s a bit more to that heritage than reading books which 99% of HS kids will find incomprehensible. 

    Clearly your cousin was more interested in practical education, than the humanities. For the 90% of us who have no brains for that sort of thing (classics that is), that’s a good trade-off.

    • #23
  24. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist

    Oof. Don’t give up hope on the charter schools. I’ve been hesitant to write about this on Ricochet in case I’m spilling the beans on some vast right-wing conspiracy to properly educate America’s children, but Hillsdale provides the curriculum for my daughter’s high school. Yes, that Hillsdale.

    In the summer before her freshman year, Chauvinist the Elder was assigned Thucydides. She just finished her sophomore year reading Tale of Two Cities (which she’d read abridged versions of before) and loved it! It’s not just the content that the average schools are lacking, but the western interpretative tradition in which to read the Great Books.

    Elder’s high school is the top performing school in Colorado (measured in state and national test results and scholarship $$s). But, even more important, the liberal arts curriculum they’re studying is forming the western identity of these kids. 

    Barring access to a Hillsdale-style charter, then, yes, homeschool.

    Maybe it’s time I put up that post about my daughter’s experience.

    • #24
  25. True Blue Inactive
    True Blue

    First time on the main feed! Cool.

    Larry 3435: I asked and other than Twain she wasn’t assigned any of those either.

    • #25
  26. user_409996 Inactive

    I have a confession to make.  I was not required to read Charles Dickens, and have not gotten very far into any of his works.  You’d think someone who could push himself through As I Lay Dying and The Gulag Archipelago could slog his way through Dickens.  I had an equally difficult time penetrating Crime and Punishment.

    That said, War and Peace is a much easier read than you might think.  And The Leopard is beautifully written too.

    So I don’t know if Dickens is worth reading.  He is worth trying to read, and it is worth learning about the man and his works, just as it may be well nigh impossible to read Moby Dick but to know learn about Herman Melville and his works, and those of Nathaniel Hawthorne – another one of those hard to read authors – is well worth the effort.

    I am not so certain about Henry James.  I’d try Turn of the Screw.

    • #26
  27. user_409996 Inactive

    I put this up on Facebook about Maya Angelou:

    She wasn’t a poet at all. She wrote prose. But she had a memorable cadence and knew how to work her public image to the hilt. She was a very shrewd lady with a style you could try imitate but never match. She was a lot like Ella Fitzgerald. Lots of singers have tried Skat, and some have even come close to being as good at it as Ella, but most have sounded as ridiculous as a Charismatic Christian “speaking tongues”. I just wish that her fans knew enough about poetry and public relations to recognize what Maya Angelou was and wasn’t, and had the courage to acknowledge that this empress did not wear the kind of clothes everyone say she did.

    • #27
  28. Larry3435 Member

    True Blue:

    First time on the main feed! Cool.

    Larry 3435: I asked and other than Twain she wasn’t assigned any of those either.

     I don’t think I was ever assigned any of them either, but I read them all on my own because they’re, you know, good.

    • #28
  29. Milt Rosenberg Contributor
    Milt Rosenberg

    I spent some 35 years as a professor at the University of Chicago. My immediate message here is a simple one: yes, my aggrieved friends ’tis true, ’tis true. And, of couse, not merely at the University of Chicago but just about everywhere in higer education—with the “top institutions” leading the wayand ultimately imitated by virtually all the rest. Not at Hillsdale but even in most of the Catholic niversities and colleges.

    • #29
  30. Casey Inactive


    Clearly your cousin was more interested in practical education, than the humanities. For the 90% of us who have no brains for that sort of thing (classics that is), that’s a good trade-off.

     I don’t think this is a de gustibus kind of thing.

    The more ideas one is exposed to the more ideas one is capable of having.  Limiting those ideas in a child’s education is just terrible.

    Not everyone will grow up to be Paul Rahe but everyone can grow up to be a better self and one can only do so by reaching above the ordinary.  A teacher’s job is to give them the things to reach for.

    • #30
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