What do they teach at school?

Education | A day visiting schools, asking questions, and making secretaries nervous
by Andrée Seu Peterson
Posted on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, at 1:11 pm

“I wonder what they do teach them at these schools,” Professor Kirke muttered to himself in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And I wondered that too, because the nation doesn’t seem to be going so well, judging by the “Watters’ World” segments on The O’Reilly Factor. So I got in my car and drove off to visit schools for a day.

I started with the one my four children first attended. I honed my question: “I live in Glenside and I wondered if I could have a look at one of the history books you use?” The school secretary replied, “We don’t let just anyone come in here like that.” I asked, “Does it make any difference that I pay $4,415 in school taxes?” She turned to her associate and said, “Jill, could you help out here?” Jill looked up from her computer and said, “They don’t use books; they use handouts.” They suggested I try the administration building.

Glenside, Pa., like Jerusalem, is “a city that is bound firmly together” (Psalm 122:3), so it was no trouble to stop at our new 80,000 square foot, $14 million, K-4 facility on the way to the administration offices. This time I began on a more propitious note: “That is one gorgeous chrysanthemum!” I gasped, looking over at the counter. Then I followed up with: “I live in Glenside and I wondered if I could have a look at one of the history books you use?” The secretary seemed nervous. I find that most things make people nervous nowadays. Though I tried to act nonchalant, I could feel the emergence of large letters on my forehead spelling out TROUBLEMAKER.

Though I tried to act nonchalant, I could feel the emergence of large letters on my forehead spelling out TROUBLEMAKER.

A fourth grader appeared moments later with a book for me to peruse in the office waiting room: Smithsonian’s Children’s Encyclopedia of American History. I asked the boy quietly, “Is this the book you use in class?” “No,” he said. “We don’t actually use it.”

Off to the administration building, feeling like Officer Krupke getting the bum’s rush in West Side Story. I popped my rehearsed question. The gatekeeper gave me a list of email addresses of curriculum people, whom I emailed and have not heard back from yet.

To the high schools! It was lunchtime by now, and I zeroed in on two girls on a bench outside, but they were not inclined to talk, though I had dressed nonthreateningly in my cheery yellow sweater. But they did volunteer this much: For history they use a combination of textbooks, handouts, and videos. I thought to myself that even if the books are solid, the devil may be in the handouts and websites. Inside the building, another nervous secretary scribbled more email addresses and looked relieved when I left. I drove uptown to the other high school, where I was told, “You’re not allowed to interview teachers.”

To the city! I crossed out of the burbs to a girls’ school founded in 1848 under the motto Vincit qui se vincit (“She conquers who conquers herself”). The building was locked up tight like Fort Knox. I neglected to get a pass at the office and was told by the frightened teacher who saw me roaming the second floor that I needed to leave. “If they catch you, we will all be held responsible,” she exclaimed.

I was about to give up for the day when I decided to take in one more place: Olney Charter High School. Despite the metal detector at the entrance, the security guard was more laid-back and let me in. (Must have been the yellow sweater.) I found a history teacher named Mr. Alexander who talked to me in his classroom from 3:45 to 5:45, when I finally announced I had to go home and make dinner. I asked about revisionism. He smiled and showed me all his primary sources. He happened to mention that he doesn’t use history class to teach social justice.

It was a good day at school after all.

Andrée Seu Peterson

Andrée is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. Her commentary has been compiled into three books including Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me. Andrée resides in Philadelphia, Penn.

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  • RayDa
    Posted: Tue, 11/08/2016 06:12 pm

    A good article. I graduated high school in 2011. I was shocked my junior year of high school that my English classroom had a poster saying "Thinking Queerly" with an image of Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, and other so called "gay icons." What was generally acceptable changed dramatically in a short time. The textbooks weren't so bad, it was the teachers that were the main problem.

     You probably should have just called or emailed schools and asked them what textbooks they used, and do some research on them if you received any answers. Schools no longer allow people inside unless they have a certain reason to be there. When I was in elementary school, all the doors were unlocked all day. Now all the doors are locked once school has started.

  • Sue Wilson
    Posted: Wed, 11/09/2016 09:53 am

    Seems to me the conclusion of your experiment is that public schools really do not want you to see "what they do teach them at these schools." While not truly scientific I'd say your exprerience is indicative of the whole. Public schools (mostly) teach revisionist history; charter or non public schools do not. Thanks for giving us a glimpse of your experience. I love your topics and humorous way of reporting.


  • MTJanet
    Posted: Wed, 11/09/2016 10:59 am

    I went to my daughters' high school years ago armed with the same questions.  It was astonishing to me how nervous an enquiring mom could make them - as if they had something to hide.  And oh did they!  The English department had a handout on a poem about an orange and a lesbian - ?  And that was followed up with dark, nasty novels to read.  The history department unabashedly denounced then President Bush and proclaiming the glories of socialsim.  The good news is that I was able to get them out of it, but it took a lot of time and energy. I met only one other mother there who had the same desire as I to truly protect the children.  The answer?  Homeschooling.  I never want to see the inside of another government school.  Professor Kirke had it right.  

  •  FreedomInTejas's picture
    Posted: Wed, 11/09/2016 03:39 pm

    Sam Cooke's 1960's hit is still answering that question. 

    Which means they are not preparing students to be thoughtful, active citizens.

  • RMF
    Posted: Thu, 11/10/2016 11:50 pm

    As you can see Andree, k-12 schools are no longer open places, and adults outside of the teachers or on school grounds apart from usual pick up times, are viewed with suspicion. Asking questions about materials incites suspicion and fear, in large part because teachers no longer have much authority to discipline, teach, or interact apart from whatever authority is trickled down from other more superior guidance. This is mostly why the great majority of our government-educated students are terribly, terribly prepared and in fact, quite unready for college-level work not to mention citizenship. What am I saying? I am saying that there is little good teaching going on in these places.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Sun, 11/27/2016 05:40 am

    Interesting and insightful article. I certainly agree with what I think is the main point of this article that what they teach today is woefully inadeaquate and all too often dangerous, rewritten history with an agenda from the pits of hell. Though I must add it sounds more like a day out to prepare for a piece to submit for World than a research article. It doesn't take much time to listen to the news and other every day sources to know the answer to this question. It seems to me a trip to the local school would only be a trip to prove what we already know or potentially to be surprised by some lone teacher who is bucking the system. 

    There is nothing wrong with this article and it is a good reminder. But there is nothing new or surprising here. I'm not sure what to do with the information about the interaction with Mr Alexander or what the take home messge is from this story. Though one that comes to mind, that I also saw in another comment is to not simply walk into any public place unannounced and expect them to simply turn over some information. This sounds more naive than an informed research outing.