Girls at a Catholic school drank beer out of cups arranged in a swastika. Guess what they were busted for?
A "Jews versus Nazis" drinking game spurs outrage, but we shouldn't be surprised. Schools have de-emphasized the value of history for years.
By Aaron Barnhart
St. Teresa's Academy is a 151-year-old all-girls prep school in Kansas City with a tradition of tough educational standards and strong moral values. Today, though, the academy is reeling from a massive self-inflicted PR wound that has a lot of its graduates wondering what it values now.
Listeners to KCUR, the NPR affiliate in Kansas City, awoke Monday to a bizarre report of hallway harassment, angry alumnae and an administration scrambling to contain the fallout from images of a "Jews versus Nazis" beer-pong game that went viral last week.
It all started when nine STA students at an off-campus drinking party thought it would be a hoot to take a selfie with 40 Solo cups arranged in a swastika. The pictures were posted to Snapchat, and soon screen grabs made their way to school officials. They responded by ordering the girls to serve a one-day "in-school reflection" and to email the news to any college they were thinking of attending. (Most of them are juniors at STA, not seniors.)
Word of the light punishment quickly spread among alumnae, who reached out to the media. A number of local outlets jumped on the story, but KCUR's aggressive coverage surely set off alarms inside St. Teresa's. The school is in the middle of a $15 million capital campaign, and public media's audience is its base.
As journalists circled the school, STA officials circled the wagons. On Sept. 18 they emailed parents to assure them that there had been a full investigation involving Kansas City police, and that the school did not condone ... underage drinking. About the decision to party around a swastika, the email only made passing reference to "a hateful symbol."
Caroline Quinn of Washington, D.C., had just attended a STA fundraiser. Her reaction spoke for many:
I am incredulous that the administration is treating this less as an act of racism and more as an unruly night of underage drinking. When we sat with the school’s president last week, she told us alumnae about an impending robotics lab, active learning classrooms and remodeled locker rooms. Before breaking ground on these projects, you must take a more unequivocal stance against the heinous actions of some of your students.
"To reiterate, we condemn discrimination of any kind," STA president Nan Bone asserted in a homily-filled Facebook message on Friday. Bone and other leaders continued to refer generically to the racist image, which struck many as insulting to the memory, still fresh, of the mass shooting in 2014 by an anti-Semitic gunman at a local Jewish center. One of those killed in the attack, Terri LaManno, was a graduate of St. Teresa's Academy.
'I sat with them when they learned history'
Inside the school, KCUR reported, tensions were rising. The student who had reported the incident was being harassed, but the girls seen in the picture would be allowed to attend the academy's signature dance, Teresian, on Saturday. That's where the pot boiled over. Classmates confronted the girls at the dance, calling them Nazis and racists.
Perhaps shaken by this rough treatment, the nine students in the picture issued a joint apology to the community on Sunday. The school, I'm told, has apologized to each of its Jewish students, and Bone has vaguely promised “several new initiatives” to address the problems raised by the Nazi beer-pong game.
But how, in fact, does one ensure that something like this doesn't happen again? A Kansas City Star editorial helpfully suggested a crash course in Holocaust education for the offenders, such as reading a papal encyclical (zzzzzzz) or meeting a survivor of the concentration camps.
But Katie Gregory, a junior at St. Teresa's, told KCUR that the girls in the photo were classmates of hers during 10th-grade world history. They knew full well what the swastika stood for.
“I sat with them when we learned history and what the symbol means and who died and who was targeted and what happened to them. We learned in graphic detail the torture that some of these people went through,” Gregory says.
And they still raised 40 cups to the Führer.
Technology trumps spirituality
St. Teresa's Academy was started in 1866 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who trudged over from St. Louis to start the school, then ran it for generations. It was a rigorous, classical education for a people devoted to God and country.
As Kansas City's public schools suffered from decades of white flight, St. Teresa's filled an enviable niche in the private-school market. Located on a beautiful campus in an affluent midtown neighborhood, STA over the years transitioned from a school where parents gave their children an education worthy of their demanding faith to a more secular institution open to all who strive for excellence ... and a nice college placement.
Somewhere along the way, disciplines like history, theology, and philosophy that formed part of a classic liberal education took a backseat to those that could advance a career.
To be sure, they are all still part of STA's curriculum requirements. But they aren't part of the marketing message delivered by Nan Bone in this video for the capital campaign.
"Glass ceilings ... entrepreneurs ... producers." Female empowerment is defined entirely in economic terms. Technology has replaced spirituality as the driver of human potential. (Although the new campus ministry room will have a really awesome skylight.)
With all that future to think about — tomorrow's inventions, tomorrow's technology, tomorrow's glass-ceiling-breaking leaders — who's got time to think about the past?
The value of history
The recent wave of Confederate monument topplings has stirred up a lot of controversy. And that's mostly because Americans have a pretty shaky grasp of why we fought a civil war. For the first time in a long time, however, many of us are seeing the connection between how we regard the past and where we want to go in the future.
Is it really surprising that this group of high schoolers took the swastika so casually? It shouldn't be. For decades most of us have been blithely strolling by monuments put up decades after the Civil War by Confederate sympathizers. These statues had a purpose that went beyond honoring the dead — they were meant to influence how the living, and generations yet to be born, viewed the "war between the states."
Until now, the swastika has not suffered from the same kind of public confusion. But with far-right parties ascending to Germany's Bundestag for the first time since World War II, and white nationalism on the rise seemingly everywhere, it's worth asking how long before the meaning of this "hateful symbol" is lost as well.
The young women at St. Teresa's Academy are no different from their peers. They seek a better life, or at least a good life. They absorb messages from the media and their mentors about how to achieve that life.
And in today's schools, the key is very obviously to pursue a career in STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math. Yes, the video above slips in an A for arts (STEAM), but it's really a C for "creativity," which will help the St. Teresa's graduate stand out in the job market from all the dull boys who just focused on STEM.
For the past five years, we've been publishing books designed to spark an interest in history in readers, especially younger readers. The reality, though, is that history is little more than a box to check toward a diploma or degree. At most schools it's not even called history anymore — it's a social studies requirement, along with government. We love our teachers who have made Quindaro books part of the classroom, but we've also come to realize it takes a special educator to make these massive history overview courses come to life as more than just acts and facts.
And yet, as Neil Postman liked to point out, historical knowledge is something a democracy used to expect of its citizens. History is more than just another "critical thinking" skill to advance our careers. It's critical thinking applied to society. It requires moral judgment that considers the rights and interests of people not like ourselves. That makes it different from the morality we use to guide our personal lives.
Historical knowledge is one of those skills a free people need in order to remain free. To listen to its alumnae, those were skills St. Teresa's Academy once took pride in developing.
Most of the books I'm going to recommend in this blog were marketed as Young Adult Nonfiction books. This, I've found, is usually a misnomer, since really good YA is a page-turning and useful read for anyone 12 or older. (I prefer calling it short nonfiction.)
Andrea Warren's Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps is as powerful a read as other Holocaust accounts, but with a lighter touch than, say, Victor Frankl. Warren, best known for her accounts of the Western orphan trains, was introduced in the late 1990s to Jack Mandelbaum, who had been put in a concentration camp at age 12. Somehow Jack had found the strength to endure, and with the help of another boy got through the war. Anyone old enough to understand cruelty can read this.
Last year our editorial assistant Brianna Westervelt reviewed three other short nonfiction books that brought the Holocaust and the resistance to Hitler to life: