The Poverty of Political Discussion Explained, In One Lesson

C04Y3G Art Napoleon Bonaparte





“What was considered a good education 50 years ago…is no longer enough for success in college, career, and citizenship in the 21st century.” So says the National Education Association. Their interviews with “leaders of all kinds” yielded the now omnipresent wisdom that the most important skills for K-12 education are the 4 C’s: Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity.

What does this mean in practice? You will think I am guilty of hyperbole when I describe a very typical project my daughter Lana was assigned as part of her World History class at a prestigious Orange County public high school. I’m not.

First, let us consider that this was “World History” – a convenient 32 chapters to be taught over a school year of 32 weeks. And by “world” they meant world. This class endeavored to cover the whole of human history, beginning with prehistoric man and extending to every corner of the globe he ever inhabited. So, one week each was allotted to such periods as “Ancient Greece, 1900–133 B.C,” “African Civilizations, 2000 B.C.–A.D. 1500,” and “Revolution And Enlightenment, 1550–1800.” (I think of the class as THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD – THE DISNEYLAND RIDE! But my kids would protest, because Disneyland rides are fun.)

Before I get to the project, let me describe the typical, day-to-day assignment. It consisted of reading the blur of vastly overgeneralized, impossible-to-grasp-or-retain information in the textbook, and then, filling out the dreaded worksheet. These, at least, became a source of comedy in my household.

One worksheet featured a chart with three columns, the first with a list of historic terms Lana had never encountered, the second with spaces for her to fill in web-searched definitions of those terms, and the third with a space for her to draw them. Yes, that’s right: draw pictures of them. Among the terms to be drawn was “The Truman Doctrine.”

Another featured, again, three columns, the first with a new list of unfamiliar terms, the second with a space for definitions, and the third with a space for…antonyms. She was to name an antonym for “Creole: a person of mixed European and black descent, especially in the Caribbean.” A person not of mixed European and black descent, not in the Caribbean? Is there a word for that?

And now, the pinnacle project of the World History course. This project would occupy the week or so devoted to “The French Revolution And Napoleon 1789–1815,” which, incidentally, meant there was no time for the teacher to actually teach them anything about either the French Revolution or Napoleon. They would need the full week for the monumental task at hand: a trial of Napoleon, in which it was to be decided whether he was, A) a Bloodthirsty Tyrant, or B) A Great General. (Yes, those were the only two possibilities.)

Stage one of this project involved the teacher randomly assigning each student a figure of the Napoleonic Era, either a real, historic person, or a “type” of the time. Lana was assigned the role of “a French officer.”

Next, they were to write a fictional account of an encounter their character had with Napoleon. They were to do research to give some amount of plausible reality to their character, but the specific events and circumstances were theirs to fabricate from scratch. They handed in their stories, and the teacher “graded them,” which meant, checked to see that they had been done.

Then, it was time for the trial. Each student told his or her story of the [made-up] character’s direct encounter with Napoleon, including [made-up] evidence of his fundamentally “great” or “tyrannical” nature, while the rest of the class took notes. At the conclusion of the presentations, the students were to reflect on their notes of this “evidence,” and to declare in an essay their considered judgment of Napoleon.

Now, by the standards of the 4 C’s, this project surely rates an A. Did it involve Communication? Yes, all of the students had to assume the stage and share their stories. Collaboration? After all, this was a group effort of experiences consolidated to yield a fair judgment. Creativity? (Can’t quite discuss this one with a straight face.) Well, yes, since their stories were works of fiction. And Critical Thinking? If the synthesis of pseudo-facts generated by your historically-ignorant peers with the goal of coming to an overly simplistic conclusion can be called “critical thinking,” then, certainly, it involved that too.

But what have they really learned about Napoleon? And what could they have learned? Maybe most important of all, what have they learned about what it is to learn?

What if instead they had been taught, by a passionate and knowledgeable historian, one who understood the significance of the Napoleonic Era to the progress of civilization, and who believed that an understanding of that significance would help inform their judgment of the modern world? They could have learned what is was about the French Revolution that caused France’s decay into terror and chaos, and left it vulnerable to a new tyrant. They could have learned about the commonalities among Julius Caesar, and Alexander the Great, and Napoleon, and the reasons for the inevitable failure of empires established by conquest. They could have learned what positive legacy of law and order even a despot can leave in his wake. My goodness, I wish I had had such a teacher.

Perhaps you were one of the lucky few who had a real history teacher, one who taught history – who presented history as a captivating story of epic figures, engaged in world-changing events, with monumental consequences that imply profound lessons about life. Probably not, since such teachers vanished from most American schools many decades ago.

It was just over 50 years ago that critic of public education Arthur Bestor bore witness to a decline in educational standards that current educators are bringing to its reductio ad absurdum. In Educational Wastelands, he wrote about the advent of “social studies,” which was taking the place of true history:

“The ‘social studies’ purported to throw light on contemporary problems, but the course signally failed, for it offered no perspective on the issues it raised, no basis for careful analysis, no encouragement to ordered thinking. There was plenty of discussion, but it was hardly responsible discussion. Quick and superficial opinions, not balanced and critical judgment, were at a premium. Freedom to think was elbowed aside by freedom not to think, and undisguised indoctrination loomed ahead.”

If you have been troubled by the nature of the discussion that surrounds current events and politics – by the superficiality, the simpleminded polarity, the uninformed opinion-spouting – and you want to understand where it comes from, look no further than American public schools. Shockingly, you will find that the problem lies both in what is not being taught, and what is.

A VanDamme Academy Documentary Project





I often refer to VanDamme Academy as a “cultural oasis.” We are known among the local high schools for producing some of the best academically prepared students in the county. But there is something more, an intangible quality to the culture of the school and its lasting effect on students, that is truly special, and that has always been difficult to communicate. It is that quality that prompted one of this year’s graduating 8th graders to write in my yearbook, “Miss VanDamme, This school is the best thing that ever happened to me…”

People who have experienced the school’s culture for themselves, who have either sat in the bristlingly energetic classrooms, or been regaled with stories of the school’s successes, or heard graduates speak nostalgically and gratefully about their VanDamme Academy years, or read my writing and wished that such a school had existed for them or for their children – those people get it. They get why a teenage girl would unfathomably call her junior high school experience “the best thing that ever happened to her.” And they want more students to have the opportunity she did.

That is why I am asked incessantly: When are you going to franchise? When are you going to start a high school? How are you going to communicate to other educators the principles that inspire these results?

I struggled with the question of expansion for many years. But now, my serene, considered answer is: I’m not. I decided long ago that I personally want to run just this one school, for many reasons. The most important among them are: 1) I want to be able to focus on continuous refinement, making this school the very best it can possibly be, 2) My happiness depends on having the opportunity to personally inspire students with a passion for great literature, and 3) I always say I will never give up my “hugs in the hall,” by which I mean the close relationship I share with students and parents alike.

But I have always felt a tug of guilt, or of responsibility, or maybe just of desire, to communicate what is happening within the walls of VanDamme Academy and to inspire others to do the same.

When I explained all this to an astute and highly successful entrepreneur who had been asking me the “incessant questions,” he said, “Ok.You need to just keep doing what you are doing, and have three cameras follow you around while you are doing it.” Shortly after that, when I described a writing project I was considering to another sharp-minded friend and fan of VanDamme Academy, he echoed the same sentiment, saying, “I think the precursor to that would be someone doing a documentary about the school. The problem with just writing is that people will have no concretized concept of what you’ve accomplished. Motivation comes before real learning.”

A documentary…

I felt about this idea much the same as I did 20 years ago, when I came home to an answering machine message from someone looking for a homeschool teacher for his children. In both cases, at first I didn’t know what to make of it. Within 24 hours, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do. But if I was going to do this, it would have to be done right. I would need to find someone who had real training, experience, and success as a filmmaker, AND who appreciated the essence of the school. Then it dawned on me.

Among the people who “get it” is a woman who regularly wants to sit within our walls, just to infuse her own soul with inspiration.  Several times a year, she steps away from her day job and volunteers as a substitute teacher. Her day job? Independent film producer.

Her name is Jessie Creel. She has an MFA in producing from Chapman University. Her first film, “Stones,” was an official selection of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival shorts program, and she is currently working on a feature film that is being developed with support from the Sundance labs and the Creative Producing Summit Fellowship. Jessie says her life goal is to produce films and documentaries based on true stories from around the world that illuminate human potential. I proposed my idea to her, and she was on board immediately, because she believes VanDamme Academy is one of those stories. In her words, “I’m always bragging about VDA. Let me show people and not tell them.” As we talked, her suggestions about what to focus on in the documentary exactly matched what I had been thinking…and I knew I had found capable hands.

Jessie’s partner in this project would be Richard Yau, who has a Masters of Fine Arts in Cinematography from Chapman University. His work on “Stones” garnered him a nomination for cinematography at the 2009 Cecil Awards and an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011. He has worked on projects for Fox Searchlight, YouTube, Wisecrack, Soulpancake, Buzzfeed, and other independent production companies, and he now works as a Director of Photography in Los Angeles shooting music videos, commercials, short films, web series and recently a feature film.

Jessie and Richie have created a “proof of concept” – a glimpse into what the full feature will be, and it is beautiful. You can see it here.

The feature would be a short documentary, between 22 and 30 minutes. Upon completion, it would be marketed to film festivals to try to garner attention and to television to get it played on stations like PBS. The ultimate goal, though, would be to get it in the hands of administrators, educators, homeschoolers, education policy makers, etc., to inspire them with VanDamme Academy’s vision.

At this stage, what we need most to make this project a reality is funding. To fully fund all aspects of this project, we need to raise $100,000, and fairly quickly if we want to produce it this year.

If you are interested in supporting this project financially please just write to me at and let me know what amount you would be interested in contributing. Any contribution helps.

In the weary world of education, VanDamme Academy is a little candle that – with the help of this documentary – could throw its beams far and wide.