The Empress Is Naked

The matronly administrator instructed 1000 students through a microphone in her thick accent “you better clap boys and girls; you could be up there some day.” A tepid round of applause reverberated in the amphitheater for the ninety-seventh time at a presentation of mock pageantry previously unmatched in our school district. Our leaders excel at finding novel ways to celebrate mediocrity. Ninety eight students were reclassified as English proficient after certain standards were lowered. Each one received a medal hanging on a gold satin ribbon shining splendidly in the spring sunlight. Each also received a bouquet of carnations intended to be distributed to each of their past teachers in honor of this magnificent accomplishment.

The farce and the apathetic student response are all too common.  Amongst the teachers there was a mix of uncomfortable silence, disingenuous smiles and an occasional display of emotion by the odd teacher yearning to believe the lie.

In 1983, the Department of Education delivered the report “A Nation at Risk.”  It confirmed that our public schools were in a state of degeneration.  The chilling assertion was made that America’s sworn enemy could do no more to destroy us than to foist upon us our current system of public education. The sober were not shocked. The educational architects frantically gathered their scientific devices and made strenuous efforts to formulate the remedy to this national emergency.

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In 1998, “A Nation Still at Risk” reported that despite the best efforts of the educational elite, the schools had further degenerated with the added distressing fact that increasingly ill-educated students were hotly pursued by increasingly ill-educated teachers. Call to mind the veritable army of teachers recruited from the dysfunctional schools since 1983. I count myself among them.

Today, in 2013, the degeneration continues even faster as if transmitted by fiber optic.  Ironically, if you ask anyone climbing up the ladder of the ivory tower they will tell you everything is just fine.  One highly esteemed PhD proclaims; “I am not at all worried about our students of the future because we have finally figured it all out!” The teaching profession is accustomed to asserting what pleases the ego and the ear regardless of its tie to reality.  The cognitive dissonance required to be an employee honored by the public schools is not unlike what was required of those who surrounded the Emperor in the classic fairy tale.

In the public schools, we have abandoned literacy and the great stories. It is by these stories that we catch glimpses of the immutable realities that shape our lives. The enduring tales are like soul mirrors. There is indeed a striking parallel between Hans Christian Anderson’s classic fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes and the current state of affairs roiling around the conglomerate called Public Education.  In comparing our educational crisis to this classic fairy tale, we might recover some things that ought not to have been forgotten.

Public education has taken on a life of its own.  She has a specific character and a predictable personality.  I contend she is animated by the father of lies. We will call her the Empress. The Emperor’s invisible clothes in the tale can be likened to the programs the Empress uses to clothe her massive body of schools.  Just like the Emperor, the Empress is “so excessively fond of clothes” that she spends all her money on them.  These outward signs of vanity are garments woven from invisible threads invented by the swindlers we know as “educational experts.”

The Empress adorns herself with new and ever-changing signs of achievement.  One hour she shows off higher test scores, the next she touts diminishing dropout rates, after that she struts diversity, and then she puts on higher literacy rates. The higher test scores are generally an arbitrary measure of a lowered standard. The diminishing dropout rate is a narrower re-definition of the word dropout. Her claims to diversity are couched in the most rigid uniformity.  The higher literacy rates possess almost no similarity to what an ancient grammarian would call literate.  And yet still, the public applauds these invisible successes as if they were real.

What the swindlers in the fairy tale said of themselves bears an eerie resemblance to the very words used by the swindlers of today.

We are two very good tailors and after many years of research we have invented an extraordinary method to weave a cloth so light and fine that it looks invisible. As a matter of fact it is invisible to anyone who is too stupid and incompetent to appreciate its quality.

The genius of the swindlers is in playing on our human frailties.  Our desire for human respect can overwhelm our integrity.  The swindlers convince the Empress that whoever cannot see the invisible fabric of their new programs is an incompetent fool and not fit for service in the Empress’ classrooms.

In the tale and in our reality, the swindlers churn out their crafty wares in exchange for bags of gold and paltry celebrity.  These invisible garments are made of hot air and hubris. The threads of sophistry intertwined with the dark arts of fraudulence weave more than just an invisible fabric; they cast a spell like the snake in the garden that promises “you shall be like gods.” And thus the swindlers appropriate to themselves the attributes of God and create their own anthropology, their own system of weights and measures, and their own moral code. With the gravity of helium they make pronouncements on the human condition that often times require multiple university degrees to believe.

One of the latest invisible garments to be donned at our school is an outrageously arrogant reordering of the language acquisition process. The swindlers persuaded the Empress to decree that the usual way of acquiring a new language is to be changed.  “Research shows humans no longer learn to listen before they can speak and read before they can write” bellowed the herald.  “Now the new language learner will listen first, write second, read third and speak last!”

The sheer number of invisible garments worn and discarded by the Empress is immense.  The breadth and depth of the errors they propagate is astounding.  Their lack of truth is alarming.  They pretend wild diversity and promise great growth and prosperity.  In The Wonder of Being Human, Daniel Robinson observed that when a garment is first presented with the prescribed enthusiasm “in the thrill of it all, it is difficult to perceive this thing as just one more cadaver upon which posterity will learn the anatomy of confusion.”

The Emperor’s entourage in the tale is played on our side by Superintendents, principals, and the massive body of school teachers.  Like the characters in the story, we are forced to confront our gift of free will when we arrive at the crossroads to speak the lie or become a traitor.  The price tag on truth is high by the standards of this world and self-deceit is a sadistic courtesan. But alas, we are compelled to choose.

The folks of the kingdom out to watch the processions of the Emperors’ new clothes are like all the parents that send their kids to public schools.  The difficulty is nearly as problematic for them as it is for the court attendants. After all, parents are the first teachers of their children.

The child who shouts, “The Emperor is naked!” should be likened to our students, but we do not hear them. Their plain language is a fifty percent dropout rate, violence, addiction, and an apathy that mimics a coma. The swindlers have contrived our deafness by convincing us that children are like little adults. In kindergarten we lull them into submission by teaching them applied linguistics instead of Aesop.

The soul we see in the mirror of The Emperor’s New Clothes is our own.  Our only hope is embodied in the child.  Jesus Christ said in Mathew 18:3 “Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”  Origen tells us Jesus is not calling the Apostles to act their age, but to return to the innocence of youth.  The child in the fairy tale was not showing intelligence in recognizing the Emperors’ nakedness, but innocence because he was not sophisticated enough to repeat the lie.

Your homework boys and girls: read Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Editor’s note: The illustration above was produced by Roberto Weigand and is reprinted with permission of the artist.


  • Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg

    Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Catholic convert and a teacher with over twenty years experience in the public education system. He graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a degree in History in 1991. He is also a husband and father of 3 children and a catechist at his parish in Bakersfield, California.

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