Learning history: Sad lessons of the “Nazis v. Jews” drinking game

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. So when, this fall, the school’s administrators learned some of its students had taken part in a “Nazis vs. Jews” beer pong game, they immediately punished the students.

Quiz time!

Were the students were punished for drinking? Or because they made light of one of the 20th century’s worst campaigns of mass murder?

St. Teresa’s ordered the girls to serve a one-day “in-school reflection” and to email any college they were thinking of attending, to tell the admissions office that they had been guilty …

… of underage drinking.

The punishment, even for booze, was light. Most of those who were disciplined were at the beginning of their junior year — they’d hardly have a college lined up.

But when alumnae saw the Snapchat picture taken at the party — with 40 Solo cups arranged in a swastika — and then heard what the crime and punishment were, they started to reach out to the media. 

The aggressive coverage set off alarms inside St. Teresa’s, which is in the middle of a $15 million capital campaign. 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.”

One alumna 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.
Caroline Quinn, Washington, D.C.

“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.

This image of a 1939 rally is part of a new online exhibit on Nazi symbols and their origins at the US National Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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. She said, 

“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.”
Katie Gregory

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.

Academy 150 Capital Campaign Video from St. Teresa’s Academy on Vimeo.

“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.” 

And it worked. Poll after poll after poll finds broad support for the view that “states’ rights,” not slavery, was the central issue of the Civil War. 

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.

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