Catholic homeschool curricula has whitewashed world history. Is it too late to fix it?

Like almost every other child in the Catholic parish where I grew up in Portland, Ore., my siblings and I were home-schooled. Our parish had a robust home-schooling community that organized group classes, dances, camping trips and graduation ceremonies. When my siblings and I eventually switched to a Catholic school—and later some of my siblings went to public school—many members of our parish saw this as a mistake.

Catholics and evangelical Protestants who home-school may do so for a number of reasons. They want to ensure that their children receive a strong religious education; they hope to protect them from cultural influences they see as dangerous and immoral; they want their children to have a robust education and do not trust conventional schools to provide one. Many people I knew saw the public school system as a secularist and politically liberal project that indoctrinates children, but they also were skeptical about Catholic schools. The opinions of home-schooled children vary widely. Many I knew growing up valued the experience, crediting it with their intellectual formation, while others like myself and my siblings often found it tedious and longed to go to a “real” school. There are pros and cons on both sides. But in the midst of the national examination of conscience that has begun since the brutal killing of George Floyd, many of us who grew up in the home-schooling world have started to ask whether our education failed us when it came to understanding racism and our country’s troubled history with it. Some home-schooling parents have begun to ask the same question.

Finding Blindspots

Many Catholics who home-school choose to do so using Catholic home-schooling programs like Seton Home Study, Kolbe Academy and Mother of Divine Grace. These programs provide curriculum guides that include textbooks, primary texts and sometimes lesson plans or supplementary materials. Some parents use these curricula just as they are, while others pick and choose the items they like from multiple programs and supplement those with other materials. For the purposes of this article, when I refer to Catholic home-schooling, I mean families who use specifically Catholic curricula, not to Catholics who home-school using secular materials.

Many people I knew saw the public school system as a secularist and politically liberal project that indoctrinates children, but they also were skeptical about Catholic schools.

If you walk into a home-school classroom—it usually doubles as the family room—of someone who uses one of these programs anywhere in the United States, you are likely to find among the books a thick volume whose cover depicts Christopher Columbus triumphantly planting a flag on the shores of San Salvador. The book is Anne Carroll’s Christ and the Americas, a high-school-level American history text that covers the period from 1492 until the early 1990s. It has been nearly ubiquitous in Catholic home-schooling circles since its publication in 1997. Until the early 2010s, it was the American history textbook that all major Catholic home-school programs used. While Kolbe Academy has stopped using the book, most Catholic programs continue to use it.

Christ the King: Lord of History, Ms. Carroll’s 1976 world history text, will also probably be somewhere nearby. Ms. Carroll was the founder of Seton School, which gave birth in the 1980s to Seton Home Study School, a home-school program that now has more than 12,000 students enrolled. Her husband, Warren H. Carroll, founded Christendom College, a small Catholic liberal arts college in Front Royal, Va., in 1977.

Ms. Carroll’s view of history, laid out in the introductions to her books, is still Seton’s guiding principle. In Christ and the Americas,she writes that “[the] Catholic knows that the most important event in history was the Incarnation/Redemption/Resurrection and the most important Person in history was Jesus Christ. History is moving in a straight line from the Creation to the Last Judgment, and we judge events by whether or not they glorify God and contribute to the building of the Kingdom of God on earth.” In Christ the King, she states that “[we] cannot really understand the history of the world unless we look at it from the standpoint of the Incarnation,” and that “[after] the Incarnation, the most influential events had to do with the establishment and spread of the Catholic Church.” Ms. Carroll is careful to point out that, while she sought “to emphasize the great triumphs of Catholic history,” she would “not hesitate to point out times when Catholics, and even leaders of the Church, did not act in harmony with God’s will.”

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When I was growing up, this approach to history did not strike me or my friends as particularly odd. Nor did we recognize the many problems that it created, the first of which was to present an often whitewashed, triumphalist account of history that downplays the crimes of Europeans, especially Catholics, while largely ignoring non-European cultures. It emphasizes the struggles of Catholics while often minimizing those of other groups.

These books and others with similar viewpoints have affected how at least two generations of Catholic home-schoolers understand history. But now some hope to dismantle this legacy. “We stopped carrying Anne Carroll’s books six or eight years ago,” Everett Buyarski told me. Mr. Buyarski is the director of academic services for Kolbe Academy, a California-based Catholic home-school program with around 2,000 students. “One of the things that’s nice about Anne Carroll’s books is that most secular textbooks tend to be pretty negative about the Catholic Church. Those books try to correct that, and in many ways they overcorrect that. So much so that [the books imply that] the Catholic Church did a bunch of wonderful amazing things and probably didn’t do anything bad, ever.”

Whitewashing the Spanish Conquest

Ms. Carroll does allow a few flaws of the church to show through. Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish Catholic who conquered the Incan Empire in Peru, is depicted as a courageous but power-hungry and greedy man who oppressed the native people. But he is the exception. In fact, one of the biggest problems with Christ and the Americas is the way it presents the Spanish conquest of the Americas. The Spaniards are shown as largely good, thanks especially to their efforts to introduce Christianity and European culture. Yes, they also enslaved the native people and imported enslaved people from Africa, but in Ms. Carroll’s view, the Spanish form of enslavement practice was humane. Columbus and Cortés are godly heroes, much maligned because of the “Black Legend,” a campaign of propaganda disseminated by the English and Dutch that exaggerated the crimes of Catholic Spain.

Ms. Carroll writes that “[t]he Spaniards made their share of mistakes and committed their share of sins, as did all the other colonial powers in the New World. But the benefits they brought to the Western Hemisphere far outweigh the mistakes. Gone were the days of human sacrifice, cannibalism and slavery of the Aztecs and Incas [that existed before the Spanish arrived], replaced by Spanish justice and the Cross of Christ.” This passage is typical of the book: Native people are described repeatedly as “savages”; and cannibalism and human sacrifice are mentioned so frequently and in such graphic detail that one would think they were the two transcendent hallmarks of Indigenous culture from the north of Mexico to the tip of Argentina.

Christ and the Americas focuses on the Catholic evangelization of the New World, claiming it as the true purpose of Columbus’s voyage (rather than the spice trade).

As for slavery, Columbus began the European enslavement of the native people of the Americas; he brought enslaved people with him to Spain on his return voyage and initiated the brutal encomienda system. The Black Legend did indeed exaggerate the crimes of the Spanish, but it did not create them. Thanks to war, disease and brutal treatment, the population of the Indigenous people plummeted in the years after the Europeans arrived, and by 1502 the Spanish began importing millions of enslaved people from Africa to replace the shrinking native population. But no student would know any of this from reading Ms. Carroll’s books.

Christ and the Americas focuses on the Catholic evangelization of the New World, claiming it as the true purpose of Columbus’s voyage (rather than the spice trade). It mentions that the Spanish had mines but fails to point out that those mines supplied the Spanish crown with immense quantities of gold and other precious metals or that Indigenous and African enslaved people were regularly worked to death in them. The only discussion of the Indigenous cultures is of their faults, including “devil worship” and brutal slavery. In Ms. Carroll’s telling, there was nothing of value, nothing to preserve. The native people, once freed of their evil practices, were blank slates until they were “civilized” by the Europeans.

Slavery and Racism in the United States

The presentation of African enslavement in the United States also is problematic. The book gives serious attention to the topic of slavery in terms of U.S. politics, discussing the Missouri Compromise, the abolitionist movement and the Fugitive Slave Act. But it spends little time on the experiences of those who suffered the injustice. “It is possible to read Christ and the Americas and [come away with the belief] that slavery was a benign institution,” said Stephanie Jenkins-Walters. Ms. Jenkins-Walters, who is Black and Catholic, home-schools her children in Georgia. “It is possible, and I have met home-schoolers that believe that. In my own family, my first ancestor in this country was separated from his 11 children. On his way [back from visiting] his children, he came home late, and [his master] chopped off a foot. Slavery was not a benign institution. Slavery was brutal.”

“It is possible to read Christ and the Americas and [come away with the belief] that slavery was a benign institution."

In covering the period following the Civil War, the book briefly discusses Reconstruction and its aftermath, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws. But in its discussion of the period between the end of Reconstruction and the civil rights movement—a span of nearly 100 years—almost no attention is given to the systemic mistreatment of African-Americans, the suppression of voting rights, the Klan’s reign of terror or the use of the criminal justice system to revive much of the system of slavery. Ms. Carroll mentions that a Klansman was elected governor of Oregon but states that the Klan was “[not] just persecuting Negros” and “also hated Catholics, Jews and immigrants.” While this is true, it gives the false impression that a similar level of attention and hatred was directed toward all groups. And facts that would imply otherwise—like the fact that more than 4,000 Black men were lynched, mostly on the false claim that they had raped white women—are never mentioned.

Black people are not the only ones whose stories are left out. In a 30-page chapter on World War II in Christ and the Americas, battles are discussed in great detail. However, neither the internment of Japanese-American citizens by the U.S. government nor the Holocaust receive a single word. (There is a brief paragraph in Christ the King: Lord of History that mentions the German concentration camps. Then the next three paragraphs discuss St. Maximilian Kolbe.) In a chapter on Manifest Destiny, the Trail of Tears is explained thus: “The controversy dragged on until 1835, when the Cherokees surrendered all their lands east of the Mississippi to the US and went wearily off to Oklahoma.” Later, however, covering a period when Catholic missionaries helped to represent the tribes in negotiations with the federal government, Ms. Carroll devotes significant attention to the breaking of treaties and stealing of native lands.

Most appalling is the treatment of the civil rights movement. In a 400-page book, the entire movement receives about two paragraphs, in which the only civil rights leader mentioned is Martin Luther King Jr. More time is spent on the riots that took place after Dr. King’s assassination than on the entire movement. Ms. Carroll writes: “Though the Civil Rights Movement contained many immoral aspects, as we shall see, on balance the movement resulted in an end to much discrimination against Blacks in our society.” In this telling, the civil rights movement appears almost to come out of thin air a century after the end of slavery, and it vanishes just as quickly.

Neither the internment of Japanese-American citizens by the U.S. government nor the Holocaust receive a single word.

The mistreatment of Catholic immigrants, by contrast, is front and center. Ms. Carroll devotes an entire chapter, titled “No Irish Need Apply,” to nativist practices, including anti-Catholic violence and the exclusion of Irish immigrants from the workforce. Other topics also receive outsized emphasis. Even the Iran hostage crisis, important to Ms. Carroll because it reflects the failure of the Carter administration, receives several paragraphs.

How Do Catholic Home-Schoolers Respond?

homeschool
Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash.

Some Catholic home-schoolers have been aware of the problems with Anne Carroll’s books for years. One mother of nine, a pillar of the community in which I grew up, told me that she had never really used the books, although they were part of the curricula she subscribed to. Her kids saw right through the whitewashing, she said, and knew that a lot had been left out. She moved away from the Seton curriculum in her home-schooling in part because of the emphasis it placed on overly “Catholic” readings of history.

Ms. Jenkins-Walters taught from Christ and the Americas in the home-schooling co-op to which she belongs. The co-op is part of the Regina Coeli network, which had about 1,500 students at 16 campuses last year. But she told me that she rarely referred to the book in her class. Instead, she focused on what she calls the “living books” in the curriculum, covering many of the events that are glossed over by Ms. Carroll. She did not become aware of the book’s problems until after the course was finished. She does not think other parents realize how bad the book is because many parents trust the home-school programs they belong to and do not vet books before having their children read them.

Now Ms. Jenkins-Walters is starting a group to try to get the book removed not only from Regina Coeli’s curriculum but from all Catholic home-schooling groups. She sees a connection between books like these, which whitewash history and neglect the experiences of non-Europeans, and racism. “I believe that a lot of the home-schoolers that have read those books are now the ones saying that racism doesn’t exist. I am concerned that by not calling this book out, we’re sanctioning children to grow up without the empathy to be able to understand how we got here in our country,” she said. “That book needs to die.”

She sees a connection between books like these, which whitewash history and neglect the experiences of non-Europeans, and racism.

The Jenkins-Walters family is among what appears to be a growing number of Black families who home-school. “There is a big surge in Black home-schooling happening right now,” Amber Johnston, a Black Christian home-schooling mother of four who lives outside Atlanta, told me. “It’s growing every year by leaps and bounds.” Back in 2016, Ms. Johnston and her family moved in a mostly white world: Their church, their neighborhood and the home-school group they belonged to were all predominantly white. It was around this time that she started to notice a troubling pattern in her oldest daughter’s behavior. She would do things like hide her Black dolls in the back of her closet and say that she “only wanted to play with the pretty ones,” meaning the white dolls. Ms. Johnston realized that her children needed to be around Black children more regularly, so she decided to start a home-school group for Black families, hoping to get four or five others to join. When she was interviewed two years ago for a PBS special on the rise of Black home-schooling, Heritage home-schoolers of Cobb County had 66 families. Last year they had nearly 100.

In some ways, the group is like other home-school groups. They organize field trips, have group classes and enlist parents to help teach each other’s children. But in the mostly white home-school group, each family’s demographic situation looks similar to Ms. Johnston’s: The husband works, the wife stays home, and they have an attractive house and two cars. The Black group draws families from a wider variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, including families in which both parents work and some whose single moms have full-time jobs. Parents sometimes drop their kids off at the group for part of the day while they go to work—something that, according to Ms. Johnston, is unheard of in mostly white groups. Ms. Johnston buys complete curriculum sets so that she can loan them out to families who cannot afford them, making it possible for lower-income Black families to home-school if they want to.

Many Black families home-school for the same reasons as their white counterparts: a desire for religious education, healthy and supportive school culture and quality learning. But some also cite racism as a major reason for avoiding mainstream schools. “It’s not that we think the K.K.K. is hanging out by the school lockers,” Ms. Johnston told me. “It’s the conscious and unconscious biases. The fear that the teacher might not even know what she thinks of my little Black boys, because she doesn’t mean to think it.” She points to research that says Black children are disciplined more harshly than their non-Black peers for the same offenses, the “adultification” of little Black girls and the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Linda Rutledge and Don Anderson, a mixed-race couple who home-schooled their four children in Vancouver, Wash., mentioned similar concerns, although they home-schooled mostly for other reasons. When their son played basketball on the mostly Black team at the local high school, they ran into what they described, echoing George W. Bush, as the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

“It’s the conscious and unconscious biases. The fear that the teacher might not even know what she thinks of my little Black boys, because she doesn’t mean to think it.”

“The kids were allowed to behave like animals,” Mr. Anderson told me. “They disregarded what the coaches said, openly cursing at practice, bullying each other, smoking dope afterward. What was shocking was not the behavior but that there was no discipline for doing it. I mean nothing.” They found out later from the coach that the school’s athletic director had given the coach instructions not to discipline the players. To Mr. Anderson, the implication was clear: The athletic director believed Black boys could not be expected to behave well.

Staying Away From Catholic Home-School

Ms. Jenkins-Walters’s family is the only non-white family in their Georgia home-school co-op. I spoke with nearly a dozen other Black Catholic home-schoolers, and many were either the only Black family in their home-school group or belonged to a group aimed at connecting Black families. But the Jenkins-Walters family’s situation is unique in that the group they belong to is specifically targeted to Catholic families. I spoke to administrators at three major Catholic home-school organizations. Seton Home Study and Kolbe Academy do not collect demographic information (Kolbe Academy mentioned that home-schoolers tend to be concerned about privacy) but said that, from what they can tell, they have relatively few Black students. At Mother of Divine Grace, which does collect demographic information, Black students made up 2.95 percent of those enrolled in 2016 (the last year for which they have data). This may be partly due to the demographics of the church. Only about 3 percent of American Catholics are Black, and despite an apparent surge in the past decade or two, Black families are still slightly underrepresented in home-schooling.

However, several of the families I spoke with had looked into Catholic home-schooling programs and had opted instead either to create their own curriculum or to use a Protestant or secular home-school curriculum. Dee Dukes, a Black Catholic mother of six from New Orleans, told me one of the biggest red flags was the “forced whiteness” she found both in Catholic and Protestant home-school curricula, the way they “seem to go out of their way not to include anything about Black people.” People she encountered talked about “repairing the ruins of Christendom,” but she found that for them Christendom was synonymous with “European.” Ms. Dukes said that many families she met wanted to focus on teaching truth, goodness and beauty—as did she—but in a Eurocentric way. “Do not other people have truth, goodness and beauty in them?” she asked.

Occasionally, Ms. Dukes has also run into overt racism in the home-schooling world. Once, in a Protestant group, she walked into a room to hear another parent speaking directly to her children, saying that Black people are the descendants of Noah’s son Ham, whose children had been cursed with servitude, and that is why they had been enslaved. Later, she ran into the same idea in a book of scriptural commentary that was on a Catholic home-school curriculum list (but now seems to be out of print): “The African negroes are descended from [Ham], and they are to this day sunk in the lowest state of superstition, governed by cruel tyrants, treated as slaves, and often bought and sold as such. Their way of living is very barbarous, and they are very hard to convert to Christianity.” This belief was one of the primary justifications Christians slaveholders gave for slavery. Ms. Dukes has also been told in home-schooling circles that she “won’t be Black in Heaven” and that Black people “have a lot to be thankful for” from slavery.

Ms. Johnston shared these concerns about curriculum and culture. “I expected to find my people with other home-schoolers who share my faith,” she said. “But the people that are most accepting of my family and my children and that kinky hair and their brown skin are the secular home-schoolers. That’s really hard for me.”

A Moment of Opportunity

Most of the people I spoke with hope to see Catholic home-schooling programs make changes in terms of curriculum. And some programs are already working in that direction. Kolbe Academy stopped using Anne Carroll’s books to teach history. Seton Home Study is in the process of writing a new textbook to replace Christ and the Americas and hopes to make it available by the end of the year. Draper Warren, Seton’s director of admissions, told me that the book will go into much greater detail about the civil rights movement. It will also discuss Japanese internment in the chapter on World War II.

But Mr. Warren and others point out that, especially in home-schooling, textbooks are only one part of an education. Students tend to read numerous other works, including primary texts, and use the textbook to get a sense of the big picture. The parents I spoke to hope to see changes made throughout the curriculum.

Whitewashed and triumphalist texts should be replaced with ones that are honest. Just as important, good books by and about people of non-European descent should be added. Homeschooled children of all backgrounds would benefit from this.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic and uncertainty around school reopenings, many more Americans are likely to consider some form of home-schooling this year than in the past. Administrators at Kolbe Academy, Seton and Mother of Divine Grace all told me they expect enrollment to increase this year—their estimates range from 10 percent to 90 percent. With this increase, most of the families I spoke with view this moment as a real opportunity and believe that it is more important now than ever to make positive changes to Catholic home-schooling—changes that have been a long time coming.

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