Perspectives; Thoughts; Comments; Opinions; Discussions


Watching Phones Instead of Reading Good Books Is Starving Kids’ Souls



young man on his phone

Author Katie Schuermann profile



Consortium for Classical Lutheran Education 2022 conference. It is excerpted here with CCLE permission.

My husband pastors a campus church at a Big Ten university, and we live amongst college students. It is a blessed life, one in which our evenings are longer and our mornings shorter, all because we have the privilege of fostering 50-plus Gen Z-ers in the faith.

What passion and curiosity reside in the hearts and heads of our young people! But do you know what else resides there? Fear and distrust of most everything coming out of the mouth of anyone older than them.

For so many of these students grew up reading, hearing, watching, and absorbing stories that assert that they are omniscient, that no outside source is as trustworthy as their own feelings. They are certain they know what is best for themselves, and anyone who asserts otherwise is an indoctrinated false prophet of the dead past who simply refuses to sing along with Elsa, “Let it go.”

How did these young people come to trust their own corrupted gut more than the wisdom of their parents? I suspect it has something to do with Cinderella, Ariel, Elsa, and Anna; as well as Monica, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, Joey, and Chandler; and “Modern Family,” “Sex and the City,” “Parks and Recreation,” Marvel movies, and even “Veggie Tales,” for many of our present college students were raised in homes dominated by screens.

Much of their free time was spent absorbing serial television, and while not every televised program, movie, and YouTube channel necessarily tells false stories, much of modern programming follows a storytelling formula that ensures the pet social agendas of screenwriters are always being covered in the plot and in ways that narrate lies surrounding sexual identity, the sanctity of life, the good order of creation and marriage, the strength of men, and the reality of absolutes.

Stories have always been a part of how we pass down what is good and beautiful and true to our children, but depending on the storyteller, this practice can corrupt as easily as benefit. As more and more families turn over the care of their children to institutions, programs, clubs, teams, and devices, parents are no longer controlling the narrative of the stories being passed down to their children.

The loudest, most powerful propagandist holds the bullhorn, and he makes sure the story’s plot fits his personal agenda, no matter if it is evil and ugly and false. This proves especially dangerous in the classroom, where most children spend the greater part of everyday away from their parents.

We now have generations of children raised by bullhorns, and it is commonplace for a child to be occupied by some sort of program every moment of every day, whether it is a daycare program, school program, televised program, sports program, or an arts program — you name it. Many of today’s college students have had few opportunities in life to grow bored, to daydream, and to experience what happens to their bodies and minds and emotions when not occupied. They seem to have missed out on what used to be standard human experiences such as unregulated play, relating to peers of all shapes, sizes, and maturity levels, and making messy, wonderful, formative relationships with imperfect people.

I have observed that when young people are denied the opportunity to share experiences with other real people, they bond with the fake experiences and fake people they see on a screen instead. It is not uncommon for conversations amongst college students to be centered around Disney or “Game of Thrones” or the show “Friends” or countless other streamed programs. Sadly, those Hollywood-scripted shows are the memories peers share, and those designed-to-disorder plots are the common experiences with which they relate to each other.

So, what do we do about it? How do we reclaim the hearts and minds — the attention — of our children? We have to turn off the television, certainly, and power down our devices and pick out the books to be read before bedtime as well as model chastity and charity and temperance and kindness and patience in our own lives.

As Rod Dreher suggests in “The Benedict Option,” “Christians are going to have to become better tellers of our own story,” for the screenwriters are already pitching a relentless campaign for that position, programming our children into an understanding of humanity and of God that is false, an understanding that fools’ men, born free, into living as slaves to bullhorns.

Bo Giertz, the most celebrated storyteller in my own tradition of Lutheranism, writes: “People often think they are free when they put themselves above God’s commands and don’t do what He wants. Actually, they only stop serving one power and begin serving another. Jesus tells us there is only one way to find true freedom: to remain in His Word, listening, receiving, and understanding. Then we perceive truth, and the truth sets us free, truly free.” (“Wednesday after the Third Sunday in Lent,” To Live with Christ, Bo Giertz, 224.)

We need more of this truth that “sets us free” in the stories our children are consuming. We need to read and discuss books with them that teach toward virtue and away from vice, so our youth can recognize tyranny and slavery to sin when they see it.

And they need to know they are not alone. When the time of persecution inevitably comes — when their character and endurance are put to the ultimate test — it is helpful for them to know that they are in good company. They stand with Jesus and the Apostle Paul and Samwise Gamgee and Josip Lasta and Charles Wallace and Katniss and the Rev. John Ames and Robbie Jones and saints and angels and hundreds of years of fictional heroes who have been tested and tried and even triumphed.

Think of it this way. A child is born having no formative memories of virtues and vices. At least, we hope he doesn’t, for firsthand knowledge of tyranny and sloth and intemperance would suggest that the child has been abandoned or deceived by a parent or abused by an adult or has endured some unthinkable suffering.

But a child can still know that patience is a virtue, that joy accompanies charity, that self-sacrifice has its rewards, and that chastity is a beautiful, worthy aspiration, because he has heard the story of Joseph in Egypt and Isaac on the altar and Stephen in Jerusalem and Frodo in Mordor and Bigwig in “Watership Down” and Anne in Avonlea. These characters and stories — fiction or nonfiction — give children memories of virtues before they experience them themselves. These stories teach children into a thought pattern and into a mindset and behavior that is virtuous, that is free.

As Wendell Berry writes in his essay “A Native Hill”: “It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are.” Our children need us to keep telling them good, true stories — especially the true story of their forefathers, both in the family and in the faith — so they can learn to be better than they are. For we have already seen that, if left to the world and its false stories, our children will learn to be worse than they are.

Katie Schuermann is a full-time homemaker, a part-time musician, and a seasonal writer. Find her books and more at


‘No Politics’ Public School in Colorado Sees Huge Growth in Just One Year



Merit Academy’s vision: students prepared for success in a free society, promoting civic responsibility, and contributing their talents in a flourishing republic.

Author John Dill profile



It seems a lifetime ago when The Federalist introduced you last fall to Merit Academy in Woodland Park, Colorado. It’s a no-politics public school designed and overseen by local parents, opened in just one year of intense planning and work. These past seven months have seen this public contract school grow and flourish, despite many challenges.

“When you think back to where we were a year ago, it is surreal,” says Gwynne Pekron, Merit’s director of development and chief action officer, beaming. “This was a dream for many, but a vision to us.”

Merit Academy is a classical, Core Knowledge school that opened on August 23, 2021, to 184 full-time students and more than 80 part-time homeschool students. The parents and community members who built Merit sought an education that would challenge children and build lasting friendships, without the controversial politics often found in public schools.

“Merit Academy is a shining example of our virtues of valor, goodness, and perseverance,” reflected local parent Heather Scholz. “It meets the demand of parents who have given up on the direction of modern schools.”

When we last checked in with Merit Academy, they were working hard in the classroom basement of Faith Lutheran Church, which generously opened its doors to Merit when the school’s board struggled to find a space big enough to accommodate parent demand. Where are they now? After calling both Faith Lutheran and Mountain View Methodist churches home, Merit Academy is now in its “start-up Bear Den” at a re-purposed hardware store in a local strip mall. Outside recess space was kindly offered by neighboring Our Lady of the Woods Catholic Church. Classroom walls are portable, lined with sound blankets to alleviate noise. From these walls hang children’s artwork and school projects, ranging from idioms to drawings of George Washington to designs of engineered future cities.

“For the first time, my son doesn’t ask for a ‘sick day,’” says Tarin McNeese, a sixth-grade parent. “This is not to say it’s easy—he works at it—but when challenged, his teachers guide him. I personally appreciate the school’s transparency with what is taught.”

The Merit Bears study science, English, history, reading, mathematics, Latin, language lab, and writing. In the halls, one hears lively songs of the upcoming spring performance, recitations of numbers study, and discussions of what it means to be valorous, one of the five Merit virtues. The classes are driven by Merit’s vision: students prepared for success in a free society, promoting civic responsibility, and contributing their talents in a flourishing republic by pursuing beauty, truth, and good.

The desire for choice is stronger than ever, not only in this beautiful mountain community but across the nation as charter school enrollments climb. In November 2021, this school district had its first contested school board election in more than a decade, and Merit’s existence, school choice, and critical race theory were all on the ballot. All four school-choice candidates swept the election, but their change agenda faces fierce resistance from the defeated minority. The new board majority is addressing the taxpayers’ concerns about district facilities operating at approximately 50 percent capacity. They are committed to stopping the 20-year trend of severely declining enrollment and family exodus.

The local school district was losing families who decided to live elsewhere or place their children in public and private schools outside Teller County, a picturesque rural location encompassing Pike’s Peak and adjacent to Colorado Springs. To bring families back, the new school board members support a parent’s right to know what is being taught. They support Merit Academy and school choice for parents. They plan to increase staff salaries and right a ship that has been listing for 20 years.

While holding her two-year-old, Nicole Waggoner, one of Merit’s founders, said, “Merit adds educational choice many people want. These families appreciate our virtues, our curriculum, and our school, so our enrollment numbers are through the roof. We’re drawing families up the pass [from Colorado Springs], which contributes to a thriving community.”

Image courtesy Merit Academy.

Seeing smiling faces in the “Bear Den,” one may wonder what challenges Merit Academy has overcome. “Starting a school is not easy,” reflected Pekron, “but it is worth it, especially when you hear your kids talking about the War of 1812, how a cat’s eyes adjust at night, or how they acted responsibly that day. It’s worth every breath.”

So, what are the biggest challenges now? Pekron paused, then said: “No matter how deep the vision and how detailed the plan, the biggest challenge is being at the mercy of others.” Glancing out the window, she continued, “As a contract school, grant foundations did not understand we were cut from the same cloth as a charter school, but different. Most said, ‘Come back when you are chartered.’”

Despite those financial disappointments, the most touching and inspiring funding came from grassroots contributions and encouraging words from supporters all over the country following the September 2021 Federalist article. To you, Merit Academy is deeply grateful.

One of Merit’s house mottos is “Fortune favors the brave.” This spring, Merit Academy has had greater financial support, with grants and donations totaling more than $400,000. Merit board member Mary Sekowski said, “It’s wonderful to receive these blessings of needed financial support that support start-up expenses.”

Seed funding isn’t the only thing start-up schools struggle with. “The facilities piece has been more difficult,” said Waggoner. “There are few available spaces for demanded growth.”

Woodland Park lies west of Colorado Springs at a stunning 8,500 feet elevation. As in most mountain communities, few existing buildings could house a school. Merit’s facility challenges landed it in an old hardware store, one of the only large-enough spaces open.

Pikes Peak as seen from Woodland Park, courtesy of Gwynne Pekron.

While many would view Merit’s experience as a struggle, the newly elected school board recognized a community need to charter Merit and sought a win-win solution for Merit’s space needs. The district’s declining enrollment leaves district taxpayers with a hefty burden to maintain partially empty buildings, costing more than $2.6 million annually.

“The more you spend on buildings, the less you spend on students,” noted Sekowski. “Taxpayers prefer their tax dollars support an increase in staff salary or a boost in student programming rather than pay for half-empty buildings.”

Due to declining enrollment, the district’s building space is at approximately 51 percent of functional capacity, according to a Denver consulting firm the district hired last fall. The capacity is forecasted to decrease to 32 percent at the middle school building and 35 percent at the high school in four years. The taxpayer cost of operation and maintenance for these two buildings alone exceeds $1.5 million per year.

Recognizing Merit’s need for space to grow as a new district charter school, the district explored the possibility of offering Merit space at the half-capacity district middle school, which would decrease district facility expenditures and honor high community support for Merit Academy.

“With Merit paying the building expenses, district funds will be redistributed to students and staff, not spent on underutilized building space,” Waggoner stated. “Besides saving taxpayers money, it honors previous community commitments to learning by using these spaces for their original intent — the education of children. This is especially timely with district consultants discussing school closures.”

This idea generated resistance from a minority in the community that closely resembles nationwide opposition to newly elected conservative school boards. This group has posted vitriol on social media, saying things like “F— Merit” on Facebook, protesting at local school board meetings, yelling at and heckling the newly elected directors, using public comment periods to call directors “racist” and accuse them of trying to establish religion, and identifying with national efforts to stifle charter schools and school choice. One of the new school board directors even had his truck keyed during a board meeting.

Image courtesy Merit Academy.

In March, students celebrated Dr. Seuss, wearing mustaches and reading Dr. Seuss books. As if written for Merit Academy and all parent-initiated schools out there, Dr. Seuss advised, “If you get a chance, take it. If it changes your life, let it. Nobody said it would be easy. They just promised it would be worth it.”

Yes, it is worth it. Despite its many challenges, Merit Academy thrives, with steadfast community support. The school opened in fall 2021 with nearly 200 students and a large waitlist. Its 2022-23 enrollment is forecasted to grow to more than 370 full- and part-time students, with additional students on its still-large waitlist.

“We are no longer just a hope or a dream,” Waggoner reflected. “Merit Academy is the school many families have hoped for.”

To learn more about Merit Academy or support it, please visit

John Dill is director of the Merit Academy school board and a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force.

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