Before entering the workforce or making a huge investment in their education, high school seniors are craving a clear, practical understanding of economics and government. Russell Kirk provides both in “The American Cause” and “Economics: Work and Prosperity.”
What should high school students be reading? Many of us believe that great texts are essential to forming students who will understand that the great questions have been wrestled with and answered in many ways throughout history. To not know this is to flirt with the danger of reinvention of the wheel—and sometimes not even circular ones. But, as the late great Fr. James Schall, SJ, was wont to say, an exclusive great books curriculum can be dangerous for students. They may come to believe that there are no real answers to the questions—after all, what hath Kant to do with St. Thomas Aquinas? He recommended the use of the great guides to the great books—those modern authors who can guide the minds through the labyrinth of answers. He was thinking of figures such as Chesterton, Lewis, Sayers, and Pieper among others. I would say that another great guide is Russell Kirk. Thus I was glad to hear one of my sons tell me this year that he would be reading two of Kirk’s books at St. Agnes High School in St. Paul, Minnesota: The American Cause and Economics: Work and Prosperity. Miss Theresa Kinyon, the Civics teacher in question, kindly consented to an interview.
David Deavel: How did you decide to assign these two books of Kirk? What were you hoping they would give students that even a good textbook wouldn’t? Were there any competitors that you considered?
Theresa Kinyon: This curriculum was established at St. Agnes before I began work there. Jordan Adams (now working for the charter schools associated with Hillsdale College) and Michael Adkins [Saint Agnes Academic Dean and Lower School Director] assigned the work. They might have insights into how this was developed.
I have found both texts ideal for high school students. They are short, clear, and easy to comprehend. Work and Prosperity isn’t a 500-page textbook, impossible to cover in a semester. It’s concise, clearly covering the essentials. The American Cause shows how the ideas of the founders have translated into a functional government. It explains why the American Constitution still works today, near 250 years later and is worth protecting from both foreign and domestic threats. High school seniors are craving for a clear and practical understanding of economics and government. Kirk provides both.
DD: What great texts or books did you pair the books with? Are there other texts either in American politics or economics that you would like to pair with Kirk?
TK: In economics, Work and Prosperity is used as our textbook. It provides the content we apply in free market simulations, debates over more progressive economic systems, discussions, and even a household economics crash-course. High school seniors are craving practical knowledge before entering the workforce or making a huge investment in their education. They are also incredibly optimistic, although those of you who have lived with an 18-year-old may disagree. I have found that seniors believe they can do anything, most people will listen to reason (their parents excluded), and the world is explainable. Work and Prosperity provides explanations they are seeking and introduces a world of economics that applies to their daily lives. It doesn’t get caught-up in complex economic models. It sticks to the basics, what they really need to meaningfully participate in the economy.
In my civics class, The American Cause is a supplemental text. The course is comprised of 4 units: foundational documents in American governance, the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights and landmark Supreme Court cases, and finally state and local government. We read and discuss a chapter of The American Cause every Monday; I call it our “book club.” It allows us to see how the founding documents are still relevant and have formed a government worth defending.
DD: Were there any points that students particularly agreed with? Any that drew an instinctive “No!” from students?
TK: One of the main discussions in The American Cause is whether America is a Christian nation. Many students instinctively answer that it is not. Further discussion normally brings some around to the concept but more stubborn students remain stanch in their answers. Most agree that it should be a Christian nation or at least be supportive of Christian ideals, but they have a hard time looking at the community surrounding them and calling it Christian. They believe a Christian society would look more like a “city on a hill” than legalized abortion, police brutality, and empty churches. They want a nation full of good Christians.
DD: Were there any points about the American experiment or economics that surprised students?
TK: For economics, I try to incorporate lots of simulations. Students are often surprised that they work. For example, we do a market price simulation where they buy/sell pearls. After a few rounds, the market price is clear, and it benefits both the buyer and seller. It feels like magic when market equilibrium actually occurs.
DD: Which of the Founding documents do students think best or resonate with? Do they have favorite Founders?
TK: Different students resonated with different documents. Some of them liked Federalist 10 and became very concerned with factions, others appreciated John Locke’s defense of private property. There were one or two that saw a lot of value in John Adam’s Thoughts on Government, particularly his insistence that judges be of strong moral character. We read A Little Speech on Liberty as the impeachment trial was taking place. They were stunned that way back in 1645, John Winthrop was trying to recover his authority after an unsuccessful impeachment attempt, similar to how Trump was doing so in 2020. They felt Winthrop’s speech was slightly more dignified than this year’s State of the Union, although many conceded that the State of the Union was much more entertaining to watch.
They all were able to appreciate the Constitution, from the preamble to the Bill of Rights. They love the practicality of it and feel empowered to know how the government works. It was not what many of them were expecting. They thought, based on all the political theory we consumed prior, the Constitution would be a theoretical document. They were pleasantly surprised to find a blueprint of how things should work and a plan for when things needed to be adjusted.
DD: Did students think that Kirk’s views were compatible with Catholic faith?
TK: I have some very compassionate students. The idea of eliminating a minimum wage or minimizing government aide programs concerns them. Conceptually, they understand the impacts, but practically they can’t abide.
Last year, shortly after she was elected, we watched Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign ad. While they are convinced socialism won’t work as an economic structure, they can see how attractive her ideas are to those who are suffering.
They are able to see and understand the problems with over-regulating the market, but they want workers to be protected. They like how practical the free market is and are skeptical that business owners will pay just wages on their own.
DD: Did you find yourself challenged at any points by teaching Kirk?
TK: I believe teaching should be education, not indoctrination. Teachers should provide the tools and skills necessary for students to think independently. I am sometimes challenged by a textbook that so clearly and unabashedly supports conservative thought. I want students to read texts critically and identify controversial elements. My students had no background in economics and were very willing to accept Kirk as undeniable and unarguable truth. Clearly our country doesn’t think so. I found myself needing to introduce and explain opposing opinions, so students could engage in critical reading and economic apologetics. For example, we did a deep read of a passage from Karl Marx. For one day, I made students pretend they were communists and as convincingly as possible, presented communism as a viable option. We needed to really-truly consider how communism might work and what the benefits might be. The following day, I allowed students to debate it. They concluded that capitalism was much better, working with human nature rather than against it. This conclusion may have been exactly what the textbook said, but it was not as obvious as they initially thought.
DD: Are your students motivated to make their society more Christian? Do they have ideas?
TK: My students are very enthused about making society more Christian, but they were lacking in ideas. Outlawing abortion is always a good and popular place to start, at least at St. Agnes. They recognize that forming a society which recognizes the dignity of each person and the rights therein is both a tremendously Christian and American concept. There are strong advocates for supporting nuclear families, although express hesitancy in government intervention to do so. They wanted to promote religious devotion but were concerned that supporting strictly Christian religions would go against the 1st Amendment. We could all settle on improving the educational system, but there were different ideas on how to do so. They were wary of pouring more money into the problem as that hasn’t had strong results. They also don’t want to increase standardized testing but do think there should be an accountability system to ensure schools are upholding rigorous curriculums.
Some weren’t concerned with a non-Christian society and believed toleration, which Kirk promotes in The American Cause isn’t necessarily Christian. Those students typically think that civic virtues, particularly temporal virtues should be promoted by government and can be practiced regardless of religion.
The tension in the room during these discussions was palpable. It wasn’t students arguing against each other, but interior battles where young adults were confronted with problems that don’t have clear answers.
DD: Do you have any suggestions for those who would like to teach Kirk in a high school setting?
TK: Kirk is wonderful to teach. It opens plenty of opportunities for meaningful debate in the classroom. If your school is skeptical of purchasing his books as the primary text for students, perhaps purchase one for yourself that you can incorporate into lessons and units.
DD: What’s next for Miss Kinyon?
TK: Well, I will no longer be Miss Kinyon. I am getting married this summer and will be Mrs. Giesen on August, 21st! The only sad part to this narrative is that I will be moving to Rochester, MN, and leaving St. Agnes. I have a job at the Catholic high school where I will be teaching world history and AP US History. I love St. Agnes and will continue supporting the school from afar.
DD: Best wishes on your nuptials! Do you have any reading plans for the summer?
TK: Thank you. I am currently reading Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. After that, I’ll plunge back into reading textbooks and AP test prep books to get myself ready for next year. Not very exciting, I know, but I am looking forward to rereading and discovering some primary sources in world history. Hopefully at the end of the summer, I’ll have a chance to read something a little lighter in tone.
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