George Weigel Discusses Pope St. John Paul II for National Catholic Schools Week

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This week on The Learning Curve, cohosts Cara and Gerard and guest host Patrick Wolf, distinguished professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas, mark National Catholic Schools Week with George Weigel, author of the international bestselling, two-volume biography of Pope St. John Paul II. They explore how Karol Wojtyla’s education, deep faith, and experiences during World War II shaped his life as a spiritual leader and led him to play a pivotal role in the fall of Communism in Poland and throughout Eastern Europe. Pope John Paul II’s popularity among the world’s youth, Weigel explains, was grounded in a spirituality that defied contemporary culture and challenged young people to seek the “greatness that the grace of God makes possible in your life.” The interview concludes with Mr. Weigel reading from his biography of Pope St. John Paul II.

Stories of the Week: Cara and Gerard continue to explore the impact on education of the COVID-19 pandemic, both in the U.S. and abroad. Cara discusses an Education Next column that concludes “billions of dollars are being spent on teacher professional development that takes hours of effort for mediocre or nonexistent results.” Gerard takes a closer look at a Brookings Institution report on alarming declines in youth literacy rates in sub-Saharan Africa that researchers have tied to pandemic-induced school closures.


George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. A Catholic theologian and one of America’s leading public intellectuals, he is the author of the international bestselling two-volume biography of Pope St. John Paul II, Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning. Weigel is the author or editor of more than 20 other books, including Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II. His essays, op-ed columns, and reviews appear regularly in major U.S. newspapers. A frequent guest on television and radio, he is also Senior Vatican Analyst for NBC News. His weekly column, “The Catholic Difference,” is syndicated to 85 newspapers and magazines in seven countries.

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[00:00:00] Cara: Hello, listeners, welcome to the Learning Curve. This is Cara Candel here with my bud, the amazing Gerard Robinson. Gerard, how you feeling this week? Feeling

[00:00:42] GR: great.

[00:00:44] Cara: So, Gerard, I wanna, I have a question for you. You know, I mean, we both actually, we’ve both been thinking about teachers lately. I’ve been thinking about teachers most of my career, as have you.

[00:00:53] We’ve been putting our brains together on some teaching stuff lately, but my story of the week is related to teachers. And so, Gerard, I [00:01:00] wanna, I wanna pose a question to you. What would you say is the magic bullet answer to all. That imperils the profession of teaching to all the troubles of teaching.

[00:01:13] What’s the answer we usually give? . Not enough money. Okay. Not enough money. Yeah. Good. I was not enough Professional development. Thank you. See, I knew we would get there. I knew it would take I in in two or three. We would definitely get there. It’s pd, right? Yeah. It’s like always my favorite answer.

[00:01:30] Like, anytime there’s a problem. Well, teachers can’t teach math, pd teachers can’t do this pd all it must be the answer to all questions says the woman who has spent a good portion of career engaging in, Preparing teachers and in teacher professional development. But all to say that there is this just wonderful article in education next this week by somebody who, I’m reading her bio and it appears that she is an undergraduate at Harvard.

[00:01:58] Her name is [00:02:00] Bernadette Looney and the title of her. I have to check that I, it was hard for me to believe that she was an undergraduate, but I guess, you know, she is across the river, so clearly a talented young woman. But the title of this article is How Much Pandemic Relief Money will be Wasted On Professional Development.

[00:02:17] I love this title just straight into the point. Now, if we were to flashback about two years, Gerard, I think you, and. Several conversations about what would be good use of Esser funds. What would be a good way for districts to spend all of this money that was coming down? And I, we might have to go back and check the record, but professional development might have been in there, but I don’t think it would’ve been in like ess.

[00:02:40] Sarah, our top five. I think we were banking on things like, one-to-one tutoring for students and technology supports and making virtual instruction better, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But as it turns out, and this should come as a surprise to absolutely no one professional development in this broad [00:03:00] category of professional development is one of the major.

[00:03:04] That districts are spending their federal covid relief funds on. So 80% of districts have used covid relief money for professional development and you’re talking billions and billions of dollars. So now here’s the deal though, when we say professional development, , what exactly do we mean? And this is something that I think not only a lot of like policy wonks or commentators like you and I struggle with, but teachers clearly struggle with this.

[00:03:32] As a teacher myself, I struggled with this, with sitting through professional development sessions that I thought quite frankly, , just to put a fine point out, we’re absolutely meaningless. Did nothing to prepare me as a teacher, and I would like to go on record of saying that I fully own that. I was not a good high school teacher.

[00:03:49] I was unprepared, I was probably ineffective. At the time, you know, we weren’t using test scores and I was teaching mainly in private school settings, so I didn’t have a lot of evidence, but I knew [00:04:00] I was no good and I’m pretty sure that the people who employed me knew I was no good and I did not stay in the profession.

[00:04:05] One of the reasons, but I wonder, I often. Had I had the right kind of, not just professional development, but development period, could I have felt more effective in my job? Would I have had a better impact on kids? And this article just goes into detail about the things that we already know. And that is number one, when districts say that they’re engaging in professional development with teachers, that can mean one of like a million.

[00:04:31] it could be everything from mandated professional development to calling a meeting, professional development when it’s professionally developing, no one. Sometimes it could be good. I’m not saying that all professional development is bad, but by and large teachers say that most of their professional development is utterly ineffective.

[00:04:48] And by and large, the research on this with there’s not much. Is pretty mixed in terms of the impact of professional development. Not only just like on teachers, on their satisfaction, on their [00:05:00] sense of efficacy, but on actual outcomes, the things that we care about, the things that impact kids. Now I have two ideas about this juror that I’d like to float past you, and I think that if we were to try and just anecdotally say what do we think are the big problems with professional development, I would say one of the first.

[00:05:19] In my mind, and this is one of the reasons I spent a long time working for an organization called the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education, is because too often we throw teachers in a room. We give a huge group of people something that we call professional development, and it’s utterly undifferentiated.

[00:05:34] So you might have your novice teacher, somebody who’s been in the classroom for two years sitting next. Somebody who’s been teaching for 25 years learning about exactly the same thing, and even if they both need to learn about that thing, they might have different needs with regard to that thing, to that topic.

[00:05:51] They’re operating in different contexts. Too many districts and schools don’t have. , the ability, the know-how, the whatever it is, to [00:06:00] be able to actually differentiate professional development for teachers. And so teachers feel like in the words of this article, they’re checking a box. They’re just sort of doing the thing that the state said they had to do.

[00:06:09] I have to get X number of hours of professional development. The other thing that I think is really interesting to think about is the extent to which professional development is at all aligned to what teachers are going to do in the classroom. And so this article delves. narratives from a couple of teachers saying, If you were to give me professional development that actually gave me tools to put in my toolbox, so to speak.

[00:06:33] I actually hate it when people say that Jar. I don’t know why I just said that, but if that actually gave me the tools to turn around and go back into my classroom tomorrow and try a new approach that’s gonna be better for kids, then I might be interested. But instead you’re giving me sort of ethereal things.

[00:06:49] It feels like it’s something that the state says I have to do, or. Says I have to do. And it’s not useful to me. And so if we were to even think about just those two things, I think [00:07:00] that we could go a really long way. One example of this I would say is, as you know, Gerard, many states are finally getting on board with a push to teach reading in a science-based way.

[00:07:10] So we’re seeing laws across this country that say teachers have to be prepared to teach reading. In a manner that is rooted in the science of reading, because yes, there is a science of reading and with that comes professional development. Now, that doesn’t mean that just because something is rooted in evidence that the professional development itself is gonna be good, but it’s a start because it is an attempt to give teachers tactics, strategies, and information they can implement in their classroom.

[00:07:39] The final thing I would say, Gerard, is we rarely. hear about, or I don’t even know of mechanisms other than teacher surveys to really just evaluate the impacts of professional development. We’ve got a couple studies cited in this article. One is in fact from Israel that you know, but there’s really a dearth of research out there to say like [00:08:00] whether or not the professional development that teachers get works.

[00:08:03] The bottom line is that when we make teachers sit through these professional development sessions, let alone spend literally billion. I used that, right? Literally, I used that correctly. Maybe, maybe an overuse. I don’t know. My 13 year old daughter will have to tell me. But when we’re spending billions on professional development, I think that we need to have mechanisms to determine whether or not it’s impactful, whether or not it’s subtractive, because we’re taking teachers out of the classroom, we’re taking kids out of the classroom.

[00:08:34] We’re asking parents, for example, to figure out what to do with their kid for that day and a half of professional development as I’m going to have to do this week. when teachers are learning and teachers of course should be learning, but I wanna know not only as a taxpayer, but as a former teacher and as somebody who cares, that when teachers aren’t.

[00:08:54] In the classroom with my kids, that the, teachings they’re receiving, the learning they’re doing is actually gonna make a [00:09:00] difference in their eyes to their ability to do their job well. So, Gerard, I know you’ve been a teacher and I know you’ve worked with tons of teachers over your time.

[00:09:08] I’m so curious to hear your thoughts. Am I just too negative on this? Am I too negative on this? I, I love this article by Bernadette Looney, and I hope we hear more from her. But like, are we both crazy here? What do you.

[00:09:19] GR: No, I’m, first of all, I’m a big fan of professional development. It has its pros, it has its cons.

[00:09:27] And when I’ve had these conversations before, either working in the state, beta, Virginia, or Florida, or when I was working with bail, in addition to the things we did in public policy, we also had at our annual syms. Bay. We had exception where we actually did PD for teachers, and so we were in that vaulting network.

[00:09:48] What teachers would tell you is when it works well, it works well, and when it doesn’t, it doesn’t. And so there’s no middle ground. And so one person who I go to for advice about this subject [00:10:00] is someone named Catherine Bassett. Catherine Bassett is the former 2000 teacher of the year for the state of New Jersey.

[00:10:07] She’s also the founder and at that time, president of the National Association for Teachers of the Year. And Catherine and I of the last few years have actually worked. To interview more than 150 teachers across the country. In fact, we interviewed at least one teacher in every state and in the commonwealth, every state, except I believe American Samoa and PD was part of the conversation.

[00:10:31] Not always. But they said three things. Number one, they said we need it and we need it if it’s high quality. Number two, they said we need it not only when there’s an emergency, but to prepare us for the time there could be an emergency in or outside the classroom. And then third, they actually like the presentation to come from in-class teachers.

[00:10:53] Former teachers, but also university professors. Many of them had been teachers before, and even if [00:11:00] they’re not, they’re working annually with teachers. And so having a research-based approach would be fine. So, I’m probably not too much of a negative Ned on this one. But I think we need it now. 80%.

[00:11:15] The money that we’ve spent on pd. I’m not sure congressional intent looked or expected. 80%.

[00:11:23] Cara: That’s in some districts. Yeah. And that’s, a broad bucket. So who knows what that really means is part of the problem. Yeah, that’s a good point. With categorizing asset funds, I mean, it’s a really difficult task.

[00:11:32] Some have tried to do it, but it’s crazy.

[00:11:34] GR: Yeah. Well, good luck. I guess when we get the, the accounting of where the money. By district. We’ll give it a chance to maybe even bring on a guest or two to say what went right and what went

[00:11:46] Cara: wrong. I’m holding my breath for that one, Gerard. I mean, how much, how much gray hair are we gonna have on these heads when that happens?

[00:11:52] GR: Anyway? Well, well, I, I already have enough, so I don’t need me too, to stimulate a little more. Actually, I, I, for some reason when I see you, [00:12:00] I, I never see the gray. That’s amazing.

[00:12:01] Patrick: I

[00:12:01] Cara: Well, you can thank my stylist Acosta. Come on, .

[00:12:06] GR: Well, when I meet your stylist, I will say so, but you know, I told my oldest daughter, we were at a conference recently and she said, dad, you’re like the only person in here with gray hair.

[00:12:16] And I said, you know what? I can tell you I’m not the oldest person here. And she started laughing cuz I talked to her about the process of dying. But uh, I’m gonna let my. Growing.

[00:12:26] Cara: So dying. And dying. Well, some of us worth gray better than others. My friend,

[00:12:34] GR: Well, speaking of people who will become gray, my article is about education. On the continent of Africa. And so this is an essay. It comes from Brookings, and it’s authored by the former president of Tanzania. His name is H e Kaa Kati, and in addition to having served in a former role, he’s currently the board chair of the Global [00:13:00] Partnership for Education.

[00:13:01] So what’s G P E? So, G P E is the largest global fund that’s solely dedicated. To transforming education in low-income countries. And a unique multi-stakeholder partnership is how they get it done. And their goal is to deliver a quality education so that every girl and boy can have hope, opportunity, and agency.

[00:13:22] They’ve been around for two decades and when I saw the low-income countries, I was thinking about the work that I had a chance to do with a, with a wonderful. Of people on staff, philanthropy, state level people at Bay. Cause we focused on low income communities. And so they’re doing the same thing, but they’ve got a unique approach in the fact that they’re working with low income countries.

[00:13:43] And so if you go to their website, which I recommend you do they’re gonna show you a world map. And they’re gonna show you the 50 plus countries where they’re working. Well, the bulk of those countries are actually in Africa. And what they want to do for all of their partners is to build , a strong and resilient education [00:14:00] system.

[00:14:00] They also wanna bring in partners to invest whether that’s from the public sector, the private sector, or the NGO sector. Or what we often hear in European countries when they talk about reform is civil society based organizations. And third, they really believe their motto is, because they’re using local and state leaders to make it happen and making the right connections with international partners.

[00:14:24] So Brookings is a part of the conversation. And so the former president said, listen, we need to strengthen the system of education in Africa, Africa. And he starts off as essay by acknowledging what many of us know here in the States, but really hit it. Hit home on the continent. Is that almost three years before the covid?

[00:14:43] Became a global threat and schools shut down. He said nearly half of the 10 year olds in low income and middle income countries across the world could not read or comprehend. A simple written story, and that was before Covid. He said, with the onset [00:15:00] of the pandemic, that number actually jumped to 70%.

[00:15:04] And so what can we do to help? Particularly when you can find that, what happened with covid could lead to disruption and in particular could lead to 24 million students dropping out permanently. From school. So he said, well, there are four things that we need to do. Number one, he says, we’ve gotta prioritize education as a critical part of our national and Pan-African strategy to recover and rebuild.

[00:15:28] So what does it mean for the continent? Basically, for every one of the continent’s, gonna get 12 years. Of quality education, one that’s gonna make sure every child gets it and for a reason. But of course, to make that happen, they need to have sufficient and well-trained teachers. So that’s number one.

[00:15:44] Number two, they wanna identify and prioritize reforms. that are gonna make a difference. And so what do they want to do? So in the global partnership of course, which he chairs, he says, there’re currently over 40 African countries who’ve come together [00:16:00] and decided to focus on one major issue.

[00:16:03] There’s several, but here’s one is to leverage more and better domestic financing. So they’re looking at school finance and the way we do here in the states. Third, he said they have to scale up investments to transform the system, but they have to do it by focusing on the most vulnerable children.

[00:16:19] And these are children whose lives are impacted by lack of nutrition, by psychosocial services or lack thereof and a number of areas. And lastly but not least, He said we have to build on learning innovations and investments that have worked in the past three years. So there’s currently the, uh, key and others are in the 10th year of a agenda that they adopted, and it’s called Agenda 2063.

[00:16:46] And the goal is by 2063 to not only have a thriving education, in Africa, but to make sure that the graduates are not doing well on the continent, but also investing across the world. [00:17:00] Well, why would that matter? So I took a look at data from UNICEF and they identified that in 1950, only about a 10th. Of the world’s children lived in Africa.

[00:17:10] 50 years later, the proportion almost doubled and it’s set to double again by the middle of the 21st century, leaving Africa with nearly a billion children under the age of 18 by 2015. That equate to roughly one, actually one third of all the children. But by the end of this century, based upon recent trends, almost half the children in the world will live in Africa.

[00:17:34] So there is a need to invest. In the countries, it’s good to see if there’s a global focus. Good to see Brookings involved. Africa has had a number of reforms. They’re also dealing with the legacy as we talk about here in the United States. legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. They’re also dealing with the legacy of slavery also neocolonialism, and they got a lot of [00:18:00] challenges.

[00:18:01] Good to see this agenda. What are your thoughts?

[00:18:03] Cara: Well, you know, Gerard, I spent a lot of time thinking about education in Africa when I was a doctoral student at Boston University and worked pretty closely with a wonderful woman named Karen Boatman, who spent most of her life in Africa. And I’ll say it’s been a, it’s been a long time, but I heard an interesting fact in a news report this morning.

[00:18:24] That Africa’s middle class, meaning on the continent just generally speaking, has really just grown by leaps and bounds in the past couple decades, which feels like a really good thing, right? I mean, that’s certainly not something, I mean, my goodness as a kid growing up in the eighties, right?

[00:18:41] We can remember famine in Ethiopia. I mean, those are the kinds of things we remember. And so it seems like, yes, of course continent, like, like many places we have different problems, but they have their own set of problems which differ. Geography, which differ by country, et cetera. And we’ve had guests on this show before to talk a little bit about that.

[00:18:58] I’m glad to see that there’s this bold [00:19:00] agenda and I’m really happy to hear that, that some really bright minds are involved. One of the things that always gives me pause though is I think that there are absolutely lessons that can be learned and applied from this country, from many others.

[00:19:13] But I have this recollection. My, my dear friend and mentor, Charlie Glenn would say to folks when they would, we would go to international conferences or they would, come to Boston and say, teach us about your education system so we can, replicate. And his answer was always, well, please don’t replicate everything , because we certainly have.

[00:19:33] Have a lot to learn. So just when folks are looking at these things and looking at, certainly prioritizing kids who have been disengaged from school, out of school, vulnerable, kids who, don’t have access to school, quite frankly, because in so many places in Africa, you know, you might say that compulsory education is free.

[00:19:50] It’s not by any stretch of the imagination free. Not only because of the opportunity cost of lost labor, but because of school fees and associated costs, things that happen here, but not to the [00:20:00] same extent. So I think it’s a lot to wrestle with. And in addition to sort of these folks that can come in and help people in in different African countries wrestle with.

[00:20:09] The many issues that they need to address in order to increase access to, and the quality of education that we’re also thinking really meaningfully about those on the ground actors that are also doing really cool things. James Tuley years ago wrote an amazing book called Private Schools for the Poor, and he looked at.

[00:20:28] certain programs and places in, in certain African countries and in India talking about how certain non-government actors going in were providing incredible access to students who couldn’t otherwise afford the cost of a public education, which as you imagine is something we don’t talk a lot about in this country.

[00:20:46] So I love. This story that you’re bringing to our attention, and I hope that maybe we can have somebody on to talk about this a little bit more. So note to our producers that this would be a good topic to cover. Thank you, Gerard, for bringing that up. , but [00:21:00] now it’s my time to transition us, Gerard, because we have got somebody, we’ve got two people waiting in the wings because Jud, you and I are about to sign off.

[00:21:07] It is National Catholic Schools Week, though as you know, last week was National School Choice Week. It is National Catholic. Schools week this week, and it is also the beginning of February. So as you mentioned, the beginning of Black History Month, just a lot going on this time of year. But in honor of National Catholic Schools Week, we are gonna be welcoming in just one moment.

[00:21:26] George Weigel, he is a preeminent author, biographer of Pope John Paul ii. And to interview him because, Sorry, listeners. Every once in a while, ARD and Kara need a little bit of a break. our great friend Patrick Wolf a Catholic school boy himself will be interviewing George Weigel and the two of them will be back right after this.[00:22:00]

Patrick Wolf: I’m Patrick Wolf, distinguished professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas and I’m pleased to speak with esteemed Catholic theologian, author, and biographer George Weigel as we mark National Catholic Schools Week. George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon chair in Catholic Studies at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Catholic theologian, and one of America’s leading public intellectuals. He is the author of the international bestselling two-volume biography of Pope St. John Paul II, Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning. Weigel is the author or editor of more than 20 other books including Lessons and Hope: My Unexpected Life with Saint John Paul II. His essays, op-ed columns, and reviews appear regularly in major U.S. newspapers. He is a frequent guest on television and radio. He is also senior Vatican analyst for NBC News. His weekly column “The Catholic Difference,” is syndicated to 85 newspapers and magazines in seven countries. Weigel is the recipient of 19 honorary doctorates, in divinity, philosophy, law, and social sciences. Mr. Weigel, welcome to The Learning Curve.

George Weigel: Very good to be with you, Patrick, thank you for having me.

Patrick Wolf: So, Pope St. John Paul II was among the greatest figures in the world in our era. You knew him well and are his definitive biographer. As we celebrate National Catholic Schools Week, what are the main elements of his remarkable life and spiritual leadership that the general public, educators, and schoolchildren alike should remember?

George Weigel: There’s an interesting story about John Paul II according to which an old friend of his, in fact one of his original doctoral students when he was teaching at the Catholic University of Lublin, posed a hypothetical to him: “Suppose,” this friend said, “that there had been a terrible destruction of the world and all of the world’s bibles disappeared. What is the one sentence from the Bible that you hope would be preserved?” And without hesitating John Paul II said “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” from St. John’s gospel. That linkage between truth and freedom, I think, is an essential lesson for human flourishing. It’s an essential lesson for making a democracy like ours in the United States work, and it’s a great theme for National Catholic schools Week because, unfortunately, the government schools in our society are not real good on the linkage between truth and freedom. The woke notion that there’s your truth and my truth but nothing really properly called the truth has deeply affected American education at all levels, and it is the Catholic schools of the United States, again—at all levels but particularly at the elementary and secondary levels—that are upholding this classical view that education involves an introduction to a deepening of the truths that we can know both by reason and by divine revelation. So, I think that’s something about the life of John Paul II that is very pertinent to National Catholic Schools Week. A second aspect of his life and achievement that I think is particularly apt for National Catholic Schools Week is to understand that this man of great historical consequence, the pivotal figure in the collapse of European communism at the end of the 1980s, a man who had left a deep imprint on public life in Latin America and East Asia, a man who has inspired now two generations of young Catholics both clergy and laity to be missionary disciples—this historic figure prayed his way into all of his great decisions. There was no document of his papal magisterium, his papal teaching—there was no critical appointment he made to the episcopate in New York or Paris or Chicago or wherever that he did not pray his way into. His prayer was the engine of his life, not only spiritually but intellectually. He did all of his intellectual work at a desk before the Blessed Sacrament and the chapel of his residence in Krakow and then in the papal apartment in Rome. So, I think that’s something that is very much worth pondering during National Catholic Schools Week. As well, a third aspect of his life that touches on this celebration is his reverence for education. This was a man who had a deep reverence for the teaching profession, for the life of the mind and believed that everyone deserved a chance to develop to the highest possible degree the intellectual gifts that they had been given by birth and by cultural inheritance—go to see education as something more than a function, to see teaching as vocation rather than mere career, to always put the student first in terms of one’s concerns as a teacher or educator. These are all things that I would draw out of that reverence for education that was a characteristic of John Paul II.

Patrick Wolf: Excellent. So, for a recent book on Catholic schooling published by the Pioneer Institute, you wrote quote “after displaying exceptional intellectual gifts in elementary and secondary school, Karol Wojtyla had begun what promised to be a brilliant university career when the venerable Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland was shuttered by the Nazis in 1939.” Would you share with our listeners the type of classical liberal arts education and catechism he received as a young person and how that shaped his life and papacy?

George Weigel: Karol Wojtyla grew up in a small town called Wadowice about 60 kilometers 50 kilometers southwest of Krakow, at a time when Polish elementary and secondary education was really something quite admirable. You we have to remember this is a young country. Poland had disappeared from the map of Europe in 1795, not to reappear until 1918. Wojtyla was born in 1920, so he’s in the first generation of Poles growing up in an independent Poland and being educated in an independent Poland, so it’s all the more remarkable that the curriculum in those days was a very rigorous one, so that by the time a student graduated from what we would call high school that student knew Polish language and literature inside and out, that student probably also knew classical languages, Latin and Greek, that student had a deep and broad understanding of Polish history, that student had been exposed to and in the case of Wojtyla had performed the great classics of Polish literature, drama, poetry, etc. And this is in addition to the, you know, the other things we think of in elementary and secondary education, basic scientific education, mathematics et cetera. But the liberal arts side of the curriculum was very heavily emphasized, and in addition to all of that, most students had a second modern language—German, French, et cetera. So, it was a very rigorous curriculum. Obviously not everybody performed in that environment to the high level that Karol Wojtyla did, but the assumption was that this was, this is, the kind of curriculum that makes for good human beings, people who can live righteously, and what makes for good citizens. So, there was none of this mishmash of social studies, there was a deep interest in learning to speak and write properly. Polish is a very difficult language, it’s an extremely complicated grammar, but to get to dig into that is then to be able to dig into and appreciate one of the great literatures of the western world. So, all of that was thought to be necessary for human flourishing and for good citizenship. So, I think there are lessons in that for today’s elementary and secondary education as well.

Patrick Wolf: Very good. So, growing up during World War II and the Holocaust in his native Poland, young Karol Wojtyla had many friends who perished during the Nazi-led genocide. Could you talk about these friendships and how they informed his later work as Pope, especially his ecumenical healing and relationship with the Jewish people around the world?

George Weigel: Let’s begin with the last. The town of Wadowice was about 10% Jewish, perhaps a little bit more than that. It was a town noted for tolerance and civic decency among all of its people. Interwar Poland, what’s called the Polish Second Republic, Poland that existed between 1918 and 1939, was a very diverse place. It was only about 60% Polish. There was a large Ukrainian population, substantial Jewish population, it had significant German population. So, learning to live with plurality and being able to turn plurality into pluralism, a genuine sense of civic friendship across historical and ethnic boundaries, was imperative. Wojtyla’s family lived in an apartment that was owned by a Jewish family, he had Jewish friends from the time he could form friendships as a small boy. His father, who was the dominant influence on his young life—his mother died before he was nine years old—was a man of both education and culture and tolerance. So, he grew up in an environment in which the anti-Semitism that was rampant throughout Europe at the time was simply regarded as a as a very bad thing. For the experience of the Second World War, I think that was the formative experience of his life, it was unimaginably awful. Especially for Americans who think of the Second World War as, you know, Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and VJ day—most Americans know absolutely nothing about the horrors of the Second World War in Central and Eastern Europe and what Timothy Snyder of Yale has called the Bloodlands. One-fifth of the population of Poland that was alive in 1939 was dead in 1945.  The Nazi occupation of the rump of Poland that was called the General Government that part of Poland that had not been absorbed into either the Third Reich or Russia but was not a real state, was a kind of Gestapo land where there was no rule of law, and as one of Wojtyla’s classmates put it to me 25 years ago—it was not a question of knowing whether you would be alive on your next birthday or next Christmas or next Easter or five years from now. It was a question of not knowing whether you would be alive tomorrow morning. Because it was an environment of random lethal violence in which if a Wehrmacht soldier, or a Gestapo guy, or an SS guy didn’t like the way you looked at him he could shoot you down on the street and that would be the end of it. He would not be prosecuted for that murder. Now, different things happen to different people under those kinds of pressures. Some people took to violent resistance, some people went mad, some people began to toy with the idea of Communism as a way toward a better future. Some people simply tried to hide. Wojtyla, in addition to being an active part of an underground resistance movement that tried to keep Polish spirits alive by performing the great works of Polish drama and culture, allied to a larger resistance movement that did a fair amount of rescue of Jews from the Holocaust—I’ve often described his experiences as that of what happens underneath the surface of the Earth. Poland between 1939 and 1945 was like a giant pressure cooker. We know what happens beneath the crust of the Earth—there are all of these hot and violent forces at work. sometimes they break out, we have earthquakes, we have volcanic eruptions, we have tsunamis. But one of the things that forms under those pressures beneath the surface of the Earth are diamonds. Diamonds are the brightest object we know. They reflect light in a singularly bright way, and diamonds are the hardest substance we know. Diamonds can cut through things that seem impermeable—diamond bits and industrial manufacturers, for example. What I described through this analogy is what happened to Karol Wojtyla during the Second World War—is that he became a kind of human diamond. He was capable of reflecting light, the light of truth, the light of Christianity, the light of God and Christ, in a remarkable way and he could cut through things that people seemed to imagine to be impermeable like the Berlin Wall, like the relationship between Christians and Jews, which he fundamentally reconstituted following the work of the Second Vatican Council. So, those are some of the things that I think we take away from his formative experience of the Second World War which really made him the man that he was, which was the moment of his vocational clarification. In this environment of the utter degradation of human dignity, he pledged his life to be a defender of human dignity through the priesthood of the Catholic Church. So, that’s World War II and the young Wojtyla.

Patrick Wolf: Right. And you mentioned Communism in your answer. In 1978, as Cardinal Wojtyla ascended to the papacy, the Cold War had pulled to a morally neutral detente where Western leaders had seemingly made a strange peace with the horrific crimes and evils of Communist regimes. Pope John Paul II rejected this view. As you’ve written “communism reduced the person to an automatron, a mere cog in an irresistible historical process that was easily refuted not least by the incompetence and brutality of communist governance.” Would you discuss his moral and spiritual leadership and how his experience in Poland under totalitarian regimes guided his courageous papal struggle against Communism?

George Wiegel: To understand John Paul II’s papal leadership, I think we go back to June 1979, his first return visit to Poland, the first time a Bishop of Rome had set foot in a Communist country. Those nine days from June 10th to June, sorry, from  June 2 to June 10, 1979, were really days on which the history of the twentieth century pivoted and pivoted into a more humane direction. If you look at the 50-some addresses of John Paul II during the nine days of June 1979—whether it’s a sermon or a university lecture, or remarks to student groups, or homilies at Mass—there is a consistent theme that he taught and preached, which can be summed up like this. He said to these people whom he knew so well in a beautifully sonorous Polish which he spoke so well, “You are not who they—the Communists—say you are. Permit me to remind you who you are. You are a people with a distinctive history and a distinctive culture. At the center of that history and culture is Christian faith, is biblical religion. If you reclaim and own that distinctive culture and history, you will eventually find tools of resistance that communism simply cannot match. And, of course, 13 months after that we have the formation of the Solidarity movement, and 10 years later the collapse of European Communism. John Paul II knew that the point of maximum vulnerability of the Communist system was that it was it taught a false view of the human person. It reduced human beings to—as I wrote in that passage you quoted—a kind of material cog in an irresistible historical process. It denied the reality of the human spirit or if you prefer the human soul. It denied the reality of God, and one of the things that we ought to have learned from the history of the twentieth century but often haven’t is that if you deny the reality of God you’re going to get the human person wrong. All of the great crimes against humanity committed in the twentieth century were committed by atheistic regimes. If you don’t get God you don’t get man. If you don’t get the God of the Bible, you are very unlikely to get the human person who can be a creative, responsible citizen of a democratic republic or even a constitutional monarchy. So. Wojtyla had learned as Archbishop of Krakow from 1964 to 1978 how to attack Communism at this point is maximum vulnerability and the way you did that was to give people back the truth about themselves, the truth about their history and culture. And the response to that in June 1979 was dramatic, and as an old friend of mine put it—he was a university student at the time —hearing the Pope, he made, my friend made a fundamental moral decision. Communism was about lies and my friend decided, while I may have to live in this system of lies—lies about the human person, lies about economics, lies about politics, lies about history—while I may have to live in a system of lies, I don’t have to live as a liar. I could live in the truth. As Václav Havel would put it in that famous essay “The Power of the Powerless.” And if you get a critical mass of people living in the truth then the Communist system is going to collapse and that’s, of course, exactly what happened over the course of the 1980s. And it was that summons to living in the truth that John Paul II issued in June 1979 that I think was the pivotal moment in igniting the revolution of conscience that led to the political revolution of 1989.

Patrick Wolf: So, among Pope St. John Paul II’s many gifts was his charismatic presence to inspire young people in their Catholic faith. For example, on this first visit to the U.S. in October 1979, tens of thousands of teenagers at Madison Square Garden in New York City chanted quote “John Paul Two, we love you!” and he responded with “Woo, woo, woo, John Paul Two, he loves you!” Would you talk about his leadership with young people and how millions of them throughout the world celebrated World Youth Day with him?

George Weigel: I have been asked probably hundreds of times how do you explain John Paul II’s magnetism for the young and particularly during his later years when he didn’t look like anything that young people normally responded to. Now, you know, October 1979, the cover of Time magazine after that occasion that you described, I think, is a picture of the Pope at Madison Square Garden, and the cover headline is “John Paul Superstar.” Well, by the late 1990s, he was not John Paul superstar, he was an elderly man with some serious physical problems and yet he retained this extraordinary magnetism. So, OK what explains that? I think it’s two things. First of all, he was transparent. When he challenged young people, they could see that he was not challenging them to do or be anything that he had not done or been. So, when he challenged them to live courageously they could see that he had lived courageously. When he challenged them to live chastely, to seek a pure love, they could see someone who had been doing that for decades. So, that transparency, that willingness to display weakness—that he was not asking young people to take any risk, bear any burden that he had not taken or borne, I think was part of the answer to the magnetism. I think the second thing was the challenge the contemporary culture has pandered to young people for decades in everything from consumer advertising to modes of dress to language it’s pander, pander, pander all the time. And John Paul II did not pander to young people, he challenged them. And he challenged them particularly at a deep spiritual level, saying in many, many variations on one great theme: Don’t ever settle for less than the spiritual and moral grandeur, the greatness that the grace of God makes possible in your life. You will falter and fail. We all do. But when you do, get up, dust yourself off, seek reconciliation, and then continue to strive for that spiritual and moral greatness that the grace of God makes possible in your life. Don’t lower the bar of self-expectation. And I think that was powerfully countercultural and attractive, and you see it in many of the institutions, youth movements, et cetera, that grew out of those World Youth Days which were celebrated all around the world.

Patrick Wolf: So, this has been a wonderfully instructive discussion. Could you please close out the interview by reading a favorite passage from your biography of Pope St. John Paul II?

George Weigel: This is actually the last paragraph of the first volume of my biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, which closes like this:

“Piotr and Teresa Malecki, long-time members of Karol Wojtyla’s Srodowisko, were staying at the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo in the late summer of 1997 as the Pope’s guests. Their bedroom was just below his, and before dawn each morning they knew by the thumping of his cane that he was up and about. One morning, at breakfast, the Pope asked whether the noise was disturbing them. No, they answered, they were getting up for Mass anyway. “But Wujek,”—Uncle, as they called him—they asked, “But Wujek, why do you get up at that hour of the morning?” Because, said Karol Wojtyla, the 264th Bishop of Rome, “I like to watch the sun rise.”

Patrick Wolf: Wow, so inspiring! Thank you.

George Weigel: Thank you for having me.

[00:49:42] Cara: Gerard, I’m gonna leave you with this tweet of the week. I don’t know if this is somebody you follow on Twitter. Chad Alderman, I believe he might work with our friend, Marg Rosa, who we’ve had on this show a couple of times, but numbers guy and he is citing a report, the fiscal survey.

[00:49:58] States, which [00:50:00] we should all take a look at. And his tweet is the 18.3% growth in state spending in fiscal year 2022 was the highest annual increase ever recorded, ever recorded. in recent history, . So this is really I’m not one that’s usually fascinated by budget reports. I’m not gonna lie. I’d rather read the tweet about it.

[00:50:22] But this is fascinating stuff and we know that so many states had huge surpluses last year due to many different factors, pandemic related. And here we are in these strange times. Are we in a recession? Are we not in a recession? Who knows? The budgets. Budgets were pretty big last year. A lot of money going out the door.

[00:50:39] And, and we talked about that at the top of the show with regards to even federal money still being spent. That federal money allowed states to save some of their own pad, their coffers. We’ll see where this all takes us, but nonetheless, a really interesting read and I recommend it. I recommend the condensed version.

[00:50:54] Gerard, next week, . No. Or maybe we’ll just have Chad on and he can explain [00:51:00] it to me. Next week, jar, we’re gonna be speaking with Deborah Plant. She is the editor of the New York Times Bestselling Baron Bazo O’Neal Hurston. So we’re gonna be speaking to her about the great works of such a wonderful.

[00:51:12] Wonderful author, journalist, woman, figure in American history. I’m very excited for that. In Gerard, at risk of disclosing what we usually say is my undisclosed location. I will be coming to you next week from South America, but I’ll be here nonetheless. So I’m looking forward to talking to you. Yeah, yeah.

[00:51:30] It’ll be, I’ll be coming to you. We’ll talk about the weather because you know, that’s what we do. But until then, Gerard please take care of yourself and you’ll keep me posted. I don’t know when. When’s the super. soon. Soon. You’ll have to tell me. I don’t know. Yeah, we’ll be back with updates next week.

[00:51:46] You take care. Okay. Take care. Bye

[00:51:48] George: bye.[00:52:00]

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