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George Packer is a staff writer for The Atlantic and lives in New York City. Like most of us, he is the product of public schools and a strong believer in the importance of “common schools” to educate children of all “religious, social, and ethnic backgrounds.” Therefore he and his wife were very excited when their young son was accepted into a diverse NYC public school in which two-thirds of students performed well on standardized tests.
His sober reflections on his 10 year experience with radically progressive educators is published in the current issue of The Atlantic, “When the Culture War Comes for the Kids.” It is a sad, cautionary tale of the misguided direction that American education and our society is taking. This record of his encounters and the reaction of his kids is valuable, as are his thoughts on the new progressivism, the movement away from standardized testing, identity politics, and Mayor de Blasio’s integration initiative. Hopefully his exposure and liberal critique of such craziness can lead to some positive changes.
“Learning through doing”
The school’s pedagogy emphasized learning through doing. Reading instruction didn’t start until the end of first grade; in math, kids were taught various strategies for multiplication and division, but the times tables were their parents’ problem. Instead of worksheets and tests, there were field trips to the shoreline and the Noguchi sculpture museum. “Project-based learning” had our son working for weeks on a clay model of a Chinese nobleman’s tomb tower during a unit on ancient China.
Even as we continued to volunteer, my wife and I never stopped wondering if we had cheated our son of a better education. We got antsy with the endless craft projects, the utter indifference to spelling. But our son learned well only when a subject interested him. “I want to learn facts, not skills,” he told his first-grade teacher. The school’s approach—the year-long second-grade unit on the geology and bridges of New York—caught his imagination, while the mix of races and classes gave him something even more precious: an unselfconscious belief that no one was better than anyone else, that he was everyone’s equal and everyone was his. In this way the school succeeded in its highest purpose.
And then things began to change.
A new progressivism germinated around 2014
Around 2014 a new mood germinated in America—at first in a few places, among limited numbers of people, but growing with amazing rapidity and force, as new things tend to do today. It rose up toward the end of the Obama years, in part out of disillusionment with the early promise of his presidency—out of expectations raised and frustrated, especially among people under 30, which is how most revolutionary surges begin. This new mood was progressive but not hopeful. A few short years after the teachers at the private preschool had crafted Obama pendants with their 4-year-olds, hope was gone.
At the heart of the new progressivism was indignation, sometimes rage, about ongoing injustice against groups of Americans who had always been relegated to the outskirts of power and dignity. An incident—a police shooting of an unarmed black man; news reports of predatory sexual behavior by a Hollywood mogul; a pro quarterback who took to kneeling during the national anthem—would light a fire that would spread overnight and keep on burning because it was fed by anger at injustices deeper and older than the inflaming incident. Over time the new mood took on the substance and hard edges of a radically egalitarian ideology.
At points where the ideology touched policy, it demanded, and in some cases achieved, important reforms: body cameras on cops, reduced prison sentences for nonviolent offenders, changes in the workplace. But its biggest influence came in realms more inchoate than policy: the private spaces where we think and imagine and talk and write, and the public spaces where institutions shape the contours of our culture and guard its perimeter.
Who was driving the new progressivism? Young people, influencers on social media, leaders of cultural organizations, artists, journalists, educators, and, more and more, elected Democrats. You could almost believe they spoke for a majority—but you would be wrong. An extensive survey of American political opinion published last year by a nonprofit called More in Common found that a large majority of every group, including black Americans, thought “political correctness” was a problem. The only exception was a group identified as “progressive activists”—just 8 percent of the population, and likely to be white, well educated, and wealthy. Other polls found that white progressives were readier to embrace diversity and immigration, and to blame racism for the problems of minority groups, than black Americans were. The new progressivism was a limited, mainly elite phenomenon.
Politics becomes most real not in the media but in your nervous system, where everything matters more and it’s harder to repress your true feelings because of guilt or social pressure. It was as a father, at our son’s school, that I first understood the meaning of the new progressivism, and what I disliked about it.
Movement away from standardized testing
Every spring, starting in third grade, public-school students in New York State take two standardized tests geared to the national Common Core curriculum—one in math, one in English. In the winter of 2015–16, our son’s third-grade year, we began to receive a barrage of emails and flyers from the school about the upcoming tests. They all carried the message that the tests were not mandatory. “Inform Yourself!” an email urged us. “Whether or not your child will take the tests is YOUR decision.”
During the George W. Bush and Obama presidencies, statewide tests were used to improve low-performing schools by measuring students’ abilities, with rewards (“race to the top”) and penalties (“accountability”) doled out accordingly. These standardized tests could determine the fate of teachers and schools. Some schools began devoting months of class time to preparing students for the tests.
The excesses of “high-stakes testing” inevitably produced a backlash. In 2013, four families at our school, with the support of the administration, kept their kids from taking the tests. These parents had decided that the tests were so stressful for students and teachers alike, consumed so much of the school year with mindless preparation, and were so irrelevant to the purpose of education that they were actually harmful. But even after the city eased the consequences of the tests, the opt-out movement grew astronomically. In the spring of 2014, 250 children were kept from taking the tests.
The critique widened, too: Educators argued that the tests were structurally biased, even racist, because nonwhite students had the lowest scores. “I believe in assessment—I took tests my whole life and I’ve used assessments as an educator,” one black parent at our school, who graduated from a prestigious New York public high school, told me. “But now I see it all differently. Standardized tests are the gatekeepers to keep people out, and I know exactly who’s at the bottom. It is torturous for black, Latino, and low-income children, because they will never catch up, due to institutionalized racism.”
Our school became the citywide leader of the new movement; the principal was interviewed by the New York media. Opting out became a form of civil disobedience against a prime tool of meritocracy. It started as a spontaneous, grassroots protest against a wrongheaded state of affairs. Then, with breathtaking speed, it transcended the realm of politics and became a form of moral absolutism, with little tolerance for dissent.
Identity and the bathroom crisis
The battleground of the new progressivism is identity. That’s the historical source of exclusion and injustice that demands redress. In the past five years, identity has set off a burst of exploration and recrimination and creation in every domain, from television to cooking. “Identity is the topic at the absolute center of our conversations about music,” The New York Times Magazine declared in 2017, in the introduction to a special issue consisting of 25 essays on popular songs. “For better or worse, it’s all identity now.”
The school’s progressive pedagogy had fostered a wonderfully intimate sense of each child as a complex individual. But progressive politics meant thinking in groups. When our son was in third or fourth grade, students began to form groups that met to discuss issues based on identity—race, sexuality, disability. I understood the solidarity that could come from these meetings, but I also worried that they might entrench differences that the school, by its very nature, did so much to reduce. Other, less diverse schools in New York, including elite private ones, had taken to dividing their students by race into consciousness-raising “affinity groups.” I knew several mixed-race families that transferred their kids out of one such school because they were put off by the relentless focus on race. Our son and his friends, whose classroom study included slavery and civil rights, hardly ever discussed the subject of race with one another. The school already lived what it taught.
The bathroom crisis hit our school the same year our son took the standardized tests. A girl in second grade had switched to using male pronouns, adopted the initial Q as a first name, and begun dressing in boys’ clothes. Q also used the boys’ bathroom, which led to problems with other boys. Q’s mother spoke to the principal, who, with her staff, looked for an answer. They could have met the very real needs of students like Q by creating a single-stall bathroom—the one in the second-floor clinic would have served the purpose. Instead, the school decided to get rid of boys’ and girls’ bathrooms altogether. If, as the city’s Department of Education now instructed, schools had to allow students to use the bathroom of their self-identified gender, then getting rid of the labels would clear away all the confusion around the bathroom question. A practical problem was solved in conformity with a new idea about identity.
Within two years, almost every bathroom in the school, from kindergarten through fifth grade, had become gender-neutral. Where signs had once said boys and girls, they now said students. Kids would be conditioned to the new norm at such a young age that they would become the first cohort in history for whom gender had nothing to do with whether they sat or stood to pee. All that biology entailed—curiosity, fear, shame, aggression, pubescence, the thing between the legs—was erased or wished away.
The school didn’t inform parents of this sudden end to an age-old custom, as if there were nothing to discuss. Parents only heard about it when children started arriving home desperate to get to the bathroom after holding it in all day. Girls told their parents mortifying stories of having a boy kick open their stall door. Boys described being afraid to use the urinals. Our son reported that his classmates, without any collective decision, had simply gone back to the old system, regardless of the new signage: Boys were using the former boys’ rooms, girls the former girls’ rooms. This return to the familiar was what politicians call a “commonsense solution.” It was also kind of heartbreaking. As children, they didn’t think to challenge the new adult rules, the new adult ideas of justice. Instead, they found a way around this difficulty that the grown-ups had introduced into their lives. It was a quiet plea to be left alone.
When parents found out about the elimination of boys’ and girls’ bathrooms, they showed up en masse at a PTA meeting. The parents in one camp declared that the school had betrayed their trust, and a woman threatened to pull her daughter out of the school. The parents in the other camp argued that gender labels—and not just on the bathroom doors—led to bullying and that the real problem was the patriarchy. One called for the elimination of urinals. It was a minor drama of a major cultural upheaval. The principal, who seemed to care more about the testing opt-out movement than the bathroom issue, explained her financial constraints and urged the formation of a parent-teacher committee to resolve the matter. After six months of stalemate, the Department of Education intervened: One bathroom would be gender-neutral.
Further reflection on identity politics
In politics, identity is an appeal to authority—the moral authority of the oppressed: I am what I am, which explains my view and makes it the truth. The politics of identity starts out with the universal principles of equality, dignity, and freedom, but in practice it becomes an end in itself—often a dead end, a trap from which there’s no easy escape and maybe no desire for escape. Instead of equality, it sets up a new hierarchy that inverts the old, discredited one—a new moral caste system that ranks people by the oppression of their group identity. It makes race, which is a dubious and sinister social construct, an essence that defines individuals regardless of agency or circumstance—as when Representative Ayanna Pressley said, “We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice; we don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice.”
At times the new progressivism, for all its up-to-the-minuteness, carries a whiff of the 17th century, with heresy hunts and denunciations of sin and displays of self-mortification. The atmosphere of mental constriction in progressive milieus, the self-censorship and fear of public shaming, the intolerance of dissent—these are qualities of an illiberal politics.
I asked myself if I was moving to the wrong side of a great moral cause because its tone was too loud, because it shook loose what I didn’t want to give up. It took me a long time to see that the new progressivism didn’t just carry my own politics further than I liked. It was actually hostile to principles without which I don’t believe democracy can survive. Liberals are always slow to realize that there can be friendly, idealistic people who have little use for liberal values.
The impact of the Trump election on the kids
The morning after the election, the kids cried. They cried for people close to us, Muslims and immigrants who might be in danger, and perhaps they also cried for the lost illusion that their parents could make things right. Our son lay on the couch and sobbed inconsolably until we made him go to the bus stop. …
Our daughter said that she hated being a child, because she felt helpless to do anything. The day after the inauguration, my wife took her to the Women’s March in Midtown Manhattan. She made a sign that said we have power too, and at the march she sang the one protest song she knew, “We Shall Overcome.” For days afterward she marched around the house shouting, “Show me what democracy looks like!”
Our son was less given to joining a cause and shaking his fist. Being older, he also understood the difficulty of the issues better, and they depressed him, because he knew that children really could do very little. He’d been painfully aware of climate change throughout elementary school—first grade was devoted to recycling and sustainability, and in third grade, during a unit on Africa, he learned that every wild animal he loved was facing extinction. “What are humans good for besides destroying the planet?” he asked. Our daughter wasn’t immune to the heavy mood—she came home from school one day and expressed a wish not to be white so that she wouldn’t have slavery on her conscience. It did not seem like a moral victory for our children to grow up hating their species and themselves.
We decided to cut down on the political talk around them. It wasn’t that we wanted to hide the truth or give false comfort—they wouldn’t have let us even if we’d tried. We just wanted them to have their childhood without bearing the entire weight of the world, including the new president we had allowed into office. We owed our children a thousand apologies. The future looked awful, and somehow we expected them to fix it. Did they really have to face this while they were still in elementary school? …
I wished that our son’s school would teach him civics. By age 10 he had studied the civilizations of ancient China, Africa, the early Dutch in New Amsterdam, and the Mayans. He learned about the genocide of Native Americans and slavery. But he was never taught about the founding of the republic. He didn’t learn that conflicting values and practical compromises are the lifeblood of self-government. He was given no context for the meaning of freedom of expression, no knowledge of the democratic ideas that Trump was trashing or of the instruments with which citizens could hold those in power accountable. Our son knew about the worst betrayals of democracy, including the one darkening his childhood, but he wasn’t taught the principles that had been betrayed. He got his civics from Hamilton.
Student “museums” instead of tests.
Every year, instead of taking tests, students at the school presented a “museum” of their subject of study, a combination of writing and craftwork on a particular topic. Parents came in, wandered through the classrooms, read, admired, and asked questions of students, who stood beside their projects. These days, called “shares,” were my very best experiences at the school. Some of the work was astoundingly good, all of it showed thought and effort, and the coming-together of parents and kids felt like the realization of everything the school aspired to be.
The fifth-grade share, our son’s last, was different. That year’s curriculum included the Holocaust, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. The focus was on “upstanders”—individuals who had refused to be bystanders to evil and had raised their voices. It was an education in activism, and with no grounding in civics, activism just meant speaking out. At the year-end share, the fifth graders presented dioramas on all the hard issues of the moment—sexual harassment, LGBTQ rights, gun violence. Our son made a plastic-bag factory whose smokestack spouted endangered animals. Compared with previous years, the writing was minimal and the students, when questioned, had little to say. They hadn’t been encouraged to research their topics, make intellectual discoveries, answer potential counterarguments. The dioramas consisted of cardboard, clay, and slogans.
Mayor de Blasio integration initiative
Two years ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a new initiative to integrate New York City’s schools. Our district, where there are enough white families for integration to be meaningful, was chosen as a test case. Last year a committee of teachers, parents, and activists in the district announced a proposal: Remove the meritocratic hurdle that stands in the way of equality. The proposal would get rid of competitive admissions for middle school—grades, tests, attendance, behavior—which largely accounted for the racial makeup at our son’s new school. In the new system, students would still rank their choices, but the algorithm would be adjusted to produce middle schools that reflect the demography of our district, giving disadvantaged students a priority for 52 percent of the seats. In this way, the district’s middle schools would be racially and economically integrated. De Blasio’s initiative was given the slogan “Equity and Excellence for All.” It tried to satisfy democracy and meritocracy in a single phrase.
I went back and forth and back again, and finally decided to support the new plan. My view was gratuitous, since the change came a year too late to affect our son. I would have been sorely tested if chance had put him in the first experimental class. Under the new system, a girl at his former bus stop got matched with her 12th choice, and her parents decided to send her to a charter school. No doubt many other families will leave the public-school system. But I had seen our son flourish by going to an elementary school that looked like the city. I had also seen meritocracy separate out and demoralize children based on their work in fourth grade. “If you fail middle school,” our daughter said, “you fail life.” It was too soon for children’s fates to be decided by an institution that was supposed to serve the public good.
I wanted the plan to succeed, but I had serious doubts. It came festooned with all the authoritarian excess of the new progressivism. It called for the creation of a new diversity bureaucracy, and its relentless jargon squashed my hope that the authors knew how to achieve an excellent education for all. Instead of teaching civics that faced the complex truths of American democracy, “the curriculum will highlight the vast historical contributions of non-white groups & seek to dispel the many non-truths/lies related to American & World History.”
“Excellence” was barely an afterthought in the plan. Of its 64 action items, only one even mentioned what was likely to be the hardest problem: “Provide support for [district] educators in adopting best practices for academically, racially & socioeconomically mixed classrooms.” How to make sure that children of greatly different abilities would succeed, in schools that had long been academically tracked? How to do it without giving up on rigor altogether—without losing the fastest learners?
We had faced this problem with our daughter, who was reading far ahead of her grade in kindergarten and begged her teacher for math problems to solve. When the school declined to accommodate her, and our applications to other public schools were unsuccessful, we transferred her to a new, STEM-focused private school rather than risk years of boredom. We regretted leaving the public-school system, and we were still wary of the competitive excesses of meritocracy, but we weren’t willing to abandon it altogether.
The Department of Education didn’t seem to be thinking about meritocracy at all. Its entire focus was on achieving diversity, and on rooting out the racism that stood in the way of that.
Late in the summer of 2018, a public meeting was called in our district to discuss the integration plan. It was the height of vacation season, but several hundred parents, including me, showed up. Many had just heard about the new plan, which buried the results of an internal poll showing that a majority of parents wanted to keep the old system. We were presented with a slideshow that included a photo of white adults snarling at black schoolchildren in the South in the 1960s—as if only vicious racism could motivate parents to oppose eliminating an admissions system that met superior work with a more challenging placement. Even if the placement was the fruit of a large historical injustice, parents are compromised; a policy that tells them to set aside their children’s needs until that injustice has been remedied is asking for failure. Just in case the implication of racism wasn’t enough to intimidate dissenters, when the presentation ended, and dozens of hands shot up, one of the speakers, a progressive city-council member, announced that he would take no questions. He waved off the uproar that ensued. It was just like the opt-out “education session” my wife had attended: The deal was done. There was only one truth.
De Blasio’s schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, has answered critics of the diversity initiative by calling them out for racism and refusing to let them “silence” him. As part of the initiative, Carranza has mandated anti-bias training for every employee of the school system, at a cost of $23 million. One training slide was titled “White Supremacy Culture.” It included “Perfectionism,” “Individualism,” “Objectivity,” and “Worship of the Written Word” among the white-supremacist values that need to be disrupted. In the name of exposing racial bias, the training created its own kind.
The legacy of racism, together with a false meritocracy in America today that keeps children trapped where they are, is the root cause of the inequalities in the city’s schools. But calling out racism and getting rid of objective standards won’t create real equality or close the achievement gap, and might have the perverse effect of making it worse by driving out families of all races who cling to an idea of education based on real merit. If integration is a necessary condition for equality, it isn’t sufficient. Equality is too important to be left to an ideology that rejects universal values.
Privilege and “N-word passes” in middle school
We were back to the perversions of meritocracy. But the country’s politics had changed dramatically during our son’s six years of elementary school. Instead of hope pendants around the necks of teachers, in one middle-school hallway a picture was posted of a card that said, “Uh-oh! Your privilege is showing. You’ve received this card because your privilege just allowed you to make a comment that others cannot agree or relate to. Check your privilege.” The card had boxes to be marked, like a scorecard, next to “White,” “Christian,” “Heterosexual,” “Able-bodied,” “Citizen.” (Our son struck the school off his list.) …
In middle school our son immediately made friends with the same kind of kids who had been his friends in elementary school—outsiders—including Latino boys from the district’s poorest neighborhood. One day he told us about the “N-word passes” that were being exchanged among other boys he knew—a system in which a black kid, bartering for some item, would allow a white kid to use the word. We couldn’t believe such a thing existed, but it did. When one white boy kept using his pass all day long, our son grabbed the imaginary piece of paper and ripped it to shreds. He and his friends heard the official language of moral instruction so often that it became a source of irony and teasing: “Hey, dude, you really need to check your privilege.” When his teacher assigned students to write about how they felt about their identity, letting the class know that whiteness was a source of guilt for her, our son told her that he couldn’t do it. The assignment was too personal, and it didn’t leave enough space for him to describe all that made him who he was.
“Isn’t school for learning math and science and reading,” he asked us one day, “not for teachers to tell us what to think about society?” He was responding as kids do when adults keep telling them what to think. He had what my wife called unpoliticized empathy.