One progressive writer comes to the realization that when you want the best for your kids, sometimes your politics will have to take a back seat.
George Packer, woke progressive writer for The Atlantic, is learning that the hard way. In his lengthy essay, “When the Culture War Comes for the Kids,” he writes about how he has been rethinking some of his progressive ideas after his experience sending his kids to public school.
In the bizarre world of education in New York, where the hypercompetitive battle to get children in the “right” schools begins at an astoundingly young age, Packer and his wife attempted to get their son on the correct path while he was still a toddler.
While his son was just 17 months old, Packer was getting up at 5:30 in the morning in February to wait in line to register his son at the “right” nursery school and found that there were already 30 or so parents there.
The family was rejected by one private preschool and put on the waiting list for another. When the boy was accepted, it was all fine — for a while. Then, the Packers had their second child and realized that this high-tuition model just wouldn’t work for their family.
As tuition passed $50,000, the creatives would dwindle and give way to the financials. I calculated that the precollege educations of our two children would cost more than $1.5 million after taxes. This was the practical reason to leave.
What?! Tuition was $50K per year for elementary school? That’s insane!
Besides, Mr. Woke realized that sticking his kid in a private school, even though it would give an excellent education with small class sizes (2 teachers for a class of 15) and paved an obstacle-free path straight to college, it didn’t fit with his liberal ideals.
But there was something else—another claim on us. The current phrase for it is social justice. I’d rather use the word democracy, because it conveys the idea of equality and the need for a common life among citizens. No institution has more power to form human beings according to this idea than the public school.
Packer found a new school for his son to attend, this one a public school. It also boasted had the progressive bona fides that set him at ease — deliberate manipulation to achieve demographics similar to the city’s; “child-centered” education model; and it was a public school which
This school was economically and racially mixed by design, with demographics that came close to matching the city’s population: 38 percent white, 29 percent black, 24 percent Latino, 7 percent Asian. That fact alone made the school a rarity in New York. Two-thirds of the students performed at or above grade level on standardized tests, which made the school one of the higher-achieving in the city (though we later learned that there were large gaps, as much as 50 percent, between the results for the wealthier, white students and the poorer, Latino and black students). And the school appeared to be a happy place. Its pedagogical model was progressive—“child centered”—based on learning through experience.
As rosy as the prospect of the new school seemed to be, the “child-centeredness” became a bit of a problem. The model was “learn through doing” and it meant a lot of hands-on work. Rote facts like the multiplication table were up to the parents to teach their kids if they wanted something more than the “discovery learning” model used at the school. As the years wore on, the Packer family got a bit tired of the crafts, but the friendships that their son had made over the years seemed to bring value to the experience. Packer noted the close friendship of his son with one black boy whose parents were Caribbean immigrants and worked blue-collar jobs — his father was a sanitation worker and his mother was a nanny — as proof that the diversity of the school was teaching their son that no one was better than anyone else.
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.
Then, things began to really change.
Packer says that the changes in public spaces — including schools — was in response to what he describes as an “angry” progressive movement devoid of hope in the post-Obama era fixated on systemic racial injustice.
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.
Step 1: Push-back on standardized tests because of the claim that they are racist.
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.”
The school chose to allow students to opt-out of standardized tests. However, this quickly became mandatory as the Packer family soon discovered. When Packer’s wife attended an “information session” for parents that was designed to explain the new option, she asked some questions that revealed that the family hadn’t yet decided to take the test or opt-out of them. She was then lectured that no one should want their kids to take the tests. Packer argues that the standardized tests had been used to improve under-performing schools which were largely schools with a high percentage of black and Latino students.
The Packer’s son was just one of 15 students to take the standardized tests against the wishes of teachers, school administrators, and a large percentage of the parents.
And then identity politics crept in centering around race and gender/sexuality. In an elementary school.
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 policy became a problem when a second-grade girl adopted male pronouns and changed her name to Q. Instead of creating one single-stall bathroom for this student, they decided a broader approach was necessary — get rid of single-gender bathrooms altogether. They did this without informing parents of the changes.
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.
…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.
Parents only learned about the new bathroom policy when students came home “desperate to get to the bathroom after holding it in all day.” Why were they doing that? “Girls told their parents mortifying stories of having a boy kick open their stall door. Boys described being afraid to use the urinals,” explains Packer.
The new bathroom policy was a disaster for students, and the kids found their way around it — they started using the bathrooms the old way despite the “students” sign on the doors. Boys were using the old boys’ bathroom and girls using the old girls’ bathroom.
Parents became divided staunchly defending their positions.
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.
As the conflict between bathrooms and standardized tests exploded in this public school, Packer began to realize that the knee-jerk adherence to dogmatic progressive ideology isn’t always the thing that is best for kids. He said that identitarianism started off the right way with the goal of equality for all, but ended up pushing people into boxes that are inescapable due to the immutable nature of ethnicity and the fixed hierarchy of oppression.
Packer, as Irving Kristol famously said, had been “mugged by reality” and discovered that conservative principles aren’t so bad after all.
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.
But Packer didn’t abandon his progressivism, because Trump! His wife took his young daughter to the Women’s March in Midtown Manhattan. His son, older and a bit more sanguine, realized that children don’t make much difference, and so refused to raise his fist in protest. Packer notes that self-loathing became an unexpected guest in his home with his daughter saying that she wished she wasn’t white so that she didn’t have the “legacy of slavery” on her conscience, and his son asked, “what are humans good for other than destroying the planet?”
Despite all of the politicized learning and the near-constant political discussions in their home, Packer lamented that his 10-year old son hadn’t yet studied civics, although he had studied the civilizations of “ancient China, Africa, the early Dutch in New Amsterdam, and the Mayans.”
It took having kids to realize that perhaps the reshaping of the world into the “progressive” ideal isn’t great for kids — leading to bullying, isolation, racism, divisions, and depression.
Watching your children grow up gives you a startlingly vivid image of the world you’re going to leave them. I can’t say I’m sanguine. Some days the image fills me with dread. That pragmatic genius for which Americans used to be known and admired, which included a talent for educating our young—how did it desert us? Now we’re stewing in anxiety and anger, feverish with bad ideas, too absorbed in our own failures to spare our children. But one day the fever will break, and by then they’ll be grown, and they will have to discover for themselves how to live together in a country that gives every child an equal chance.
Source: The Atlantic
What Packer seems to fail to realize is that the constant push for “progress” discards the historical pedagogical methods that actually work to educate kids and allow them to continue to be kids instead of easily pliable tools of political ideologues.
But hey, baby steps.