Every once in a while the red and blue clouds over the American political landscape seem to make way for something that sounds like an authentic human voice, one that doesn’t seem to be following a predictable ideological script. Today the Atlantic published a piece like that in which author Geroge Packer describes what it has been like to send his two kids to school in New York. This might have been just a story about failing schools or the difficulties of dealing with a big bureaucracy, but in Packer’s view the last decade has been much more than that. What he describes, from a very personal vantage, is the troubling rise of identity politics in education.
After two years in a $50,000 a year private school, Packer and his wife decided to send their son to a public school. He admits to a lot of hesitation about this. There’s a real sense that the public school system is a mix of good and bad and navigating it often depends on luck. If your child happens to get placed in the wrong school, the long-term results could be devastating.
One day I was at a local playground with our son when I fell into conversation with an elderly black woman who had lived in the neighborhood a long time and understood all about our school dilemma, which was becoming the only subject that interested me. She scoffed at our “zoned” school—it had been badly run for so long that it would need years to become passable. I mentioned a second school, half a dozen blocks away, that was probably available if we applied. Her expression turned to alarm. “Don’t send him there,” she said. “That’s a failure school. That school will always be a failure school.” It was as if an eternal curse had been laid on it, beyond anyone’s agency or remedy. The school was mostly poor and black. We assumed it would fail our children, because we knew it was failing other children.
Eventually, Packer’s son was admitted to a school which he describes as “a liberal white family’s dream.” Its classrooms were diverse and its test scores were fairly good. For a time it seemed they had found a sweet spot between the grind of meritocracy and concerns about egalitarianism.
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…
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.
This first lesson in the new progressivism came in the form of a school backlash against standardized testing. What started with a few parents concerns about the tests soon became a crusade which would eventually lead 95 percent of the parents at the school to opt their students out of the tests. Packer was one of the 5 percent who had his sone take the tests. He describes the moments leading up to this as a series of hushed conversations in which people were afraid to discuss diverging from the consensus view that the tests were bad and probably racist.
There is another story in the piece about the sudden switch to gender-neutral bathrooms caused by a single student. From his encounters with identity politics, Packer describes it and why he came to dislike it:
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 story goes on to discuss what sounds like the overthrowing of the old system of meritocracy. In a new plan announced by Mayor de Blasio, parents were not-so-subtly warned that they needed to get on board with the new plan or else:
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…
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.
There’s much more to the story and all of it is worth a read. What Packer describes from his very personal viewpoint as a left-leaning parent is the rise of illiberal progressivism, an ideology that, contrary to some, isn’t limited to excitable students at a few college campuses. As he points out, this is something that has already found its way into elementary schools in New York. How long before we see the kind of ideological outbursts at some of these high schools which we’ve already seen at Oberlin and Evergreen State?