A must-read account of how identity politics has destroyed public education in NYC

George Packer has a long essay in The Atlantic, When the Culture War Comes for the Kids, about education – public and private – in New York City. The arc of the piece is essentially a rich, white, ideologically progressive family becomes increasingly disillusioned with the education system in NYC as the same identity politics they obsess over in their private lives is actually applied in their kids’ classrooms with predictably insane, unfair, and demeaning consequences for the schoolchildren. They watch as their leftist ideals end up causing real economic and emotional harm to their kids’ minority friends as the education policy becomes ever more ridiculous. They also watch as their own children start to reject the political logic of their elders and all of the forces that are stripping away their childhood.

Parker’s piece starts off in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has ever listened to rich, white, ideologically progressive people in NYC bitch about the private school admission process. The tuition over $50,000 is bad, not because of the cost, but because the cost means someone who writes for The Atlantic and The New Yorker will have to send their kids to a school with the offspring of “financials” – as if the worst thing you could conceive of is your kid socializing with the son of a hedge fund manager instead of artists. And then there are the gripes about having to go through a rigorous interview process to get your two-year-old into a private school that won’t kill their chances as getting into Harvard before they can even read. And then there is the aching concern that maybe populations that are spending $1.5 million cumulatively on K-12 education might not be very diverse, and how could you justify that to your chic, liberal friends? (As if the author actually has diverse friends, lol.) Oh, the humanity. Someone alert the United Nations.

His kid gets routinely rejected and placed on waiting lists to get into these elite institutions, and the author worries that maybe it’s because the admissions officers do not like him very much.

You can’t tell if it’s borne of necessity or political ideology, but the author decides to send his kids to public schools. He describes, with some perverse measure of pride, how bad the physical environments are at NYC public schools versus the private schools he had toured:

The public school was housed in the lower floors of an old brick building, five stories high and a block long, next to an expressway. A middle and high school occupied the upper floors. The building had the usual grim features of any public institution in New York—steel mesh over the lower windows, a police officer at the check-in desk, scuffed yellow walls, fluorescent lights with toxic PCBs, caged stairwells, ancient boilers and no air conditioners—as if to dampen the expectations of anyone who turned to government for a basic service. The bamboo flooring and state-of-the-art science labs of private schools pandered to the desire for a special refuge from the city. Our son’s new school felt utterly porous to it.

His kids are going to attend shitty schools with bad test scores, but at least they will learn to resent their privilege, and that’s all that matters. No, really, this is his argument. What a great dad.

When he was making this decision, it was before the 2016 election, and before identity politics went from being a status symbol for rich, white, ideologically progressive New Yorkers – which to him seemed harmless enough – and became a bona fide national obsession. He slowly watches as identity politics becomes substantially all of the content of education in NYC.

It started with his kids’ schools dispensing with standardized testing altogether because test scores are racist:

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 ….

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.

We took the school at face value when it said that this decision was ours to make. My wife attended a meeting for parents, billed as an “education session.” But when she asked a question that showed we hadn’t made up our minds about the tests, another parent quickly tried to set her straight. The question was out of place—no one should want her child to take the tests. The purpose of the meeting wasn’t to provide neutral information.

Whereas the school, years ago, had adopted an admissions structure intended to integrate children across socioeconomic backgrounds, they started deliberately splintering the children into groups according to race and other factors. This is apparently very common in NYC 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.

And then there is the wall art, intended to put students in their place as they walk to their locker:

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.” …. This language is now not uncommon in the education world. A teacher in Saratoga Springs, New York, found a “privilege-reflection form” online with an elaborate method of scoring, and administered it to high-school students, unaware that the worksheet was evidently created by a right-wing internet troll—it awarded Jews 25 points of privilege and docked Muslims 50.

And then there was the case of the second-grader who came out as transgender, prompting school officials to make all bathrooms gender neutral. Yep, if you were a fifth grade boy, the girls in your class got to watch you use the urinal in the name of progress:

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.

The author notes that, by age 10, his son had learned all about other civilizations around the world, but had no idea how the American republic was founded and why. Instead, his study of history was about more politically correct forms of activism than the Founding Fathers:

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.

Over time, the kids all begin rebelling against the moral authoritarianism of the adults in their life, which is evolving into ever more bizarre standards of what is and is not acceptable behavior:

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?

Imagine being a seventh-grader who is himself the only functional adult in his world.

The piece ends with the author caving and sending his younger child to a STEM-focused private school because she was bored out of her mind in the politically correct public school starting in kindergarten. Because she actually wanted to learn something, and the school was teaching nothing except how to sit still and listen to your teacher spew their hateful politics.

If you want to know why millions of American parents are homeschooling now, this is why. Americans are sick to death of this garbage. Children are sick to death of this garbage.

Florida is getting its own Wall Street thanks to tax reform

When I was a government economist, the orthodoxy in microeconomics was that people rarely ever moved over taxes. This has always struck me as incorrect, and I used to get into so many fights about it. I finally get to be proven right as people see the consequences of tax reform. (Yes, I am enjoying that.)

One of the pieces of evidence folks on the other side would cite is the willingness of very wealthy people to live in high-tax states like California, Illinois, or New York. To them, it was “proof” that lifestyle factors would outweigh less sexy things like taxes.

Getting this right is a pretty big deal to economists, because part of your job is “scoring” tax plans, or making predictions about how much new tax revenue a tax increase would bring in. If you thought people would roll over and pay the additional taxes, then a tax increase could be counted on to fund a bunch of new spending priorities. If you thought a tax increase would make them change their behavior, then you had a bit of a problem balancing your budget. It’s also a very big deal if your state or local government is taking on bonded debt to finance public works or infrastructure projects. You need to know that your tax revenue will be secure for decades to pay for public investments like those.

My argument to that has been that it’s the federal tax code that insulates high-tax states from their fiscal realities. Until last year, celebrities living in mansions in Malibu could push some of the tax costs for their lifestyle onto steelworkers in Philadelphia. That is to say, they weren’t being forced to decide between taxes and their lifestyle. You were paying their state and local taxes for them. Aren’t you nice?

In the upside-down world that Democrats now live in, the old federal tax code protected the middle class and tax reform is subsidizing wealthy people. This is an objectively false claim – most federal taxpayers don’t even itemize, and the legislation literally doubled the standard deduction – that can be directly refuted by looking at actual Treasury data. (Don’t count on 25-year-old journalism majors to sift through economic data though. Brainlessly repeating their favorite politicians is so much easier.)

But there is an anther piece of empirical evidence that suggests the old tax regime was largely benefiting rich people: rich people are now deciding to leave high-tax states, and they are doing it in droves. And they are taking their businesses with them. As I mentioned in my earlier piece, extreme wealth is extremely portable.

They now finally have to pay what they owe to live there. They can’t shift that burden to you. You aren’t being nice and subsidizing their Hamptons lifestyle anymore with the income you earn at your 9-to-5 gig. And being rational economic actors, rich people are now choosing to become taxpayers in states with more fiscally responsible governments.

Thanks to evil conservatives enacting tax reform and New York’s punitive tax system, Florida (specifically Miami) is getting its own Wall Street now. Billionaire investor Carl Icahn is moving his New York hedge fund to Florida next year. He is offering his employees $50,000 each to relocate to Florida with him. (Those who stay get fired with no severance.) He’s following several other hedge fund billionaires, including David Tepper, Paul Tudor Jones, and Eddie Lampert. And where the money managers go, traditional corporate headquarters will probably follow. See the fight over Amazon’s second headquarters for guidance on how jobs follow tax strategies.

This is an interesting shift in our country. You have younger generations relocating en masse to states with lavish government spending. You have the wealth moving away from them. This means state and local governments that are financially and politically dysfunctional now will probably only become more so.

You have younger generations that are skeptical of capitalism and trying socialism on for size. They have politicians who likely do know better selling them on the idea that they can successfully take wealth from people like Carl Icahn and use it to fund health care entitlements and student loan relief. But you can watch in real time how that won’t happen.

(You couldn’t raise tens of trillions of dollars taxing these folks even if they did just roll over and pay higher taxes. Biden and Klobouchar tried to point that out to an unwilling audience last night. Democratic spending proposals can now be measured in multiples of GDP, rather than fractions of GDP. (I keep telling Millennial friends that they should worry about how they are unlikely to see a dime of Social Security or pension income, let alone receive “free” health care. There isn’t a single entitlement program in this country that is solvent over the medium term.)

It’s bizarre to think about, but our nation is essentially sorting itself into numerate and innumerate populations over taxation and economic resentment. And the two groups are going to have wildly different qualities of life.

Hurricane relief and nonprofit transparency

Like many Floridians, I am nursing a bit of survivor’s guilt about Hurricane Dorian and the Bahamas. If Dorian had not lingered for so long over the Bahamas, Florida likely would have received a much harder hit from the storm.

I have seen a lot of efforts here to provide assistance to folks in the Bahamas, which is not surprising. The Bahamas are less than a day’s trip by boat from the coast here, and our cultures are thoroughly intertwined. Just today, we were at an ice cream parlor where they were giving a fraction of their revenues to aid the Bahamas. That’s a theme in businesses up and down the A1A.

But I am hearing other stories as well. We ordered a safe for our home this week, and one of the chaps delivering it had been a military contractor for a while and still has friends doing similar work. He said that after the hurricane, many of these ex-military folk were traveling to the Bahamas in their own boats and planes, bringing food and other supplies to help people out. He said the government there was turning them all away. One of them even received a citation as a business interest for landing there. I was stunned. In the US, when the likes of the Cajun Navy shows up after a storm, no one ever turns them away. In the US, the Coast Guard recruits civilians and their boats for search and rescue missions.

This is the second time in recent memory where hurricane relief seemed to be overwhelmed by corrupt dealings (the other is Puerto Rico, which has involved indictments). It makes me wonder where all of this money being raised by charities is even going.

When you donate money to an established charity with a mission that may be urgent, but not as incredibly urgent as hurricane relief, you have a whole lot of transparency. But are standards lowered when a charity has raised a bunch of money quickly and has to demonstrate it going somewhere? How do you even make an intelligent decision in this context?

Medical catastrophes are not stories about health insurance

When it comes to opinions about health care, there are two kinds of Americans. No, I do not mean Republicans and Democrats. There are (1) people who have actually experienced a medical catastrophe, and (2) people who have not yet experienced a medical catastrophe. (But don’t worry – you and your loved ones are not immortal. You will learn what it means to be vulnerable eventually.) I used to be a government economist, and I can tell you… the policy wonks have no idea when it comes to the myriad problems with health care. This reality is why so many people of all political persuasions hate the “establishment.”

By my reckoning, I have now experienced four medical catastrophes. A family member miraculously survived an aortic aneurysm, something that is damn near universally fatal. A family member survived a horrific car accident that involved being cut from a car with the Jaws of Life and required a month-long stay in the ICU. I gave birth to a critically ill child. And, as followers of this blog know, my husband recently accidentally swallowed a metal needle from a grill brush that worked its way through his entire digestive tract, requiring a week-long hospitalization.

Needless to say, I have learned a heck of a lot more than I ever wanted to learn about how health care and long-term care works in this country over the last ten years. I’ve navigated the nuances of government programs in several states. Our household has been covered by the best private insurance that money can buy and by Obamacare plans. I can tell you that private insurance is a hell of a lot better than what was offered under Obamacare. Honestly, I think Obamacare is deeply immoral and far-from-progressive policy.

A little digression on Obamacare

For the couple of years that we had an Obamacare plan in Kentucky (because there were no good private options available to self-employed individuals), it was an absolute nightmare. I had to get our daughter’s kindergarten vaccinations at a public university hospital because literally no pediatrician in our city would accept Obamacare. None. I called every single one. It was the first question their secretaries asked when they picked up the phone, even before asking your name or the age of your child. “Do you have Obamacare? We do not accept it. You will have to pay for your appointment in cash, up-front.” The hospital knew that it had a captive group of customers too, which is why a 15-minute appointment with a nurse practitioner at the children’s hospital there cost twice as much as the permissible amount for a doctor’s visit under Obamacare. They essentially got to bill twice for services, knowing that customers would end up having to pay the gap. They could go nowhere else for care because their insurance cards were radioactive.

Staying under Obamacare, we would have been forced to pay over $1,000 a month to a nonprofit that had only been in the insurance business for a couple years because every big insurer had been driven out of the state. We might as well have been uninsured from a financial perspective. That’s not quality health care, but we counted as “insured” for government statistical purposes, which is all that mattered to the program’s proponents. They continue to congratulate themselves for doing this to people. They radically transformed your life!

And that was without a catastrophic event, which would have cost us tens of thousands of dollars even under Obamacare. We could have handled that expense, but I know most American households would have been sent over the edge. The notion that Obamacare is saving normal households from health care-driven bankruptcy is an outright lie, and people like Bernie Sanders are correct to point that out. And really all you need to do to understand that is to get a simple quote.

You know why the level of uninsured is increasing now that the Trump administration has removed the tax penalty for not carrying insurance? Because Obamacare was always bullshit as far as coverage goes and young people now have the freedom to choose to be uninsured rather than being fleeced for coverage that they do not perceive a real need for. I’m not saying being uninsured is a good idea, but it is undeniable that they are doing what they think a rational economic actor should do under the circumstances.

The Affordable Care Act was nothing but a giant Medicaid expansion. If you are on Medicaid and were marginally qualified before in terms of means testing, you love the ACA. If you actually purchased coverage on an exchange, which is quite different from Medicaid, it is pure unadulterated hell to deal with. And chances are you are choosing not to see a doctor when you actually need care because it costs so much to do.

The whole logic of Obamacare was to end the practice of people going to the emergency room for standard health care. Guess what? If you go to the ER a decade into the Obamacare era, you still have a three-hour wait to get into a room. Be sure to tell them you have difficulty breathing and are in excruciating pain. It’s about the only thing that will help you see a doctor within five hours. If you don’t do that, you will be waiting behind sixty families who really only need antibiotics that have already learned how to game the system. I watched my husband sit for several hours with a needle lodged in his throat while doctors saw a parade of people who were there before us with colds and the like. The ER is still where a lot of people are getting care, even with a litany of subsidized programs.

Hospitals charge immense amounts for phantom care

But anyway, the point is to talk about why looking at health care from an insurer’s perspective is useless. Changing who the bills go to will not cure the system. In fact, having taxpayers absorb everything will probably make it much worse. Much like allowing college students to borrow virtually unlimited amounts of money from the federal government at subsidized interest rates jacked up the cost of college astronomically.

I am thoroughly convinced that Democrats have absolutely no idea what insurance of any kind is. I mean, they can’t explain how it functions as a financial instrument. They talk about it as if it’s a newspaper subscription instead of a risk pool that redistributes costs. There is an episode of the comedy show Superstore that offers an excellent parody of this mentality. The episode where the annoyingly idealistic and naive Jonah creates an employee health care fund for the store, only to discover that half the employees routinely milk the system and the risk associated with their health costs could not be reasonably divided among the employees even if they were all rich. I highly recommend hunting it down so you can appreciate exactly how stupid Obamacare is. And how Medicare for All is even worse. It is hilarious either one has made it past the thought experiment stage.

If you have ever had a loved one in the hospital, you understand that most hospitals are financial predators masquerading as charities. When my husband was in the hospital recently – to be monitored, which means he saw a doctor for five minutes a day, and even then we had to explain to the latest doctor on call what was going on – the hospital charged us … no kidding, here…. $1,000 per hour for the hospital stay. It was the most expensive daytime television our family had ever watched. To be monitored overnight for the first hospital he was at resulted in a bill for $24,000. The hospital did absolutely nothing to improve his situation during that time (in fact, they arguably made it worse). Over twenty thousand dollars to lay in a bed.

When our daughter was in the NICU after being born, the hospital charged us around $30 for every package of baby wipes she required. Each day, we watched the nurses open a package of baby wipes every time she needed to be changed, and then toss the package and remaining wipes in the trash afterwards. They were the same way with packages of gauze, and many other things. If we had known that we would be paying $30 a pop for something you could get for $1 at Walmart, we would have seen the whole episode differently. The charges from specialists were nothing compared to the overall cost of being hospitalized, which in the end was well over $1.5 million.

I have a friend who is in perfect health – perhaps too perfect health, because she injured her knee as a marathoner and had to have some ligaments fixed. For OUTPATIENT surgery, she was charged $75,000. She was in and out of the hospital in three hours, with a $75,000 bill. Did she get the world’s best knee surgery because she lives in the United States instead of Mexico? I doubt it. This is why medical tourism exists.

Now you can say, hey, at least you guys had insurance, so you aren’t eating the actual cost of those procedures. That is missing the point. The point is that the procedures are not actually worth that much money. The hospitals and pharmaceutical companies are gouging prices the same way colleges and universities are now gouging prices on tuition. Baby Boomers paid next to nothing for college and now an undergraduate degree alone costs a quarter of a million dollars – and arguably the product has decreased in practical value in the meantime. The only thing that changed was the perception of how much families should be willing to sacrifice financially for something that is pretty basic.

The federal government rewards hospitals and health care providers for antisocial behavior. They reward them with a tax exemption under the federal tax code. They reward them with grants and line-item appropriations. They reward them with bundled fees for entitlement programs. You go bankrupt, but these “nonprofits” get subsidized. They get subsidized so much that hospital administrators can buy all the hookers and blow they want for three lifetimes.

The problem is not private health insurance. The fact that private health insurers can turn any profits for their shareholders in this policy environment is insane. We live in an era where insurers are opting not to do business in regions altogether, and presidential candidates think they are Rockefellers.

If you want to fix health care, you need to start with the actual institutions that are providing care. Not the people who are pooling risk using financial technology that dates back to Ancient Greece and hasn’t changed one iota.

And for what it is worth, this same financially predatory behavior is being imitated by dentists nationwide too. You go see a dentist now and you are going to come away with a treatment plan that costs as much as a yacht even if your teeth are fine. If you are poor, you can go to some medieval joint in a strip mall where the patients can’t take out a home equity line of credit for Instagram-worthy smiles. Hospitals have gotten away with it for so long, they are joining in the great health care bubble.

Games for teaching young children a foreign language

We started our young daughter (seven years old) on Latin this year. She absolutely loves Latin, and I think a lot of that is due to the Song School Latin program from Classical Academic Press. At this stage, she is primarily learning new vocabulary and simple phrases. We are gently introducing some of the grammar, but that’s not the focus yet.

A lot of folks ask me how we have such a young child studying Latin. The answer is to make it as fun as possible. That means lots of songs and lots of games. I have seen other programs (like Memoria Press) that are based on rote learning. That is simply not a good way to teach gifted children, in my opinion. All children loathe boredom, but gifted children completely shut down with boredom.

Anyway, here are some games that we’ve found very useful for learning new vocabulary (and you can apply them to any foreign language).

Simon Says – This is a preschool favorite, but brilliant for teaching a foreign language. You do not need to limit it to parts of the body, either. You can do commands of all sorts. (Simon says dance. Simon says sing. Simon says point to the youngest person in the room. Etc.)

Bring Me – Name something in your physical environment for your child to fetch. It does not have to be obvious, either. (Bring me a red book. Bring me something you love. Bring me something you do not like. Bring me something that belongs to the dog.)

Scavenger Hunt – Give your child a list of clues in a foreign language with a prize at the end. This is an opportunity to include directions or make them ask someone else for information.

Grocery List – Make a list of things to buy in a foreign language while you are out shopping. This is great for introducing quantities and counting too.

Matching Games or Memory – Write the foreign language vocabulary and translations on index cards. If the child can pair them all correctly, they get a prize.

Write a Book or Story – Young children love writing stories or narrating stories. A fun twist is to use as many foreign words or phrases as possible. It’s sort of a more intelligent version of writing with emoji.

One thing I find amusing is how much Elise has started working Latin into everyday conversation. Because building a vocabulary has been a game, she now almost invents her own games by seeing how many things she can name. It’s like how kids become secret counters when they start learning new math skills.

She has also become very curious about word origins, since I mention the word origins of everything (or we Google them in the middle of conversations). We are talking about lizards, so we look up the origin of the word reptile. From the Latin, to creep. The Romans used arches frequently in architecture, and the word for rainbow is arcus. If you have your children doing this when they are very young, imagine how familiar with language they will be as teenagers.

George Will on the value of a classical education

To those who say we are threatened by a suffocating “hegemony” of Western civilization’s classic works, the correct response is: If only that were the problem. The danger is not cultural hegemony but cultural amnesia, and the concomitant balkanization of the life of the mind.

George Will, The Conservative Sensibility

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been working my way through George Will’s new tome on political philosophy and history, The Conservative Sensibility. It is an excellent read, even if (especially if) you do not share Will’s political biases. (I do, however.)

The general purpose of the book is to provide a timeline for where the dueling conservative and progressive strains in American political thought emerged and developed. I don’t think there is much controversial content in what Will writes on that account. Conservatives are people who see themselves in the Enlightenment and neo-classicism of the nation’s Founding Fathers; progressives are creatures of Nietzsche’s postmodernism. For folks who did not receive a solid liberal arts education, however, the easy manner in which Will distills historical events and philosophical shifts could be very helpful in understanding how they are situated among moral and other conflicts.

My favorite chapter of the book so far is Will’s defense of a classical education. I think it is safe to suggest that – at least in American public schools and universities – there is a crisis regarding what exactly an education should do for a child or young adult. Education in the US from kindergarten through graduate school has been colonized by Nietzschean progressives who see “virtue” in turning their backs on what have been historically regarded as “the classics.” And they’ve replaced the classics with… Well, a whole lot of nothing, actually.

For most of K-12 education, there is no serious attention paid to history or literature or languages (certainly not the dead languages of the world’s greatest civilizations), which are now often portrayed as tools of oppression. Most attention is paid to subjects that can be easily measured by standardized tests, and by all accounts schools are failing at teaching them as well. If you look at the gaps in academic performance between kids who attend public schools and kids who attend private schools or are homechooled, one thing is clear: kids who are raised on the classics are more literate and analytical individuals. They are challenged intellectually earlier in life and their sense of learning is more systematic and less chaotic. This has been a formula for success for millennia, but educators in the 21st century are rejecting it with predictable results. (This is quite ironic too, as the founder of postmodernism was himself an impressive classicist. I used to be able to read Nietzsche in his original German, and the wordplay with Greek and Latin was fantastic. I don’t think he anticipated his disciples abandoning his intelligence altogether, but here we are.)

Folks on the left love to portray everything as an “existential crisis.” It’s Armageddon 24-7 in their world. Electing a Republican president means a nuclear holocaust is coming. We are at full employment, wages are rising, asset prices are increasing broadly, consumers are happier than they have ever been, demand for benefits is down, but a recession is just around the corner – as if a recession is just going to sneak up on you out of nowhere, because that’s totally how economics works. I read a news article recently that was predicting doom based on the obviously standard economic indicator of recreational vehicle sales. Is it possible to get less serious than that? Americans have endured several decades now of environmentalists predicting the end of life on Earth without trillions of dollars of new investment. When I was a kid growing up in the 80s and 90s, aerosol cans were the era’s plastic straws, because a younger, but substantially similar Al Gore thought the hole in the ozone layer would kill off life on Earth. (In reality, it closed up on its own and he moved on to selling other forms of doom because he has no other shtick.) Now we have politicians saying that we need to support black and brown people in developing nations killing their babies because otherwise they will steal all our natural resources. We need genocide for the environment – that’s a real claim made by liberal political elites in 2019, and they wonder why kids these days feel okay hurting their peers.

The older I get, the more absurd claims that it’s all going to collapse any day now seem. The world never ends; the Chicken Littles in politics just retire to a beach house bought from a lifetime of brokering government contracts. A beach house they spent their life arguing would be underwater thanks to global warming, like the Obamas new mansion on Martha’s Vineyard. That’s how seriously they take their own panics. It’s like Paul Krugman predicting global economic collapse with Trump’s election. If he had actually put his money where his mouth was and went massively short the financial markets, he’d be bankrupt. Because the world didn’t end, because people in the real economy rightfully don’t care about the dystopian fantasies of the chattering class.

The one sector that these folks do not see Armageddon in is the one they probably should: education. The US has long been losing its intellectual hegemony to other countries. Even the Chinese are increasingly choosing to keep their children at domestic universities rather than send them to the American Ivy League. And who can blame them? All US schools are doing now is cranking out kids that will be easily replaced with algorithms (likely written by their peers in India and China). That is a bona fide existential crisis.

America desperately needs to turn its educational institutions around. Right now, the classroom is seen as space for indoctrination rather than a place to teach kids how to succeed and flourish in the real world. We won’t continue to be a superpower or have the world’s largest economy unless we can produce future generations who are willing and able to compete for that status.

Unfortunately, this is at its core a political problem. What postmodernists believe necessarily makes them destructive educators. We did not place astronauts on the Moon by believing that there are no facts, only interpretations. Cancer won’t be cured by opinions. There’s a reason why the Enlightenment was a period of great discovery and the space program died when the hippies of the 1960s went into government and got jobs as teachers.

US taxpayers across the local, state, and federal levels of government spend roughly $1 trillion every year on education. Think about that for a second. One trillion dollars annually. That’s the scale of bad investment in postmodernism right now. We don’t need to throw more money at education consultants and academics to invent ever-new philosophies of education.

The answer to improving education is pretty simple. You want smarter kids? Read better stuff to them. George Will gets that.