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.

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