Rich people problems.
That was the most common critical response to the story I published last week about parents alarmed by the ideology that has captured their children’s elite, exclusive and expensive schools.
As author — and former Harry Reid staffer — Adam Jentleson put it on Twitter: “Instead of paying many thousands of dollars for an education they don’t seem to like, why not send their kids to the schools in their very own neighborhoods? They’re free!”
Great idea! The problem is that those schools have also been infected by the same ideological virus.
As I wrote:
The incoming New York City schools chancellor is a vocal proponent of critical race theory. In Burbank, the school district just told middle- and high school teachers to stop teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. The Sacramento school district is promoting racial segregation by way of “racial affinity groups,” where students can “cultivate racial solidarity and compassion and support each other in sitting with the discomfort, confusion, and numbness that often accompany white racial awakening.” The San Diego school district recently held a training in which white teachers were told that they “spirit murder” black children.
As you might imagine, that’s the very tip of the iceberg.
There’s far more reporting needed here, and if we had a press with more sensible priorities you wouldn’t have to rely on newsletters or select Twitter feeds to expose it. (I’ll be writing about what’s going on in our public schools, for sure, though I need to take a bit of a breather your sake as much as my own.)
The second response to the story, directed at the anonymous parents I interviewed, can be summarized in two short words: nut up.
Dalton parents, Harvard-Westlake parents, Brentwood parents, Fieldston parents: these are the 1 percent who possess 99 percent more options than most Americans, readers said. At the very least, they have the financial cushion, the professional standing and the social network that should make speaking out against this ideology far easier than it is for those parents who have no choice other than their local public school.
This criticism has it exactly right.
I was, and remain, fascinated by a paradox that I keep encountering. It goes like this: The very people who seem to possess the greatest ability to speak out against this illiberalism — what Niall Ferguson recently called “totalitarianism without a dictator” — are generally the most quiet. In the meantime, the people with the least insulation generally roar the loudest.
This isn’t always the case, but it applies as a general rule. Maybe it’s just the logic of the Dylan lyric: “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” When you can’t afford to move to another town or can’t pay for the school of your choosing, you have no choice but to fight for your neighborhood or your child’s school.
In the mid-1990s, David Brooks coined the phrase Status-Income Disequilibrium — or SID — to describe, well, people like him. Those in possession of high-status jobs, without the paycheck to back it up. Editors, journalists, museum curators, publishers, foundation officers and various other SID-sufferers, he explained, are the kind of people who “lunch on an expense account at The Palm, but dine at home on macaroni,” he wrote. The essay remains marvelous.
We have a different sort of disequilibrium at work here. Call it Status-Testicles Disequilibrium, or STD for short.
One father who reached out last week is not unique in suffering from this malady: “Even though I wholeheartedly agree with everything in your story, and find it all very disturbing to me, and have experienced it all firsthand, telling you my story doesn’t really get me anywhere,” he wrote. “So in the end, I’m no better than any other parent in your article — sad but true.” Indeed.
But Gabrielle Clark, a single, biracial mother in Nevada, is not similarly afflicted. In December, she filed suit in the Federal District Court in Nevada against Public Charter School Democracy Prep et al., claiming the school violated her son’s basic First Amendment rights by “repeatedly compelling his speech involving intimate matters of race, gender, sexuality and religion.” You can read the whole filing here.
Why is Clark doing this? When I asked her that over the phone a few days ago she seemed baffled by the question. “It’s wrong,” she told me. “Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? The idea that this would be viewed as exceptional, to her, is a scandal: “This shouldn’t be a heroic act. This should just be the way.”
“I’m just interested in doing the right thing for my kid. Other parents should do the right thing for their kids,” she said. “And if that means taking it to them, you’ve got to take it to them.”
My sensei, the writer Caitlin Flanagan, says that there’s a saying in journalism that you have to publish stories to get stories. I’ve never heard the phrase until this past week, but it’s bang on. Thank you to everyone who commented or emailed me directly with tips and responses. I’m sharing some of the most interesting and most critical ones below.
The first comes from a parent at a prep school in Taiwan.
He shared a letter from the head of his children’s school about an upcoming presentation aimed at preparing students for the world beyond graduation. While the school “may be seen as a safe cultural bubble”, students must learn how “their cultural identities intersect with privilege and oppression in the global context.” While STEM English language skills are “important,” the announcement went on, “diversity and equality literacy are the most sought-after skills in any given field, school, and position when the global platform is the stage where the students will perform.”
If you want proof that America still possesses plenty of soft power, look no further.
Several parents in multiracial families wrote to say that their familial experience, more than any abstract principle, was at the core of their problem with Critical Race Theory. One said she felt it was forcing her kids to choose one parent, or one side of the family, over another.
Brandon, for example, emailed me this:
I work in biotech and I was terrified to speak out against anything considered untouchable by woke politics. Then I did it and I survived.
I am a white-skinned mixed-ethnicity person with roots in Mesopotamia, North Africa and Europe. I am an American Assyrian. I spoke up and demanded an apology after a town hall in summer of 2020 that asked white-skinned employees to engage with company provided workshops based on “White Fragility.” (Frank Dikötter’s account of China at the outset of the Cultural Revolution was ringing in my ears.)
I am caught in the middle, always. I am descended from an ethnic group that has been the victim of thousands of years of genocide. My wife is half Venezuelan. What will my daughters do? They are both light-skinned, yet carry the blood of Assyria in the same veins as the blood of African slaves. Their Abuelito is a descendant of those slaves. Should they, too, be required to fall on a sword to appease this madness?
I heard from a handful of current students and alumni of these schools who felt I wasn’t getting it right. Stephen, a Dalton alum, worried I was indulging in what the writer David French has termed nut-picking. “Yes, there are some crazies at Dalton, but I do not think they are actually representative.”
Dalton was an amazing place for me. It taught me to write better than most of my peers in college or law school. It nurtured my passions. It exposed me to big ideas and classic works from the U.S. and abroad. I was taught John Locke, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke. I learned to idolize George Washington, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln. At no point was I told that these dead white men were anything but essential.
Dalton’s got big problems these days. I won’t deny it. I don’t mind seeing the school take some punches in the press. It deserves some. But I would hate for you to think that the school is rotten to its core. I don’t think that’s accurate. It’s a more complicated place, and there are many voices within Dalton that fearlessly call out the bullshit.
Fancy private schools on the Upper East Side, no matter their flaws, offer an education that other schools around the country should aspire to.
Meantime, Thomas, a Harvard-Westlake senior who is a member of student government, said that the parents I interviewed “grossly misrepresented the school.” The goal of “the revamped curriculum, school-wide events, and anti-racist commitment is not to indoctrinate students, it's to provide spaces for conversations that would never have been possible a year ago,” he wrote, adding:
In regards to the collective guilt claim, the school has never suggested that white students bear any responsibility for systemic racism in the U.S., nor has the idea been entertained by any school-wide speaker we have had. What the school has done is allowed students of color to express their lived experiences, which white students (like myself) will never be able to fully comprehend. Just as non-Jewish students struggle to understand what it is like to grow up as a Jew in America, white students will never fully understand the lived experiences of students of color. We can’t just blind ourselves to skin color and all ‘just be wolverines.’ That would undermine the equality the school is striving for.
Many people wrote to say that these parents were being cowardly.
Lydia’s email was representative of that view:
I went to one of these schools, and my children attend another. We are the sorts of parents you describe: my parents were born, raised, and married in a then-communist dictatorship in eastern Europe. Thanks to their efforts, I was born in New York City a few years after their immigration. I think all of this hand-wringing is fear-mongering. You can be a capitalist in public without fear of consequence. Encourage your sources to give it a try.
But Carmen wrote in the comments:
Sorry, but us parents DO deserve a lot of sympathy: Figuring out where to send our daughter to school — how to get in, how to pay for it — was the single most stressful thing we went through as parents in the first five years. And when I say how to get in, I’m not talking about Dalton. Even the good public schools come with wait lists and lotteries. You have to apply well in advance and you have to be able to afford to live in a good district or catchment area. And once you finally get past those hurdles, when you find out (thanks largely to remote schooling) that the constant, relentless ideology makes this institution intolerable for your family, there is the sheer horror of wondering what the alternative is. It’s easy to pull your kid out, but she has to go somewhere. Where? You can research schools by academic ratings, but not by ideology.
That last point — that you can research schools according to their academic performance but not according to their ideological bent — is true. At the moment, parents rely on word-of-mouth to discern which schools, in their language, have “fallen.” It seems to me that such a rating system is an excellent little business idea. The more expensive and more transformative idea is, of course, is starting new schools.
Which takes me to the last — and most complicated — bit: What should parents do?
AF wrote: “We are transferring our daughters to the local Catholic parish school — which is a very good school — for next year and beyond. I really don’t give a fart if they go to Yale someday.”
AF, you made me lol.
Tim Urban, a writer I admire, suggested scrapping college altogether:
And Caitlin — who used to teach English at Harvard-Westlake — had the most radical suggestion of all: “A $50,000-a-year school can’t be anything but a very expensive consumer product for the rich. If these schools really care about equity, all they need to do is get a chain & a padlock & close up shop.” Read the whole essay.
To support Gabrielle Clark’s lawsuit, please visit her GoFundMe, which is being organized by the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, where I am a member of the board of advisors.
Tonight at 6 PM PST I’ll be talking about all of these themes on Clubhouse with Caitlin and two other friends: Adam Rubenstein (ex-NYT) and Reihan Salam, the head of the Manhattan Institute. Join us!