Sunday, September 22, 2019

George Packer and the NYC Public Schools

George Packer has a long essay in the Atlantic explaining how his experience sending children to the New York City public schools turned him against progressivism. New York has a crazy system with all different kinds of schools -- neighborhood schools, regional schools, magnet schools, charter schools -- and educated parents desperately game the system to get their kids into what are considered the best schools. This creates all kinds of moral traps for a liberal, since the "better" schools are much whiter than the system as a whole. Anyway Packer's kids eventually ended up in a neighborhood school that was a little weird -- no multiplication, a year-long unit on the geology and bridges of the city -- but ethnically mixed, with committed teachers and plenty of learning. His son was happy there.

The problems started when the city started allowing parents to opt out of standardized testing, and the principal launched a crusade to get the whole school to opt out of what she considered racist tests that put too much stress on students. Packer notes that although this caused huge anxiety to the parents his son seemed not to care at all, and found the test no more stressful than any other day. For the father, though, the experience felt like a totalitarian attempt to shame him into renouncing his own principles. It was the first of many.

Then came the bathroom blow-up, when to satisfy one trans kid the principal proclaimed all the bathrooms in the school unisex, without bothering to inform the parents. After a lot of drama, the kids simply ignored the new signs and went back to using the bathrooms that used to be assigned to their sex. Eventually the school system, in a moment of sanity, announced a policy that schools had to have one unisex bathroom but the rest could remain gendered.

Then came one of the other weird things about the NYC system, the competitive exams for middle school. Packer's son went through the testing and ended up in a school he and his parents found satisfactory, but the next year Mayor de Blasio eliminated the exams as racist and unfair. There was a meeting at Packer's son's school, but the presenter merely announced the change and then refused to answer questions.
De Blasio's schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, has answered critics of the diversity initiative by calling them out for racism and refusing to let them "silence" him. As part of the initiative, Carranza has mandated anti-bias training for every employee of the school system, at a cost of $23 million. On training slide was titled "White Supremacist 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.
Packer summarizes his thinking:
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 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.
Listen, people of the left, when you lose the George Packers of the world, you have lost every election before a single vote is counted.

I worry that if we can't get identity politics under control there is no future for liberalism in America.

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