Our son underwent his first school interview soon after turning 2. He’d been using words for about a year. An admissions officer at a private school with brand-new, beautifully and sustainably constructed art and dance studios gave him a piece of paper and crayons. While she questioned my wife and me about our work, our son drew a yellow circle over a green squiggle.And yet, as we'll see, the Packers (not to be confused with the ones in Green Bay) are every bit as determined as those "amoral finance people" to get their spawn the best possible start at ticking the boxes (the right high school, the right extracurriculars, the right university, the right networking opportunities.)
Rather coolly, the admissions officer asked him what it was. “The moon,” he said. He had picked this moment to render his very first representational drawing, and our hopes rose. But her jaw was locked in an icy and inscrutable smile.
Later, at a crowded open house for prospective families, a hedge-fund manager from a former Soviet republic told me about a good public school in the area that accepted a high percentage of children with disabilities. As insurance against private school, he was planning to grab a spot at this public school by gaming the special-needs system—which, he added, wasn’t hard to do.
Wanting to distance myself from this scheme, I waved my hand at the roomful of parents desperate to cough up $30,000 for preschool and said, “It’s all a scam.” I meant the whole business of basing admissions on interviews with 2-year-olds. The hedge-fund manager pointed out that if he reported my words to the admissions officer, he’d have one less competitor to worry about.
When the rejection letter arrived, I took it hard as a comment on our son, until my wife informed me that the woman with the frozen smile had actually been interviewing us. We were the ones who’d been rejected. We consoled ourselves that the school wasn’t right for our family, or we for it. It was a school for amoral finance people.
At a second private school, my wife watched intently with other parents behind a one-way mirror as our son engaged in group play with other toddlers, their lives secured or ruined by every share or shove. He was put on the wait list.
The system that dominates our waking hours, commands our unthinking devotion, and drives us, like orthodox followers of an exacting faith, to extraordinary, even absurd feats of exertion is not democracy, which often seems remote and fragile. It’s meritocracy—the system that claims to reward talent and effort with a top-notch education and a well-paid profession, its code of rigorous practice and generous blessings passed down from generation to generation. The pressure of meritocracy made us apply to private schools when our son was 2—not because we wanted him to attend private preschool, but because, in New York City, where we live, getting him into a good public kindergarten later on would be even harder, and if we failed, by that point most of the private-school slots would be filled. As friends who’d started months earlier warned us, we were already behind the curve by the time he drew his picture of the moon. We were maximizing options—hedging, like the finance guy, like many families we knew—already tracing the long line that would lead to the horizon of our son’s future.I get so tired of these people, way better connected than anyone growing up within earshot of Union Pacific or Canadian Pacific, crying with their mouths full.
True meritocracy came closest to realization with the rise of standardized tests in the 1950s, the civil-rights movement, and the opening of Ivy League universities to the best and brightest, including women and minorities. A great broadening of opportunity followed. But in recent decades, the system has hardened into a new class structure in which professionals pass on their money, connections, ambitions, and work ethic to their children, while less educated families fall further behind, with little chance of seeing their children move up.It took him long enough to get to the point, which is that the U.S. News problem exists in part because the universities less favorably ranked have created academic gulags that do little to help young people seeking a way out of that dim world, all in the name of Access.
When parents on the fortunate ledge of this chasm gaze down, vertigo stuns them. Far below they see a dim world of processed food, obesity, divorce, addiction, online-education scams, stagnant wages, outsourcing, rising morbidity rates—and they pledge to do whatever they can to keep their children from falling. They’ll stay married, cook organic family meals, read aloud at bedtime every night, take out a crushing mortgage on a house in a highly rated school district, pay for music teachers and test-prep tutors, and donate repeatedly to overendowed alumni funds. The battle to get their children a place near the front of the line begins before conception and continues well into their kids’ adult lives. At the root of all this is inequality—and inequality produces a host of morbid symptoms, including a frantic scramble for status among members of a professional class whose most prized acquisition is not a Mercedes plug-in hybrid SUV or a family safari to Maasai Mara but an acceptance letter from a university with a top‑10 U.S. News & World Report ranking.
Apparently, though, it's OK to cram access-assessment-remediation-retention and the Diversity Boondoggle down on the Deplorables, never mind the resentments that might fester.
The claim of democracy doesn’t negate meritocracy, but they’re in tension. One values equality and openness, the other achievement and security. Neither can answer every need. To lose sight of either makes life poorer. The essential task is to bring meritocracy and democracy into a relation where they can coexist and even flourish.Once upon a time, the common schools inculcated bourgeois habits. No more, and that's where the troubles begin.
My wife and I are products of public schools. Whatever torments they inflicted on our younger selves, we believed in them. We wanted our kids to learn in classrooms that resembled the city where we lived. We didn’t want them to grow up entirely inside our bubble—mostly white, highly and expensively educated—where 4-year-olds who hear 21,000 words a day acquire the unearned confidence of insular advantage and feel, even unconsciously, that they’re better than other people’s kids.
Our “zoned” elementary school, two blocks from our house, was forever improving on a terrible reputation, but not fast enough. Friends had pulled their kids out after second or third grade, so when we took the tour we insisted, against the wishes of the school guide, on going upstairs from the kindergarten classrooms and seeing the upper grades, too. Students were wandering around the rooms without focus, the air was heavy with listlessness, there seemed to be little learning going on. Each year the school was becoming a few percentage points less poor and less black as the neighborhood gentrified, but most of the white kids were attending a “gifted and talented” school within the school, where more was expected and more was given. The school was integrating and segregating at the same time.Wait, what, there's some value in inculcating bourgeois habits, rather than throwing pejoratives like "code shift into white supremacy culture" around? Unfortunately, the Wokesters are in control, and ruination follows.
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.
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 think that's called "mugging by reality." Matthew Continetti suggests that's just business as usual when the vanguardists get control.
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.
Packer is too liberal, and too careful, to say whether he is willing to press charges against the corruption of American public education by radicals intent on social transformation. Time and again, radicals have displaced liberals only because the liberals, wracked with guilt, lack the will to stop them. “Watching your children grow up gives you a startlingly vivid image of the world you’re going to leave them,” Packer writes. “I can’t say I’m sanguine.”Perhaps they ought to get out of their coastal bubble, let their kids live in earshot of Union Pacific.
None of us should be.
It's not as if inter alia Rod Dreher haven't issued warnings.
The authoritarianism and radicalism of progressive ideology has destroyed what schools are supposed to be, and, in the liberal writer’s anxious view, are kicking the supports out from underneath liberal democracy.Neo-Neocon suggests that if Mr Packer wants to continue the fight, there are people willing to stand with him.
Is there anything that the new woke progressivism touches that it doesn’t destroy? If it weren’t for the fact that one of the parents at that school is a nationally known journalist with a prominent platform, would any of us know what a disaster the militant left has made of the nation’s largest school system, all because of identity politics?
Packer is sad and he’s bewildered. He doesn’t really know how this all came up, doesn’t connect the dots, and he doesn’t know what to do. The idea that the right has some answers never really occurs to him. I sympathize with him in his struggle, and wonder where it may ultimately lead. At the moment, the cognitive dissonance is fierce.It promises to get more interesting, when those amoral finance people and their allegedly so refined counterparts in the chattering classes discover that there isn't anybody who knows how to fix their Tesla or their air conditioner.
I didn’t really write this post to muse on the dilemma of George Packer the individual. But he’s especially interesting to me because I believe he stands for a large group of liberals who are currently wrestling with the consequences of what they supported, thinking the results would be good, and finding that the left had other and more terrible things in mind.