One interesting split between the worlds of liberal and conservative thought are the freedom each allows to question their own side’s norms, institutions, or leaders. To be a conservative means to not ever question that side’s shibboleths, lest one face dismissal with a snarl word such as traitor, socialist, or — worst of all — NeverTrump.
Liberals, though, have very few such sacred cows on their own side that would invite a similar response. I can count off received wisdom on abortion rights and trans ideology, in addition to blatant racism of course, as the only third rails that, if touched, invoke automatic cancellation. Everything else, from thoughts on race and feminism and socialism, to the other three letters of LGBT, to leaders such as Sanders and Biden, to various liberal institutions such as public-sector labor unions, to even flirting with MAGA a la Glenn Greenwald and Tulsi Gabbard, are fair game. To be sure, there will always be various subfactions who will react with spittle-flecked rage should you come for their object of worship, as anyone who has interacted with a Bernie Bro online may attest — but you will also have plenty of people who have your back. It’s just part of the chaos of the side that’s baked in. Get four random liberals together, and you’ll come away with six endorsements for president.
So while writer George Packer will assuredly raise some peoples’ blood pressures by coming at that old liberal institution known as the New York City public school system, he will also have the support of the pro-charter-school moderate liberals like Jon Chait and Matt Yglesias, who are probably at this moment nodding at every sentence of his piece.
He ties in the school system’s problems with that poisonous idea of “meritocracy” — which, in America at least, is anything but. However, I was struck at his scorn of modern lefty nonsense such as “critical race theory” which is increasingly corrupting our schools, due to the efforts of Bill de Blasio, liberal education schools and, above all, Richard Carranza.
Standardized tests started being left behind at his kids’ public school, as were even grades. The school stopped caring about fundamentals like times tables, long division, or basic American civics in favor of whichever trivial political humbug was the fad of the moment. “It was an education in activism, and with no grounding in civics, activism just meant speaking out,” Packer writes. Students began to become segregated by race in class, in a manner that George Wallace would have surely approved of. Unisex bathrooms then were instituted without parental consent — again, because that had suddenly become the cause of the moment on progressive social media. The educators at the school sound like they had the religious conviction in their own righteousness of your typical anti-vaxx zealot.
Yes, some hardened lefties will dismiss this piece as just another rant against political correctness and/or teachers’ unions by some racist white neolib, no doubt on the remaining Koch’s payroll. But here’s the thing: Packer will not be cancelled. He will not be driven out of the ranks of liberals. He will not lose his job with The Atlantic, he will not be banished from polite city society, and he will not show up at that final destination of all truly cancelled people, the Tucker Carlson show.
For even within NYC’s Department of Education, this guy’s school sounds like a serious outlier. Most schools do not go “unrated” due to boycotts of supposedly racist standardized exams. The vast majority still have bathrooms for boys and girls (in fact, Packer concedes the DOE actually intervened and forced his school to have only one unisex bathroom). Most parents and even most educators, even at this late date, still care more about kids’ educations than they do about their indoctrination.
I know this partly because my own first-grader is in a New York City public school. Like the school Packer writes of, it is quite diverse and majority-minority. No, you won’t find many Trump voters among the parents or staff. But almost everyone takes the statewide exams, and the school remains among the top flight of the district. He learns the three r’s instead of learning to check his privilege or that gender is a construct. Parents are acutely aware of the peculiar NYC high school admissions process their children will eventually face, one that is as competitive as the college admissions race is everywhere else — and whatever their politics, they know that empty posturing about LGBT oppression won’t get their offspring into Bronx Science.
Liberals can’t agree about almost anything. They certainly would never agree on how to run a school.
Yes, de Blasio and Carranza would like to end all that, and turn each and every NYC public school into the uniform little wokeness factories so easily parodied by the right, where math and civics and Shakespeare are just racist products of the patriarchy and the only truths are what Twitter accounts with red roses in their handles are parroting on a given day. But given the fierce local backlash they face each step in their way, and given the competition of the charter schools that remain stoutly defended by Gov. Cuomo, their progress remains limited at best. At the school Packer writes of, after all, the wokeness agenda was the product of local administrators, not citywide DOE policy. The stark differences between schools that are mere blocks away are why he tried to do his due diligence to begin with. A system as massive and as unwieldly as the NYC public school system does not lend itself to Carranza’s command-and-control mentality, and each school’s quality remains determined most of all by the local parents, teachers, and administrators, as it has been for generations.
That could change, and if you see me post about my son’s new charter or private school, that means the gruesome twosome’s transformative agenda has succeeded. But I don’t expect it to, certainly not before de Blasio leaves office. In fact, I expect rolling back Carranza’s “reforms” to be part of future mayor Corey Johnson’s plans, as he is already signalling. In the end, while Packer’s experiences are certainly interesting, take his piece as you would any profile of just one or two NYC public schools — something that only tells you about those one or two schools. And be glad that liberals, unlike conservatives, are still allowed to stand up to their own side’s political leaders and agendas.