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The Progressive Dystopia Of NYC Schools

You have to read this long Atlantic piece by George Packer, in which he describes the disillusioning of him and his wife — good urban liberals — by the militant wokeness that overtook the New York City public schools that their children attended (and that their son still attends). The piece begins with Packer recounting the insane competition among the rich and connected to get their kids into private schools. The Packers ultimately opted out of that, and searched for a good progressive public school for their son (and later, their daughter).

They found an ethnically diverse one that satisfied them, though it was not without its challenges. All seemed relatively well. Until five years ago:

Around 2014, a new mood germinated in America—at first in a few places, among limited numbers of people, but growing with amazing rapidity and force, as new things tend to do today. It rose up toward the end of the Obama years, in part out of disillusionment with the early promise of his presidency—out of expectations raised and frustrated, especially among people under 30, which is how most revolutionary surges begin. This new mood was progressive but not hopeful. A few short years after the teachers at the private preschool had crafted Obama pendants with their 4-year-olds, hope was gone.

At the heart of the new progressivism was indignation, sometimes rage, about ongoing injustice against groups of Americans who had always been relegated to the outskirts of power and dignity. An incident—a police shooting of an unarmed black man; news reports of predatory sexual behavior by a Hollywood mogul; a pro quarterback who took to kneeling during the national anthem—would light a fire that would spread overnight and keep on burning because it was fed by anger at injustices deeper and older than the inflaming incident. Over time the new mood took on the substance and hard edges of a radically egalitarian ideology.

At points where the ideology touched policy, it demanded, and in some cases achieved, important reforms: body cameras on cops, reduced prison sentences for nonviolent offenders, changes in the workplace. But its biggest influence came in realms more inchoate than policy: the private spaces where we think and imagine and talk and write, and the public spaces where institutions shape the contours of our culture and guard its perimeter.

Who was driving the new progressivism? Young people, influencers on social media, leaders of cultural organizations, artists, journalists, educators, and, more and more, elected Democrats. You could almost believe they spoke for a majority—but you would be wrong. An extensive survey of American political opinion published last year by a nonprofit called More in Common found that a large majority of every group, including black Americans, thought “political correctness” was a problem. The only exception was a group identified as “progressive activists”—just 8 percent of the population, and likely to be white, well educated, and wealthy. Other polls found that white progressives were readier to embrace diversity and immigration, and to blame racism for the problems of minority groups, than black Americans were. The new progressivism was a limited, mainly elite phenomenon.

Politics becomes most real not in the media but in your nervous system, where everything matters more and it’s harder to repress your true feelings because of guilt or social pressure. It was as a father, at our son’s school, that I first understood the meaning of the new progressivism, and what I disliked about it.

I cannot even begin to do justice to the destructive insanity Social Justice ideology brought to this school. I’ll let this one example from Packer’s story stand for all of them. It began when a little girl in second grade began to identify as a male, and demanded to use the boy’s restroom.

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.

When parents found out about the elimination of boys’ and girls’ bathrooms, they showed up en masse at a PTA meeting. The parents in one camp declared that the school had betrayed their trust, and a woman threatened to pull her daughter out of the school. The parents in the other camp argued that gender labels—and not just on the bathroom doors—led to bullying and that the real problem was the patriarchy. One called for the elimination of urinals.

Yesterday, talking about Drag Queen Story Hour, I explained how and why it’s a “condensed symbol” of the progressive-led sexual radicalization of our society, even at the level of little children. Degenderizing the toilets at a public elementary school is another.

Like I said, that’s only one thing that happened at Packer’s kid’s school. Read the whole thing. It gets crazier and crazier, as identity politics comes to control not only that school, but the entire NYC public school system. 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.

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?

Seriously, read it. It’s a warning.

UPDATE: A great comment from reader Mr. Squires:

I am a product of NYC public schools and even though I live in DC now, I’m disgusted by what DeBlasio, Carranza, and the Grievance Industrial Complex in education are doing to the school system. My parents came here from the Caribbean and were fortunate enough to get me into a gifted program (another thing those two are trying to destroy)–a foundation that laid the path for a solid K-12 education. The worst part of this story is that it’s not just a New York problem. The same militant wokeness can be seen in DC’s government and public charter schools. You see it in the desperate push for “diversity” above achievement, as if black kids need white classmates more than quality schools. I don’t know how the Left can see a black girl in 12th grade at an all-black high school as being subjected to the evil forces of segregation but celebrate her acceptance into Spelman College or Howard University as an opportunity for a culturally-enriching education experience.

The biggest threat, however, is in the curriculum. For example, the DC Educators for Social Justice supports the early education curriculum includes having pre-schoolers watch a video from I am Jazz and teaches THREE YEAR OLDS the meaning of “non-binary” and “transgender”. And here’s the thing, this ideology is smuggled in through the front door during Black Lives Matter at Schools Week. Most people think of BLM as being against police violence directed at African Americans but the words “police” and “brutality” don’t appear once in any of their 13 principles. You know what else doesn’t? “Father”, “husband”, or “son”. In fact, here’s the text of BLM’s “Black Villages” principle:

“We are committed to disrupting the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, and especially “our” children to the degree that mothers, parents and children are comfortable.”

Is this what anybody thinks of when they hear the proverb about taking a village to raise a child? And does anyone think that the biggest problem in the black community is TOO MANY nuclear families? This stuff is desperately wicked. And not a single person I’ve talked to about it (and there have been many, lol) even knew that BLM had 13 principles, let alone their content. I fear for the state of public education in our country, especially in large urban school districts. I finally see why many Christians have such deep skepticism of “government schools”. And in cities like NYC and DC where the majority of black students are doing math and English below grade level, why does anyone think a second of school time should be spent reading A is For Activist? What good is teaching Jamal to be a protestor if he has to go to Brad to write his signs?

Lastly, I’d like to say thank you. This blog introduced me to classical Christian education and I am trying to pay off debt and save to put our kids in a CCE school close by. Our oldest is in what seems to be a social justice-neutral public charter school but I see private and homeschooling as the only ways to provide our children with the Christ-honoring education they need.

UPDATE.2: Another good comment from Another Dave:

I have 2 kids in the NYC school system, and although his experiences are certainly reflective of certain schools in certain neighborhoods, it does not match my experience thus far.

First let me say, Carranza is detestable, and many folks, both in the system and outside of it, are pushing back hard against him and his cabal of wreckers. Unfortunately, he will do real damage before his day is done.
DeBlasio and Carranza are exactly the type of disruptive midwits one gets when one votes for “progressive” candidates. They are incapable of either true leadership or true innovation. All they know how to do is ridicule, castigate and then spend millions on pet projects that produce no genuine results.

That being said, much of what this writer experienced is a result of his own poor choices, filtered through his insatiable, upper middle class desire to virtue signal and strike all the right poses.

Our son, now in 5th grade, took the state exams in 3rd and 4th, and did exceptionally well with only the preparation given in class, and home review with Mom and Dad, which was extensive, but not overwhelming. Although no kid loves testing, he was not unduly stressed, and we didn’t add to it, despite knowing his scores would determine placement in the admittedly competitive middle school application process.

He attends a blue ribbon school, and our experience so far has been great.
I am not exaggerating when I say that in a school with approximately 500 students, about 75% of the kids have at least one parent that is a physician, although frequently both parents are. The school is mostly white and Asian, but many of the white kids are either Jewish or Israeli, or have parents from Europe, both East and West. Many kids are from China or India.

The parents at this school are driven, high achieving people who would never tolerate a curriculum that didn’t focus heavily on test prep and the basics, however watered down Common Core has made the basics, and that aspect has been frustrating, but not insurmountable. The kids respond by consistently producing some of the best scores in the city and state.
The parents also contribute both time and money, making this school one of those “public privates” the author of the article mentions.
No one makes any excuses about doing what is best for their child, and no one would let their political stance interfere with their child’s ability to learn.

The author of the article, while obviously well meaning, has allowed his avowed principles to interfere in making good choices, ultimately placing his kids in underperforming schools with activist staff, thus creating stress and drama where none was needed.

I’m familiar with the type of schools he’s referring to, and quite frankly, they suck. It’s like a day care center for adolescents, with many kids barely capable of reading and writing proficiently well into third grade. These types of schools are well known and easily avoided.

The author is the type of guy to vote for a DeBlasio, and then wring his hands endlessly of over all the destruction this woke Godzilla unleashes.
He reaped what he sowed, and then some. Many liberals are now waking up to what their passive alliance with the left has created.

All of this is to say that the problems highlighted are real, and no one should rest while bigoted maniacs like Carranza are at the wheel, but motivated parents can provide an excellent education for their kids through the NYC public school system if they do their homework and stop virtue signaling. There are great teachers and excellent schools all over the city.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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