George Packer Gets Mugged by Reality

Students exit a bus at Venice High School in Los Angeles, Calif., December 2015. (Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)
The Atlantic reporter’s liberalism comes face-to-face with the radical left’s transformation of American public education.

Few journalists are as respected by, and respectable to, liberals as The Atlantic’s George Packer. The author of The Assassin’s Gate (2005), The Unwinding (2013), and a recently published biography of Richard Holbrooke, Our Man, Packer has written for bastions of liberal thought from the New York Times Magazine to The New Yorker in a distinguished, decades-long career. His latest piece for The Atlantic, “When the Culture War Comes for the Kids,” is essential reading.

Why? Because it relates, in Packer’s haunted and sympathetic style, the experience of having a child enrolled in a New York City school system corrupted by politics. For anyone who believes in individualism, the freedoms of speech and conscience, and the equal dignity of human beings, the experience sounds like a nightmare.

The summer before kindergarten, an official informed Packer that his son had made it off the wait list at their preferred public school. “This school squared the hardest circle,” Packer writes. “It was a liberal white family’s dream.” He, his wife, and his son became invested in the institution. “The school’s approach — the year-long second-grade unit on the geology and bridges of New York — caught his imagination, while the mix of races and classes gave him something even more precious: an unselfconscious belief that no one was better than anyone else, that he was everyone’s equal and everyone was his.” Then, Packer says, “Things began to change.”

No kidding. A new sort of left-wing cultural politics developed toward the close of the Obama presidency. “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.” Theories of intersectionality and of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” seeped into business, politics, media, and education. “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.”

The new progressivism, Packer observes, was “a limited, elite phenomenon.” Its avatars held postgraduate degrees, had lots of disposable income, and resided in fashionable neighborhoods. “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,” he writes.

Parents opted their children out of standardized tests, which they deemed “structurally biased, even racist, because nonwhite students had the lowest scores.” Without tests, there was no way to measure the progress of the student body. The school, without telling parents, changed all of its bathrooms, “from kindergarten to fifth grade,” from single-sex to gender-neutral. At a Parent–Teacher Association meeting, families split into warring factions. One side was furious at the school for making such an important decision arbitrarily and autonomously. “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.”

Packer’s family was distraught by Donald Trump’s election. He found, however, that the school had deprived his son of a vocabulary to understand and oppose Trump on the basis of liberal principles: “By age 10 he had studied the civilizations of ancient China, Africa, the early Dutch in New Amsterdam, and the Mayans. He learned about the genocide of Native Americans and slavery. But he was never taught about the founding of the republic.” Packer notes that Richard Carranza, the far-left chancellor of New York City schools, mandated anti-bias instruction for school employees that categorized “perfectionism,” “individualism,” “objectivity,” and “worship of the written word” as hallmarks of “white supremacy culture.”

Packer’s article vividly describes the “progress” critical race theory has made as it percolates through American public education. He is a man of the left disturbed by a rising generation of left-wing ideology and activism. It has happened before. When the New Left politics of Tom Hayden began appearing on university campuses in the 1960s, social democrats and anti-Communist liberals found themselves appalled. Irving Howe debated Hayden for hours. Norman Podhoretz, shocked by the anti-Americanism of “the Movement,” moved right. “A neoconservative,” Irving Kristol quipped, “is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”

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.”

None of us should be.

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