What a fun culture war for the world to wake up to!
Recently, for the first time in a long time, I went to an actual party… It was a mild May evening, a hotel patio teeming with people I knew only vaguely (if at all), and the group was unmasked except for the wait staff. This contrast lent the event an edge of postlapsarian feudalism. But it also meant that while all could see our hostess’ expression sour when the bartender she’d hired announced there would be no champagne, only “Argentinian Brut,” said bartender was free to smirk as widely as he wanted behind his KN95.
It was the kind of party where I never actually met the banker birthday boy officially being feted – and where, as the evening and the Argentinian Brut flowed on, I found myself increasingly the confidante of closeted conservatarians. Publicly doctrinaire liberals were itching to confess their private patriotisms and secret suspicions about “cancel culture,” almost as though they’d been muzzled for months.
I’m in training to become a psychotherapist, and I spent years as a staff writer at the nation’s preeminent conservative weekly… This is what happens to me at parties. More so than in the unmuzzled prelapsarian past, though, I heard secondhand fretting about the great private-school “awokening.” (As fate would have it, I was a private-school humanities teacher before the writing stint.) Everywhere, I learned – yes, even, or perhaps especially, on patios with open bars – parents are aghast at the Lefty social-justice programming their expensively educated children regurgitate with purity of heart and unimpeachable but-my-teacher-says-so authority.
At the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Right-wing pollster and Kevin McCarthy roomie Frank Luntz taught me to ask everyone I meet some version of the same core question – What do you care most about? What keeps you up at night? What issue deserves more attention than it’s getting? For the semi-inebriated urban professionals at this event I tagged along to, there was one answer: the woke contagion afflicting our nation’s private schools!
Critical Race Fury
First there was talk of the father, somebody’s colleague, who pulled his daughter out of the Riverdale Country School over the reputedly unthinking anti-Trumpism she, at age 13, quoted over dinner and attributed to a social studies assignment. “He’s the worst president ever,” the teen is said to have declared. Her father purportedly fumed back, “Worse than the antebellum anti-abolitionists, worse than Andrew Johnson, worse than that rank anti-Semite Birth of a Nation fan Woodrow Wilson?!” Her blank stare at these historical names was the last straw…
(Riverdale, for the uninitiated, is one of three prestigious K-12 country day schools in a ritzy section of the Bronx, generally characterized by the presence of those three schools, but – notably here – it’s not even the Leftiest of them: That distinction goes to its neighbor Fieldston, aka “the Ethical Cultural School,” where parent-teacher conflicts tend to take on a more radical flavor.)
Anyway, the concerned father up and sent her to a rigid Roman Catholic boarding school – run by actual nuns, my narrator emphasized – all of which, to my thinking, lumps him in with last year’s COVID-triggered anti-togetherness trend of parents sending their kids to boarding schools as soon as they resumed in-person classes. But then I learned of another family, too young for the convent option, but helplessly terrified to hear their third-grader spout off facts about Native American agricultural methods’ categorical superiority. That might actually be true, but I bit my tongue and longed for a mask to hide my out-of-practice poker face.
These aren’t isolated incidents of pent-up parental paranoia… A spate of recent tabloid stories – nearly all of them citing the awokened school’s tuition costs in the top paragraph – tell of parents’ pushback against the perceived trend that prestigious private schools have become too intently (and, per some, disingenuously) focused on combatting racism since last summer’s protests popularized the anti-racist ideologies of activist-writers like Ibram Kendi (How to Be an Antiracist) and Robin DiAngelo (White Fragility).
How to Be an Anti-Anti-Racist
At New York’s historically progressive – but, in recent decades, simply “elite” – Dalton School, the headmaster resigned in the wake of parents’ protests. “Every class this year has had an obsessive focus on race and identity,” an anonymous letter read. (The headmaster had also controversially delayed Dalton’s in-person reopening, a decision which left high-paying parents no choice but to listen in on classes and compile grievances.) A math teacher at the Grace Church School blew the whistle on his school’s system of “indoctrination” and was asked not to resume his teaching duties. A father at the all-girls Brearley School on the Upper East Side sent a letter to 650 parent households decrying the cancerous anti-racism policies that include training for parents and “color healing” sessions and described the school’s attempts to brainwash their daughters, who should be learning to think for themselves. He announced his daughter, who is 12, would be leaving Brearley at the end of the year.
Andrew Gutmann, author of the now infamous Brearley letter, was also at a party of his own the night before our interview. Talk turned to the woke panic at private schools, but at his party, unlike mine, Gutmann said everybody at least agreed that you have to teach about the history of racism in America and that diversity is important (I think I need a new crowd… ). “My view is diversity of thought is more important than diversity of skin color,” he then qualified.
Although its most controversial section denies the existence of systemic racism, a central tenet of anti-racist ideology, Gutmann’s letter wasn’t about race, he says, “It was about freedom of thought and open discussion.” He’s received around 1,000 supportive messages since his letter published in former New York Times opinion columnist Bari Weiss’ newsletter and received favorable coverage in the New York Post, where Gutmann also recently published an op-ed. Much of the fan mail came after he appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. “This is an intellectual movement,” he tells me, of his newfound following. “This isn’t just rich people complaining.”
The richest private-school parents, in fact, are the most afraid of speaking out. They’re afraid they’ll lose face or fall out of favor with their child’s school – whose loyalty they know they’ll need come college admissions season. “These Goldman Sachs guys are deathly afraid of losing their jobs,” says Gutmann. (He runs his family’s chemical business.)
What Gutmann claims as his fundamental argument is hard to refute: “Everything should be talked about,” he says. Actually addressing the core problem – “Why are there racial discrepancies in schools?” – ought to fall to a robust history curriculum, he argues. And he certainly has a point… Consider the unequal distribution of the GI Bill, or the enforcement of neighborhood segregation by mortgage lenders – these are historical facts. “But people are scared to death to have any actual conversations about race.”
The same fear he sees among his peers and fellow Brearley parents animated the school’s embrace of anti-racist teaching, in Gutmann’s view. “They go hire a consulting firm to do mandatory training… They go in, they change the curriculum, they go placate whoever they think is watching, and say, ‘OK, we’re done. We’ve done what we can here.’” And who, he wants to know, does that really help?
Speaking of which, Gutmann’s not sure where to send prospective donors and those among his hundreds of fans who say they want to get involved in the burgeoning anti-anti-racist cause. He’s not formally aligned with any fundraising groups – like Parents Defending Education, which focuses on public schools, or the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism, which was founded by another fed-up private-school dad. Gutmann recently floated the idea of starting a new school during one of his many press appearances – a podcast – and liked how it felt to say it aloud. He’ll be exploring it further, he tells me, before the public attention span flits to a new national crisis.
For now, though, there’s no avoiding this one. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki recently had to address it from her podium in the West Wing. (The White House, if you wondered, is in favor.)
“I think the K-to-12 stuff is sort of the sexy thing right now,” admits Nicole Neily, president and founder of Parents Defending Education. She’s not kidding. It’s such a hot cause – read: well-funded campaign – that a public relations firm somehow found out I was working on a related story the very same day I started reporting it. (And Parents Defending Education doesn’t even cover private schools!) One of their consultants had me on the phone with Neily within hours.
Campus free speech, on the other hand, is kind of dead… “I actually reached a point in working in higher ed where it struck me that a lot of these problems seem to have started a lot earlier,” says Neily, whose last gig was a similar effort aimed at promoting the value of viewpoint diversity on university campuses. She hasn’t changed her tune on the free speech front, though. “I’m not opposed to people learning about critical race theory,” she says. “Where I’m opposed is when it’s mandated – and taught at the exclusion of all else.”
Critical race theory itself is a school of thought that originated in legal scholarship in the 1970s and has developed in many directions since. (The term “systemic racism,” in reference to an oppressive racial hierarchy embedded in society, also finds its origins there.) Apart from keywords in common, what of its influence leaches into grade school classrooms and local school board meetings little resembles its complex, nuanced, provocative academic roots. Often the decisions that send disturbed parents to Neily’s tip line seem to her to be the consequence of declining local newspaper coverage of school systems…
A school outside of Austin claimed they couldn’t afford a crossing guard, but managed to sign an expensive contract with a racial equity consultant – that shouldn’t happen.
Plenty of the complaints are pure rants, too – or stem from fear and anxiety stoked by lockdowns and intensified by administrators’ own paranoid secrecy. In the Rockwood School District in Missouri, for example, an administrator, probably exhausted by prying parents, e-mailed teachers instructing them to remove the anti-racist curriculum from its online platform while continuing to teach it. “People feel disenfranchised,” Neily says, seeming to adopt the terms of the movement. “That’s not necessarily the case – but when you hear anecdotes like that, it plays to a lot of people’s worst fears.”
When I ask whether parents should be afraid of activist-inflected lesson plans, Neily says, “That’s much less of a problem than the school board passing a policy, like, We will now mandate affinity groups.” No such policy exists, she then clarified – not that she’s heard of, anyway. But should one arise, the tip line’s always open.
The Equitable Exit
Critics at public and private schools alike are disturbed by purported trends like racial affinity groups sorting student discussions of race by skin color, handouts and prompts that lead students to determine their relative “privilege” based on their race, and the removal of canonical classics to make room for a more racially inclusive reading list. The school of thought that animates these practices also promotes ideas like the importance of equity – which typically means that fairness requires everyone arrive at the same level of status regardless of their starting point – as opposed to equality – which insists that everyone have the same opportunities to pursue status regardless of their starting point. Of course, both are guiding ideals, neither of them straightforwardly achievable.
In practice, “equity” typically refers to changes in admissions procedures and other student rankings to avoid the appearance of racial sorting. Reforms to private-school admissions parameters leave competitively-minded parents to worry that their child’s expensive education is hemorrhaging prestige points. At public schools, though, the stakes are somewhat different: The Volokh Conspiracy, Eugene Volokh’s blog at Reason, reported on a policy in Contra Costa, California whereby students were to be readmitted to school for in-person classroom learning based on their race. The least privileged, by Contra Costa’s count, would be first.
“Look. I’m cool with people wanting to send their kids to ‘Social Justice Country Day’ – but don’t do it to my kid against my will with my tax dollars in my public school system,” Neily says. When Parents Defending Education posts tabloid articles about the battles over anti-racist curricula breaking out at private schools on their Facebook page, most of the comments are pretty unsympathetic… “Well maybe you take your child and your $30,000 elsewhere,” Neily paraphrases. What these public-school parents would rightly scoff at if they knew… is that most of the private schools’ parents’ protests these days actually cost closer to $60,000 per year.
Plus, the contracts that private-school parents sign when they enroll their kids in the first place typically include a clause declaring their support for the principles of diversity and inclusion, Neily’s colleague Asra Nomani points out. The anti-racist pledge that spurred Gutmann’s letter, for instance, amplified and added new language – dismantling systemic racism – to the boiler-plate lingo that schools like Brearley already use, and that parents like him already signed.
Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent and Georgetown professor, and she’s also the author of fiercely independent books on feminism and Islam. Her work was informed in part by her being both a single mother and a Muslim – which made her the enemy of conservatives in her faith tradition and the target of death threats. Undaunted, she led an investigation into her friend and Journal colleague Danny Pearl’s kidnapping and murder by Islamists. In describing the spirit she brings to her work, she’s called herself an “overambitious child of immigrants.”
More self-aware than some parents I’ve met, she readily admits she’s approached her son’s education in the Fairfax County school system with the same uncommon dedication and doggedness she brought to her work. So, when he tested into Alexandria’s Thomas Jefferson High School – a STEM-focused (science, technology, engineering, and math) magnet school, routinely ranked as one of the best public schools in the country – she dove into the PTA and, naturally, took over the newsletter. When, in June 2020, the school announced new admissions and advanced placement reforms in the interest of “equity,” Nomani couldn’t help but notice. The Islamists she encountered in her reporting use the same terms to justify relegating women to the back of mosques.
In an uneasy challenge to its equity score, Thomas Jefferson High School already skews majority and minority, but most students are Asian and, according to Nomani, most are the children of immigrants if not immigrants themselves. When the Black Lives Matter movement and discussions of intersectional racism appeared in coursework while students were home during the pandemic, Nomani doubted the moral sincerity behind these topics’ sudden inclusion in the curriculum. She and other concerned parents organized into a group called “Coalition for TJ” and soon learned that what worried them was underway all over the country.
Nomani taught and studied cross-cultural communications, and she reads most of the consultant-led anti-racist curricula cropping up in schools as a reductive race-based treatment of cultural difference. “I’m what’s now called a person of color, a Brown Muslim immigrant. I check all these different boxes. I’m liberal and a Democrat, and I disagree with the idea that we can create a new hierarchy of human value for people based on race.” She does agree that we need to talk about racial diversity in schools, but feels that there are better ways to do so – especially considering how diverse “diversity” actually is in America. Nomani recommends Irshad Manji, author of Don’t Label Me: How to do Diversity Without Inflaming the Culture Wars.
I’ve noticed that the most credible critics of contemporary anti-racist curricula always offer an alternative. Manji, Nomani’s choice, writes about rising above tribalism – that not being offensive is no use until we’ve taught our children, and learned ourselves, how not to be offended. Others will cite Chloé Valdary, an Ibram Kendi skeptic, who authored an anti-racist philosophy and teaching method called the Theory of Enchantment. Her program picks up where her rival theorists leave off and go sadly quiet. Its first principle is that “we are human beings, not political abstractions.” Work like hers – which makes its mission the transcendence of divisive categories – almost makes me want to be a teacher again…
Woke Like Me
The people who complained to me about private-school wokeism at the banker’s birthday party are probably fair game. But I feel like a little bit of a double agent talking to some of K-12 anti-racism’s more focused opponents. Because back when I was a teacher myself, coming on 10 years ago, I had a positive experience teaching and learning the very same sorts of diversity curricula that we’d now attribute to the dreaded contagion.
I say it was positive – although “productive” or “educational” would be more politic descriptors (note: no one’s holding a gun to my head as I write this) – because, in the case of the New York City private school where I happened to be, the Calhoun School on the Upper West Side, the program was thoughtfully executed in concert with parents and teachers alike. It seemed, to me, a natural extension of the life of the school.
And my memories have a way of disarming the anti-wokesters’ best bogeymen. For instance, I recall that when faculty met up after separating into voluntary – but encouraged – racial affinity groups, we found that both sharing circles had ended up using the group therapy format to talk more openly about how unbearable the upcoming annual gala auction was going to be than we would have ordinarily, at lunch or over coffee. (Solidarity didn’t break along black-and-white racial lines that day, in other words. But then I’m not fully convinced it ever truly does…)
It also helped that the Calhoun School – no relation to the slavery-loving senator – was a few years ahead of the curve. There was none of last year’s rush to respond to a trending topic before getting left in every other private schools’ systemically racist dust. Plus, then head of school Steve Nelson, who – disclosure – was my first call for this piece, habitually encouraged dissent and previewed the diversity program for parents before debuting it with students. (Among those who supported it were the two white male conservative Calhoun dads who happened to be chairing the board of trustees at the time.) When he found out I went to Dartmouth, Nelson announced he’d carried on a correspondence for years with English professor Jeffrey Hart, the founding faculty advisor of the Dartmouth Review and a book critic for National Review. To his credit, Nelson, when he told me this, had no way of knowing that I’d be impressed instead of horrified, as most of Hart’s colleagues were by his Right-wing views.
Nelson and I talked for hours about Calhoun’s anti-racist curriculum, mostly confirming what I remembered: that what Calhoun taught very closely resembled the wokeness we’re hearing about now. And why didn’t it go horribly awry? To begin with, “The idea some parents might have that those kinds of discussions actually estrange kids from one another is simply wrong,” Nelson said, adding…
I don’t like some of the glib language around social justice and diversity. But I think when you can allow a space where it’s non-threatening for kids to talk about difficult things, it actually makes living together better, not worse.
In contrast to the gradual and in-house implementation at Calhoun, a lot of the common complaints today concern sudden changes to curriculum or the intrusions of outside consultants – forces that, understandably, seem to threaten a school’s cultural equilibrium in a way that discourages discussion. And, crucially, diversity education shouldn’t begin in any serious depth before children’s understanding of the world beyond their immediate experience has developed to comprehend higher-level precepts like equality. (A child’s self-centered early sense of what’s fair or unfair doesn’t count.) “Getting into the theoretical aspects of race theory, or very complex issues around white privilege, is not something that kids at a young age should try to grapple with,” as Nelson put it. “It doesn’t surprise me that there would be pushback.”
What began as pushback has piled up into a full-blown panic… Tense partisanship and leering tabloid coverage have turned the idea of systemic racism and the lesson plans that address it into the latest terrifying problem facing the nation – just when we thought peace and normalcy were upon us. But, when you think about it, it’s not really a new way to talk about race. And I don’t mean that it’s been around a while in academia, though it has. I mean it’s remarkably consistent with the morality of Huck Finn, for instance. In order to sell books and publish articles and host conferences and raise money for institutes, and in order to charge tens of thousands of dollars for Zoom lectures, it helps to dress it up in technical-sounding terms and make it look new. (Our society is, of course, host to a well-funded woke industry as well as a correspondingly well-funded anti-woke industry.)
But “systemic,” in most contexts, can be another less illustrative word for “coded.” Hierarchical societies live by restrictive and debasing codes, encoded in such a way that they linger long after they’ve fallen out of conscious everyday use. And, in my experience, eighth graders hold to be self-evident that “systems” and “codes” that diminish anyone’s humanity diminish everyone’s humanity. They really do – they come like that, prepackaged. All a teacher has to do is pass around the Dover Thrift Edition paperbacks. It probably helped that by the time they got to my classroom, they’d noticed how racially segregated their world was – they’d all noticed, and yet they’d almost never talked about it.
Art teacher Kate Savage’s classroom used to be one place her students talked openly about thorny topics. Unlike her co-travelers in the cause, the last thing Savage – who is also a mindfulness coach – ever wanted in life was to be an anti-woke spokeswoman. She isn’t one really… But she did agree to be interviewed for an in-depth article about her former longtime employer, the Brentwood School in Los Angeles, not realizing she would be the only one brave enough to talk on the record and have her picture taken. Savage was surprised to be such a central source in the story. But her former colleagues, even those who’ve also moved on, were afraid to speak out.
She doesn’t oppose the school’s overhaul of its humanities reading lists and announced equity-aimed admission reforms – both moves that spurred intense backlash from parents. And she’s quick to point out that she hasn’t worked there since 2018, when she left after 15 years as an art teacher – years which crystallized her perspective on the internal tensions that work against these schools’ earnest efforts at awokening. “That entitled attitude of parents predates the George Floyd murder,” she says. “A lot of these parents also went to Brentwood themselves or to similar schools, so they balk at the changes.”
Of course, schools aim to be forward-looking for a reason. “They’re supposed to keep up with the times and educate young people for the future, the world they’re inheriting,” she says. Savage sees these private schools struggling with controversy as victims of their own attempt to serve two masters. “They’re trying to adapt,” she says, “but not doing it very gracefully.” And their own history is stacked against them… The school, like the neighborhood surrounding it, was established in the 1970s by white Angelenos fleeing the newly integrated areas in central LA. Savage explains, “To then go in, you know, 40 years later and try to retrofit diversity, equity, and inclusion into a school that was founded on exclusion is difficult to do.”
From Savage’s point of view, it looks like mostly meaningless lip service – and too little too late – as she recalls the days when Black and Hispanic students, who were typically on scholarship, sought refuge in her classroom and the creative outlet it offered amid a highly competitive culture where they were often derided as affirmative action admits and told they should “be grateful” to be there. Whereas Savage found herself pressured by parents to hand out A’s to the celebrated, high-achieving, Ivy-bound students who viewed art classes as an afterthought and rarely darkened her classroom door.
Parents Just Don’t Understand
A chief culprit in the woke wars, in other words, is the interfering parent. “I don’t have a lot of sympathy for those parents,” Savage wants to clarify. “For a lot of parents, private schools are about their own ego identification. Kids become an extension of that. Imagine being the child of that parent? What an empty, sad world to live in.” As the poet wrote,
They eff you up, your mom and dad, they may not mean to, but they do…
All the players in this saga carry their own cursed inheritance. But of all these accounts, it’s the Riverdale anecdote I heard at the party that stands out… It was by far the mildest “woke” offense I’ve heard anyone attempt to add to this category – and easily the most extreme overreaction. Somewhere in my extended web of acquaintance is a 13-year-old girl who was sent to a convent school for the crime of telling her father that, per her teacher, Trump’s the worst president ever.
What truly amazes is his reaction’s near certainty to backfire. Nothing stokes a teenager’s appetite for free-thinking rebellion quite like life in an actual nunnery – but that’s probably a good thing. (Or so they teach me in developmental psych class.) It makes me oddly hopeful, too, to consider how ridiculous these adults must look to the children in their charge. If enough kids come out of these at times self-contradictory and now embattled curricula thinking for themselves about the complexity of our manmade problems, convinced of nothing but each other’s immutable humanity – and fallibility and susceptibility to faddish freak-outs and all other manners of foolishness – then, well, that’s an education.
Alice Lloyd is a writer and reporter in Washington, D.C., covering culture, politics, and the weirdness in between. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Weekly Standard.