Monday, August 30, 2021

A Tale of (the Private Schools of) Two Cities

Within a day of one another, the New York Times and the City Journal released articles on anti-racism curricula in the private schools of two cities, New York and DC (respectively).

It really is amazing to behold the difference. The Times has some genuine indicators of just bizarre behavior in the schools it profiles (e.g., refusing to allow Glenn Loury to speak because his views might "confuse and/or enflame students"). The City Journal, by contrast, mostly captures very normal things it seeks to put under grainy, menacing lighting (High schools are assigning Ibram X. Kendi's books! Administrators are attending DEI training sessions!).

I'm not really sure what explains the difference. It might be just the baseline chasm in quality one would expect from the NYT versus the City Journal (notably, the Times' article is by an actual journalist, while the City Journal's piece is written by an activist with the right-wing National Association of Scholars). Or it might be a difference in the private school cultures that exist in New York versus DC.

My baseline bias, having grown up in outside DC, is a pre-existing disdain for the local private school ecosystem there. Even as a kid, my view was that if you lived in Montgomery County -- which had a superb public school system -- I struggled to think of a reason to attend private schools that wasn't just pure snobbish status-flexing. But if the City Journal (despite its best efforts) is to be believed, schools like Sidwell and Georgetown Day are actually doing a decent job. Nothing will ever be perfect, but I cannot be horrified that students are recommended Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado’s Critical Race Theory: An Introduction.* Of course, it's also the case that the private schools aren't doing anything that the public schools can't. That's not a bad thing -- one would hope that solid anti-racist education is scalable to all sorts of schools -- unless you're using it as a selling point for why Maddie and Connor simply must go to private school, $50,000 price tag be damned!

Which brings us to New York. I have never lived in New York, and my exposure to New York private schools comes primarily through, well, sensationalist stories in the New York Times. It's hard to know from afar whether these stories are out-of-context snipes at the foibles of the elites versus whether the culture at these schools truly is just nuts. I can imagine the former, but to the extent it is the latter, I can imagine the problem being the extension into "anti-racist education" of the pathologies of conspicuous consumption. New York private school parents believe that with enough money one can purchase easy solutions to any personal problem. They view racism -- or more accurately, the possibility that their children will be, or be seen as, lacking in how they relate to racism -- as a problem, and so they also believe that they can solve that problem by chucking money at it. Indeed, any solution that doesn't look like the sort of thing that costs a truckload of money will be seen as inadequate. It has to be ostentatious for it to count.

An ostentatiously bespoke anti-racism curriculum with elements that are both conspicuously resource-intensive and often a little absurd in practice is like a school cafeteria that serves only genuine Marseilles bouillabaisse on Thursdays. It stands out as something "normal schools" can't do, which ends up being the only thing that recommends it. And if normal schools say they don't want to do it, what you're doing is nuts -- well, that shows how unrefined and gauche their palettes are. Of course they don't know good anti-racism when they see it -- they're a public school. 

As in all things, the exclusivity is the merit. Just like the best steak can only be found at a fine (expensive) steakhouse, the best "anti-racism" is of the sort that you could only possibly find at an elite private school in New York (to say it aloud underscores how ridiculous it is). And notice how different this is from what the DC schools are said to be doing.  Any school can do have a piddling "recommended reading list"; it takes a truly elite institution to be able to invite a prominent Brown University faculty member to give a lecture and then pull the offer because he's a bad fit.

In any event, my view on anti-racist education continues to be that 90% of it is a subject-specific synonym for "good education." Most of the time, that means I sniff at right-wing panics on the subject where basic elements of good pedagogy like "assign interesting readings" or "don't be a gratuitous jerk to your students" are presented as "cultural Marxism".  Occasionally, it means sniffing instead at overly self-satisfied performances of anti-racism that substitute presentation for substance. It would not at all surprise me if some posh New York private schools fell into the latter category. 

* I actually read CRT: An Introduction in high school, though not because it was assigned -- I came across the topic indirectly in a debate round, and purchased and read it of my own initiative. Remember: if you don't assign critical race theory in high school where it can be read under adult supervision, your kids will just read it on their own in some back library alley, and come to who-knows-what conclusions!

No comments: