If you haven’t read George Packer’s fascinating and terrifying essay on what the culture war has done to education in some circles, you should read it right now. If you don’t have time, here are two quick lessons: Don’t raise your kids in New York City. Don’t expect schools to teach your kids the things that really matter.
Some of the best parts of the essay explain just how off base our current obsession with what makes us different (as opposed to what binds us) have taken well-meaning educators, and hint at how much worse things might get if parents don’t step in. And by step in, Packer doesn’t necessarily mean getting more involved in your kids’ schools. Overbearing, college-admissions focused parents are probably the source of the problem in the first place. He means step in and teach them—yourself—about the things that matter.
How to be a good person. What’s actually important. The values that have allowed the West to survive and thrive for thousands of years. As Packer explains of his own son’s early education:
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. He didn’t learn that conflicting values and practical compromises are the lifeblood of self-government. He was given no context for the meaning of freedom of expression, no knowledge of the democratic ideas that Trump was trashing or of the instruments with which citizens could hold those in power accountable. Our son knew about the worst betrayals of democracy, including the one darkening his childhood, but he wasn’t taught the principles that had been betrayed. He got his civics from Hamilton.
As we’ve talked about here several times, more people need to wake up and realize that it’s not the school’s job to teach kids the bedrock principles of humanity. It’s your job!
It’s actually not that crazy to have your son or daughter learn civics from Hamilton:The Musical. It means that you—Dad—took your kid to a play and then discussed it with them afterwards. And then maybe you guys planned a family trip to Washington D.C after. Or visited a Revolutionary War battlefield together. Or watched a documentary or read a book aloud together. And then discussed it. And shared. And connected. No school can hold a candle to that.
Your children’s school is going to teach them facts, if you’re lucky. The who, what, where, when. They will teach them much less of the how and the why, because that is the part of history that’s messy and uncomfortable and, in some instances, unsettled. Educators get caught up in popular trends and standardized tests. They teach to memory not to mastery, and in the gap between those two things is what it takes to be a well-rounded person, an informed citizen. Your job is to fill that gap, to strike the balance, to even out the distortions with a strong sense of the personal…and the principled. It’s your job to give them perspective and the full picture.
You have to do it.