The Defining Parental Chasm Of Our Age

Last week, a disturbing poll was released in California revealing a titanic divide in parental views of public education. As expected, Democratic parents were far more positive than Republican parents about the overall quality of their children’s public school education. While this divergence of perspectives is hardly surprising, the size of the gap between the two, which can only be described as colossal, is striking.

Seventy-seven percent of Democratic parents believe California’s K-12 public education system is “going in the right direction,” whereas 79% of Republican parents believe the system is “going in the wrong direction.”

It is tempting, of course, to write this off with a rudimentary, knee-jerk reaction and conclude that the headlines of the past few months—disruptive Covid-19 policies, Critical Race Theory (CRT), and the surging presence of gender ideology—have become calcified in the minds of conservative parents, resulting in an overwhelmingly negative view of the schools funded by their tax money.

The reality, however, is both more complicated and far more interesting.

The division reflects not only a different set of opinions about the effectiveness of public school systems, but also an entirely different set of values and assumptions about the role of education in a democratic society. In some respects, the chasm between conservative and progressive parents reveals a fundamental tension as old as political philosophy itself: how does society maximize individual liberty without succumbing to chaos? How do we insist on standards and virtue without stifling or eroding the individual liberty that stands at the heart of a classical liberal republic?

Republican parents observe substantial chaos in our public schools and very little virtue. They notice that every political trend of the Left somehow seems to pervade—sometimes passively, sometimes overtly— the educational experiences of their children. They notice the seamless abandonment of earned advancement in favor of “equity” through widespread efforts to cancel accelerated or magnet programs across the country, as well as a strident rejection of the SAT, or even the LSAT. They notice the presence of gender ideology, as boys bathrooms are beginning to dispense tampons and the Department of Education has now released a video featuring a biology teacher claiming, “ . . . I would say, no, it’s not women that produce eggs. It’s ovaries that produce eggs.”

Though, conservative consternation goes much deeper than mere annoyance with daily headlines on cable news or the latest twitter posts from Libs of TikTok.  

Conservative parents traditionally anchor their understanding of education on horizons of individual aspiration. How are schools going to prepare my children to succeed in life? What habits, information, and skills will my children acquire in the classroom that will empower them to succeed in a commercially volatile age? Will they be highly educated, imbued with a robust communication and technological skill set? Will they know the important names, books, and events of human history? Will they be able to think critically, write cogently, and participate in the arduous but essential business of American citizenship?

Perhaps the most important conservative truth is that young people must be framed for freedom. Liberty morphs into a sinister licentiousness if it is not accompanied by robust and frequent confrontations with standards, rules, and mature adults who know the way to higher paths of life—who can guide young minds to meaningfully exercise freedoms while simultaneously fulfilling duties. Educators who rail against “hierarchies” or believe that the classroom should be more therapeutic than academic are not particularly helpful. The absence of these ameliorative confrontations is why public schools have devolved into meccas of chaos and dysfunction. Talk to modern-day teachers—not a policy wonk, politician, or nationally syndicated columnist for “The New York Times”—and the stories they could tell would surely leave the average citizen utterly appalled.

They’ll tell you about the steadfast refusal of modern schools to suspend students. They’ll tell you about the pressure to pass students from grade level to grade level, even if they’ve done next to nothing; this explains how graduation rates have skyrocketed as test scores have remained flat. They’ll tell you about the endless and ubiquitous spigot of vulgarity on campus—a security officer who is a friend of mine acerbically quipped, “I heard far less profanity working in prisons than I do in schools.” They’ll tell you about students brazenly playing on their phones in the middle of class with earbuds unapologetically protruding from their ears. They’ll tell you about the TikTok challenges that have implored students to vandalize school bathrooms, “smack a staff member,” or even worse. 

This isn’t sensationalism from a curmudgeon. Here’s the proof: American educators are leaving the profession. This mass exodus of teachers and school staff has very little to do with pay or compensation and everything to do with the atrocious behavior of American students and the lack of backbone from districts who do nothing about it for fear of being accused of bias. Norms and rules are deemed “oppressive” or “culturally biased” or whatever the trendy lingua franca is coming out of American Schools of Education. As AEI senior fellow Robert Pondiscio cleverly framed the issue, “Education’s highest object is to nourish the soul and inspire human flourishing, not to be a hobbyhorse for either ambitious technocrats or social-justice activists.” David Brooks recently noted that there is a perception among conservative parents that “progressives care more about their cultural agenda than actual education.” 

You think?   

At a time when 60% of California third graders are already reading below grade level—a hurdle which tends to get higher and more exacerbated over time—the conversations in education are often about renaming schools, upgrading technology, or justifying an erosion of standards with the pernicious panache of pseudo-compassion. A position statement from the National Council of Teachers of English recently argued that “the time has come to decenter book reading and essay writing as the pinnacles of English language arts education.” 

Reading? Writing? Who needs either, I suppose, when the kids have access to tablets and iPhones? And we wonder why so many freshmen college students are now required to take remedial classes.

These days, I struggle to remember the teacher I was twenty-four years ago. It has always been difficult for me to describe my rationale for becoming a teacher—other than to explain the exhilaration I experienced for the first time when I came into contact with the most extraordinary books ever written, sharing in the thoughts of men and women from ages past who dared to explain the meaning and pinnacles of human existence. My education taught me that life and existence are rich with endless possibilities of delight if we take the time to learn the lessons of those who came before us. It taught me that education is transformative, even revelatory, if it is done with the highest aspirations in mind. I desperately wanted to share this grandeur with my students. 

Now, I wonder why so many students are illiterate. I wonder why we don’t teach a reverence for elders and those with grand experience. I wonder why we are so eager to bestow freedom without wisdom and liberty without accountability. Civilizations rise and fall by the quality of human beings they produce. We may have a generation in our midst that has progressive values and the “correct” bumper stickers on their car or yard signs in their yard, but what quality of education are they receiving from the public school system? 

Conservatives want to know: “Can they read? Can they reason? Can they renew the American Experiment?” I suspect they know the answer.  

Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the recently-released Amazon best-selling book Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation. He has taught American civics for 24 years in Bakersfield, California and was the 2014 California Teacher of the Year (DAR). You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyAdams6.

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