Feature 12.20.2019 16 minutes

Waking from Meritocracy


The limits of education.

Why do we dream about school?

In our dreams, we are often returned a decade or two or five into our past, to the painted cinderblock halls and rows of knee-pinning desks of our yesteryear. We must explain to the scornful eyes of former classmates or skeptical teachers why we haven’t shown up in months or centuries, why we haven’t done any of our work, why we aren’t wearing any clothes. If Original Sin inflicted upon Adam and Eve shame at their own nakedness, and the temptation to hide from God’s eyes, then school is—in our dreams, if not always in our waking lives—a place where we encounter palpable evidence of our Fall.

School stays in our conscience and consciousness not just because of the endless, tiresome hours we spend there but because that is where we are seen, where our self-consciousness of who we are must break upon the rocks of others’ perceptions of us—peers’ and teachers’ and the file folders’ where our mythical permanent records reside.

An old Marxist critique of schooling runs that the school not only prepares children for their future class status but reproduces that status today, now, in class: the children in fancy private schools declaim and discuss in miniature corporate boardrooms, working class kids mass-produce worksheets in drab but adequate classrooms-as-factory-floors, and the children of the underclass find themselves in jail.

The force of this critique remains even though we admit of its frequent exceptions. Many is the son of bankers who can’t sit still or keep his hands to himself, and is sent to sit in the corner; many is the daughter of bankers’ maids who finds school exhilarating, dynamic; a place of order, reason, and justice where her own efforts merit reward and a glimpse of a promised future.

As Americans retreat from neighborhood, from church, from working in person, from shopping in person, the school remains a last redoubt of in-person community for parents as well as kids. An educators’ cliché runs that parents send their best to school—that they aren’t keeping another better set of kids at home.

This is true for parents as well. The lurid scenes of day-to-day family life—the flushed faces and raised voices, junk food and too much TV the night before—are, if not forgotten in the light of dawn, at least partially forgiven, and it is with scrubbed faces, clean clothes, and full stomachs that most kids wait for the yellow bus. Parents show up to teacher conferences only rarely with a chip on their shoulder, mostly with tail between their legs, knowing that whether because of nature or nurture, what they are about to find out is inevitably their fault.

Schools have a dual nature: both warehouse for kids while parents are at work and repository of those parents’ fondest hopes, both machines for grinding uniformity and vehicles for individual aspiration, a base plate on which our shared democratic society is built (in LEGO or less durable materials) and an institution whose most reliable effect is separating winners from losers, sheep from goats. Almost every other aspect of American life—violence and racial division, the opioid crisis and mortality, who gets married and who does not, whether you perceive Trump as an entertaining shit-stirrer or an existential threat—comes down to who did well in school.

The mechanism of our meritocracy is the deliberate physical concentration of those who excel at education. The result is it concentrates the social capital of being around a bunch of people who have a lot on the ball even more than it concentrates economic reward; we have a national industrial policy, you might say, centered on making college towns and the few big cities where college graduates want to live ever-fancier. The history of the last 50 years is the history of one group of people using slightly hidden proxies for intelligence tests to shape who they live near, work with, are served by, and send their kids to school with. That’s meritocracy.

Front-Row Fundamentalism

Understanding that education is mostly a source of inequality rather than primarily its solution (the “front-row versus back-row of the classroom” divide, in Chris Arnade’s formulation) inherently undermines liberalism’s claim to moral authority. If liberalism is the ideology of the educated in power, then it cannot justify itself successfully merely because it is what the educated believe in—or if it does, it must claim that eventually, everyone will become educated and everyone will be in power.

Both the early 2000s Housing Bubble and the 1990s-2000s Education Reform movement were in divergent ways last-ditch attempts by a bipartisan elite to prove that Good Old American Know-How and a lot of public money could mend the enduring divisions between the Learns and the Learn Nots, and make meritocratic globalized neoliberalism still produce an egalitarian cross-racial bourgeoisie. These both, of course, failed—the Housing Bubble spectacularly, with vast oceans of foreign money not making up for the stubborn fact that poor Americans can’t pay back $400,000 loans.

Education Reform, on the other hand, was a Napoleon-Invades-Russia near-total victory followed by collapse—new teacher evaluation, curriculum, and testing systems were adopted across almost every state, implemented in almost every district, and promptly drove almost everybody crazy—suburban and urban parents and teachers alike—while promised results failed to appear. We are now, it appears, in the “gaunt, haunted French soldiers scrambling westward in blind fear across Poland” stage of the Napoleonic story of recent education reforms. Mass charter conversion, new multi-day online tests, new quantitative test-based teacher evaluation systems—states simply can’t drop the reforms they adopted just a few years ago fast enough. More than a pendulum swing, it has become a panicked rout.

Waking from these troubled dreams, what other solution was available?

Critical race studies, feminist and queer theory waited in academia for over 30 years and were ideally purposed for social media, but also for this age of disappointed, frustrated elites who needed a new agenda. But while a corporate and political elite may have been eager for a new story to tell, and a fractured fairytale media landscape ready to sell it, it was the college-educated upper middle class—and in particular parents—that allowed the sweeping transformation of our political and institutional landscape, within and without education, over the last few years. Much of 21st-century life—the constant, often demeaning anxiety of parents towards children, the mesmerism of neo-Stalinist language games, the melting of public life into nihilistic performance art—is explained in part by white collar workers’ justified disbelief in the value creation of their own work and efforts, and the search for other new sources of meaning and justification in their place.

The Great Awokening, the quasi-religious revival in intersectional, identity-obsessed, left-liberal politics over the last several years, is both a recognition by college educated white millennials and Boomer/X parents that their role in the new racial and sexual dispensation is contingent and tenuous (due to demographic change, shifting technology, and a transforming economy, among much else) and an attempt to “get right” with this new world through rituals of rhetorical and political self-sacrifice.

Charles Murray argued in Coming Apart (2012) that the blue-state upper middle class, on the 2010 eve of Great Awokening, was largely restrained in their private lives even as they, he lamented, would not “preach what they practiced.” The years since have shown this dispensation to be unstable, but not in the direction Murray hoped.

The table for religious revival was set both by the escalating competitiveness of parenthood and by the sense that other less enlightened adults had dropped out of the race, fostering the mingled guilt and tribal consciousness as a member of a moral elite the Awokening required. Social media was gasoline dumped on the American fire-pit and the particular political incentives of Democrats in Obama’s second term were a lit match, but the dry kindling underneath was a self-consciousness by white college educated adults that they weren’t walking what they talked.

Amid other signals of the Awokening, upper middle-class parents rebelled against both education reform and then the language and mores of meritocratic educational achievement, at first through a “testing opt-out” movement that made largely useless the state tests intended for accountability, then more recently through embrace of ever more stringent codes of race-conscious speech and behavior in public schools. Upper-middle-class parents, one imagines, had come to realize that the exhausting Alice in Wonderland Red Queen Race of full-time meritocratic achievement wasn’t doing them any favors—the tiger kids out in Flushing are studying six hours for every hour that Connor and Madison put in—and was making them and their kids miserable.

More than that, parents’ own diminishing sense of their worthiness and purpose and identity outside of their kids’ moral trajectory and future class status makes it harder to distinguish grownup politics from the drama of the gifted or ungifted child.

Dropping the Meritocratic Mask

Perhaps upper-middle-class parents came to understand that the battered shield that education presented against the decadence and disintegration of the post-bourgeois world was itself starting to rust and fall apart.

Marriage, stable employment, the restraint of the traditional bourgeoisie are all still required for the social reproduction of the upper middle class, even as they are less and less dominant culturally. The transition to adulthood is thus a passage into a world outside these signposts of routine life, and therefore will be rocky and fraught, no matter how much the young person’s parents spent on SAT tutoring. In the terror of realizing that even spending the best hours of their lives marching their kid through AP French and BC Calc wasn’t going to wholly protect them from a “dim world of processed food, obesity, divorce, addiction, online-education scams, stagnant wages, outsourcing, rising morbidity rates” (in the words of a resonant if much-mocked apologia in the Atlantic by one upper-upper-middle-class New York City parent), it was time for a new moral revolution.

This moral revolution has, usually, non-white representatives as its public face. Richard Carranza, formerly the head of San Francisco schools when they canceled 8th grade algebra (since not everybody could pass it) is now the head of New York City schools where he has “mandated training intended to purge Department of Education employees of the implicit biases endemic to whiteness,” as Wesley Yang explained, labeling the new ideology of the Great Awokening in power, once the march through the institutions is fully complete, as the “successor ideology.”

In rhetoric, this ideology takes aim at “whiteness.” In practice, it often works against the meritocratic, testing-based mechanisms of educational organization in which Asians have been the ones most likely to thrive—like the New York City Specialized Science High Schools (Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and brethren) which Carranza has sought to diversify by ditching the admissions test that led the majority of these schools to be Asian.

Similarly, in another district dominated numerically by whites and Asians but rhetorically obsessed with the underachievement of black and Hispanic students, the Seattle school district is planning to infuse all K-12 math classes with ethnic-studies questions that “encourage students to explore how math has been appropriated by Western culture and used in systems of power and oppression.” In response to these and other irruptions Steven Wilson, the white CEO of the Ascend charter network and an idealistic, naïve holdover from the ed reform years, wrote a worried blog post fretting that values such as objectivity and worship of the written word and intellectual pursuit and joy were being dismissed as “damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture.” He was fired by Ascend’s board (headquartered in ever-gentrifying Brooklyn) for his effrontery.

This ideology in power does not primarily dispense with regime challenges by mass cancellations or rounding up kulaks but by ensuring individuals never have independent economic or social status to challenge it. It comes after other forms of ameliorative liberalism have failed, and seeks to dismiss and discredit these failures, but in doing so, dismisses and discredits the goals of liberalism itself. But things can get much worse.

The ascendant class of young adults appears largely uninterested in reproducing the partial and hypocritical but resilient adherence to bourgeois norms of their middle class parents. The passage into greater political and institutional influence without marriage or children of this rapidly growing segment of American adults, with diminishing local networks and non-political loyalties, will likely further political fragmentation. The supervision and political control of the education system by people without much skin in the game and without their own kids in public schools, in particular, could allow interference with schooling to become more radical and even less restrained.

It is possible that, at least in cities in which the upper middle class form a nexus, the news from local school systems will continue to get more bizarre. The rituals of rhetorical and political self-sacrifice may get more extreme, the tone of everyday school more theological, the gestures at egalitarian policy more clearly foolhardy and self-harming. If the last fifty years have sent a simple, coded message to parents- “Don’t send your kids to school with the poor!”- perhaps the next decade will send another kind of message- “Don’t send your kids to school with the rich, their parents are nuts.”

The Success of Limits—and the Limits of Success

The task of political theory should not, perhaps, be simply to bemoan the troubles of the present nor to wring our hands about the future, and still less to paint pictures of the ideal City of God—but, in Italo Calvino’s words, at the end of Invisible Cities, “to seek and be able to recognize who and what, in the midst of hell, are not hell, then let them endure, give them space.”

 So let me conclude with a little plea for anarchy and for tolerance in how we run our schools.

American schools could be improved further, but it is hard to argue they don’t pass some low bar of adequacy; in all but the most chaotic schools, motivated children go on do well—even if not as well as they would in the best of all possible settings.

There is no one way to improve our schools, nor are the needs of school systems more universal than the needs of the five- and six- and seventeen-year-olds entering them each year. We are a wealthy nation, where most kids in the public school system are designated as poor, eligible at least for free or reduced-price lunch; a still-predominantly white country where most public school students are not white. And we are a nation that has, at least over the last several decades, viewed its schools as an almost continuous crisis and concentration of failure, even while pouring in far more expenditure per student than any comparable country.

It is likely that as the nation’s schools become more obviously poorer than the nation as a whole, the sense of crisis which has been our shared narrative will be more and more appealing to all participants in the political system. Education is purported to be the “civil-rights issue of this century,” as some of my friends and former colleagues are fond of saying. I think this is confused as to the nature of rights and the capacities of the state, but it is true that to be a teacher is to experience yourself as the guardian and shepherd of that Beloved Community of which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke, among the small desks and small people, in your little domain between the pencil sharpener and the air conditioner. The truth is that the aspiration of shared purpose and common quest is what keeps schools and classrooms, those societies in miniature, functioning to the limited, partial, but resilient extent they do.

American education is a frustrating, imperfect thing, not only in its execution but in its nature, and the scope of schools to solve the problems of American society is limited at best. Even the most successful possible incarnation of American schooling will not look like “success,” even if many parents and kids and teachers will feel successful. Nor will it, most likely, produce especially impressive test scores by international standards. It will look—and will be—unjust and unfair as well as unequal.

There is the occasional philosopher king in the American school system, but she is busy teaching first grade.

Much of adulthood is learning to live with diminishing returns. Our best efforts, at work or love or the rest of life, are often less productive than our half efforts. As with the pint of ice cream hiding in the freezer, devouring some is usually better than devouring all.

We keep coming back and coming back/To the real

But we have a harder time applying that insight to public policy. Our society can help some people some of the time with some expenditure of resources. But whether we can help more people more of the time with greater expenditure of resources is not simply a matter of being “smart” in our interventions, of listening to the results of “evidence-based policy.”

Human beings are resilient things that to themselves are often true, even when those selves are not how we want them to be. Parenthood, you hope, grudgingly involves this recognition: that your dreams for other people must ultimately bow before the person they are bound to become.

But when it comes to other people’s children we have a harder time managing this acceptance. We acknowledge that college seems to be the sole ticket to a comfortable middle-class life, so we design ninth-grade curricula and six-grade curricula and third-grade standardized tests that presuppose everyone taking them is on the train to an academic degree, at a “good” 4-year school.

Recognizing that this is not in fact the case, that many and probably most children in the country are not going to complete an academic degree, does not mean counting those children out of the society, or presuming before we could possibly know that their future is predetermined to be X instead of Y.

It is not that we are free of obligation to other people’s children, if only because they will determine the character of the society when they grow up. But those obligations are to the place they grow up in—that it is clean, and safe, and well-lit, and has enough kind people to talk with and books to read and space to play in, enough air and color and life. No doubt many schools do not fulfill this minimal list.

The commitment of the society, that can still be largely fulfilled, is to provide an adequate place for kids to grow up in. But it is they who are doing the growing up.

Everything-and everyone- changes. This is the fundamental perspective of developmental biology, and also a necessary corrective for our dreams of what public institutions, and especially schools, can do. Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic philosopher, is reputed to have said: “You cannot step twice into the same river.” The adult who steps across a stream may be a different person when he returns a year later, but a three-year-old, or a seven-year-old, will be a really different person a year later. Adults may be ever-changing, but children are really ever-changing, in ways moderated not just by their environment and who they were yesterday, but by the invisible counterpoint of the unfolding changing world and the child’s genes.

Practically every teacher who sticks with it for a while has had the experience of a former student returning to them years later to tell them, “man, your class saved my life,” to which you as a teacher ask yourself: “Really? All I remember is you and Jason playing paper ball soccer with each other on the desk.” But to that kid, at that time, it made a difference. Perhaps any halfway competent teacher would have made the same difference; perhaps if it hadn’t been you it would have been someone else the following year.

All the kid knows is that, as in our dreams of school, he has returned to the river, and neither he nor the river is the same.

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