Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday, Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer take questions from readers about their kids’ education. Have one? Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Abby and Brian,
I write as a concerned parent of a fifth grader at a private school that appears to prioritize “social justice” over academic excellence. The school has brought in a consultant and now the kids are reading all this new woke literature, and at the expense of the classics we all grew up on, like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Most of the teachers and parents I talk with just want school to be school—not some kind of Maoist social reeducation. Who is this all for?
I’m a left-wing New York City Democrat. I believe strongly in equal rights for all people. And I think we’ve still got a ways to go when it comes to equality. But I don’t want school to make my son feel bad just because he’s white. It’s not like he owned slaves. His great-great-great-grandparents were starving in Ireland during the time of slavery.
From the many letters we’ve received on this topic, and the broader conversation taking place in public, we can tell you that you are not alone in having a negative reaction to your kid’s school’s efforts to become more inclusive. But as educators who attended and taught at private schools for decades, we applaud the willingness to change. Of course, the execution matters enormously, and some schools have made smarter changes than others. But in our view, if you believe in equity and are concerned about your child’s education—as you do and are—you should be welcoming the school’s push to weave racial literacy more deeply into its curriculum.
Most private schools have failed to do so up until now, and they are right to try to correct for that. This does not mean, as you imply, that they will forsake academic rigor. Rather, if done right, anti-racist curricula will be challenging and edifying, giving children a meaningful, relevant education—not making your child feel bad, as you fear, but giving him the tools and knowledge to navigate a complex world. Such an approach requires that anti-racism be more than a mere supplement to the school’s existing curriculum or a superficial buzzword, and rather integral to every aspect of the school—its courses, practice, and mission.
These changes may feel sudden and out of nowhere to you, but the need for them has been long in the making. The consultant groups you refer to have been hired because independent schools primarily composed of white students have neglected to address the needs and voices of all their students, as evidenced by the many descriptions of traumatizing racism that students have posted to Black@ Instagram accounts. The goal of these groups is to recalibrate the independent-school experience so as to be more inclusive, and therefore enrich and broaden each student’s perspective.
Many of the steps that schools are taking to be more inclusive are quite modest. For example, some schools have begun asking teachers and students to use phrases such as What’s your background? instead of What are you? Schools shouldn’t prohibit students from asking about their classmates, but they are right to try to get people to avoid language that can objectify or alienate. Such a policy is hardly radical, yet it makes a big difference to the kids who feel hurt when they’re asked “what” they are. Moreover, the kids doing the asking who have never had to answer this question can hopefully become more sensitive and thoughtful. This attempt to teach empathy is what many parents seem to feel is an attack on some sort of sacred value system.
This is not to say that a more comprehensive assessment isn’t needed. When it comes to their curriculum, many schools do have a narrowly white and Eurocentric focus, and they should be revising that in favor of a more diverse curriculum. Curricula should allow all students to see aspects of themselves reflected and affirmed, and also illustrate how their lived experiences may differ from one another’s. Part of an educator’s job should be to question and broaden what is considered a classic. Successful schools teach children to contemplate, evaluate, and question ideas in order to better understand the world around them and their role within it. Race must be part of this discussion. That’s the opposite of diluting your child’s education. If anything, it’s making that education richer and more accurate.
This doesn’t mean chucking “the classics.” Your child should absolutely be reading Huck Finn. But if the school is teaching Huck Finn, the classes must grapple with the prevalence of the N-word in the text and, more important, Jim’s perspective, not just Huck’s. Moreover, if the school isn’t also teaching books such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by one of the greatest voices in American letters, then it’s not really educating your child about slavery.
If, in your opinion, the greatest works of American or Western literature are being excised in favor of less worthy texts, that is certainly a conversation worth having—and many parents of course have fair and reasonable concerns about the changes schools are considering. But having a thoughtful conversation about these decisions will require reading the new texts, refamiliarizing yourself with the classics, and, only then, if you still feel the same way, making the case that the old way was truly better, even with its narrower perspective and simpler narratives. What a society thinks of as “the classics” does and should evolve over time, and this conversation is part of that process.
This isn’t about making your son “feel bad”; it’s about educating him. If this curriculum is successful, kids won’t leave feeling responsible for what happened in the past, but they will learn that they are responsible, moving forward, for what they do with whatever power they might have. What better education could there be?
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