The Show-Trial Rhetoric That Took Down a Charter-School Founder

A petition accusing Steven Wilson of “white supremacist” language makes no sense, and barely tries to.

Two students sit at desks in an otherwise empty classroom in front of a chalk board.
Andrea Comas / Reuters

About 10 years ago, Steven Wilson founded the Ascend charter school in Brooklyn. Ascend is now a network with 15 schools; they serve mostly poor kids of color from kindergarten to high-school age, and they work. Test scores there outstrip New York City averages. Some charter schools have become notorious for excessively punitive discipline; Ascend examined and revised its disciplinary practices in response.

Social justice in action, no? But Wilson is white, he sees excesses in the far left’s take on classroom education, he deigned to say so in an obscure blog post this summer—and he seems to have been fired as a result.

The group “Friends of Ascend” initiated a petition titled “Hold the CEO of Ascend Public Charter Schools Accountable for White Supremacist Rhetoric.” More than 500 signed it, and out Wilson went. Julia Bator, a co-chair of the Ascend board, told staff that the board’s “decision is not the result of a single event or a simple reaction to recent unrest.” She said in an interview with Chalkbeat that the board examined Wilson’s record after the blog post and that Ascend had fallen behind on “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” However, I suspect that minus the blog post, Wilson would still have his job, and the petition remains Exhibit A of what has become an extremely problematic—to recruit a term popular with the set in question—form of expression in modern educated America.

In his blog post, Wilson makes a series of rather well-known points against progressive educational philosophy, familiar from E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Wilson decries how the pushback against traditional education, with its rote learning and culturally narrow range of perspectives, has often entailed a pendulum swing too far in the other direction, toward a gauzy “student-focused” approach that deemphasizes the authority of the teacher or, most disturbingly, the learning of facts.

Wilson’s problem is with people such as Rousseau and John Dewey and even Dwight D. Eisenhower, who espoused what Wilson considers anti-intellectual ideas about how and what children should learn. (These targets make for a distinctly odd assemblage in a blog post that Friends of Ascend has tarred as white supremacist.) Wilson also notes that some civil-rights advocates have taken a cue from this current in educational philosophy, and he takes a swipe at identity-obsessed activists. That is what got him fired—but it’s only the basis of utter misunderstanding.

The writers of the petition only fitfully comprehend even the basic logic of Wilson’s points. Wilson observes in his blog post that “liberal education is under fresh attack, this time as ‘whiteness.’” The petition states, “This claim equates a liberal education with ‘whiteness,’” the very opposite of Wilson’s argument. “The underlying message here,” say the petition writers, “is that a liberal education is whiteness, whiteness is therefore intellectual, and any challenge to a liberal education is a challenge to whiteness, so any challenge to whiteness is anti-intellectual.” Even following the rather tortuous logic here, Wilson gives no indication of thinking that all challenges to something as vast as white hegemony qualify as anti-intellectualism.

Wilson also notes that in the past, some civil-rights activists wanted to relax scholastic requirements for poor black students. They supposed that the burdens of racism were so onerous that it was unreasonable to require “students of color to undertake demanding academic work,” and they suggested that schools stress visual and active learning over reading and discussion. The petitioners claim that this observation is “historically inaccurate.” But history backs Wilson up, and makes for odd reading from the vantage point of 2019. In 1987, for instance, the New York State Board of Regents distributed a booklet claiming that black kids prefer “inferential reasoning rather than deductive or inductive reasoning” and “show a tendency to approximate space, number and time instead of aiming for complete accuracy,” with the implication that this is an alternative “learning strategy.” Not only white leaders advanced this point of view. “I don’t see [the idea that black kids learn differently] as an issue of racism at all,” a black Regent said. “For the first time we’re saying maybe we haven’t been doing this right.”

Elsewhere, Wilson criticizes the idea that a focus on text is a kind of “white supremacy.” That may sound bizarre, but at a conference about “white supremacy culture” in education convened by the New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza, attendees were shown a slide explaining that white-supremacist thinking includes “worship of the written word” and even “objectivity.” The petition quotes Wilson’s concern and then, with no argumentation whatsoever, flags him as “protecting white supremacy culture and a paternalistic orientation toward the work of social justice reform.”

The petition makes nothing approaching a meaningful case against Wilson’s blog post, much less his fitness as CEO of Ascend. The writers aim to persuade not through argument, but through aura; the petition bristles with terms such as white supremacy and culturally responsive, in response to which educated whites today are trained to nod on the pain of being tarred as bigots. The language typified by this petition doesn’t sit you down; it shoves you against the wall.

Readers ought not suppose that this lingo constitutes a kind of higher wisdom. The $10 words and long sentences give an impression of reflection and authority, but quite often they are the vehicle of flabby reasoning.

For example, the writers of the petition seem oddly unfamiliar with how to construct a point. Follow, if you can, this passage accusing Wilson of being a white supremacist: “The article later reinforces the importance of this liberal education by stating such an education ‘empowers them to escape poverty and dependency.’” Um, just how is that hope offensive from the CEO of a charter school? The petitioners fail to make it clear in their composition that they consider this very liberal education to be a sham.

Or the petition claims that Wilson “dismisses certain ‘damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture’ such as ‘worship of the written word’ as means of justifying reduced intellectual expectations of students.” In English, the petitioners are suggesting that Wilson dismisses “worship of the written word,” one of the “damaging characteristics of white supremacy,” in order to reduce intellectual expectations. But what the petitioners intend to say, through the clunky use of scare quotes, is that Wilson dismisses the claim that worship of the written word is white supremacist. Again, the petitioners reveal an almost mysterious lack of concern with precision of expression and organization of thought—as if the terminology alone constitutes suasion. I doubt that people of this orientation are the ones who should be deciding who runs a network of educational institutions.

Overall, the document is redolent of the star chamber. The idea that Wilson’s socially concerned blog post contains “oppressive content that perpetuates white supremacist ideology” is as absurd as the idea that Galileo was immoral for espousing heliocentrism. And yet this shoddy, performative document, which history will judge as a peculiar and regrettable token of its era, apparently led to Wilson’s ejection from an organization that improves the lives of underserved black children, and that he himself founded.

The petitioners assert that Wilson has an “underlying message.” They have one, too: that anyone they decree as having even a whiff of “white supremacy” about him must be excommunicated upon their unquestioned say-so. This message must be treated as the pestilence that it is, but resisting it will not be easy. Many suppose that modern social-justice activists make “Just trust me, or else” arguments cynically as a kind of room-clearing battering ram, that they’re seeking power through sheer volume. But this isn’t just about power; they genuinely do harbor a sense that the recitation of certain terms in the activist tool kit constitutes logic itself, and that to declare someone or something “white supremacist” requires no explanation. Perhaps they consider their leftist perspective too self-evidently correct to require actual defense, but that is evidence of a distinctly parochial worldview, only fitfully classifiable as intellectual. It isn’t the hardest thing to accuse people of being powermongers. What’s thorny is telling people that what they present as brilliance is, in fact, not.

Sadly, failure to acknowledge nuance is alarmingly common in progressive-activist circles, where dogma beats any hint of complexity.

At Wilfrid Laurier University, a graduate student named Lindsay Shepherd led a classroom conversation on Jordan Peterson’s views on gender pronouns. Although she disagreed with Peterson’s views, which she presented for the sake of balance, she was told by administrators that she had created a “toxic climate” for some students and had committed the equivalent of playing a speech by Hitler as if it were a “neutral” text. At Evergreen State, the biology professor Bret Weinstein was hounded out of his post for refusing to heed a demand that whites vacate the campus for a day. During a confrontation, he asked students to allow him a difference of opinion, only to be told to general approbation, “You’re saying some racist shit.” I’ve written before about the New School professor who quoted James Baldwin as using the N-word and was investigated by her university. (She was ultimately exonerated.)

Buzzwords are not argument. Tribalist, inquisitional excommunication is neither constructive nor progressive, regardless of benevolent intentions. College administrators, charter-school boards, and the rest of us must resist bowing to this kind of rhetoric. We are merely giving in to fear, and damage society even further; by condescending to the members of a parochial cabal, we enable them in the fiction that their cant is truth.