The Commons

Readers respond to our October 2019 issue and more.

Updated at 1:30 p.m. ET on November 12, 2019.

When the Culture War Comes for the Kids

In October, George Packer wrote about his attempt to do right by his children while navigating New York City’s schools, caught between a brutal meritocracy and a radical new progressivism.

As public-school principals in Brooklyn, we feel obligated to correct George Packer’s mischaracterization of the educational approach used in New York City schools.

We run our schools with one goal in mind: excellence and high achievement for every student. This—not a pledge to a particular political orthodoxy—is the motivation behind the intense investment of time and energy we put into our kids. Research shows that students achieve more at integrated schools—and we know integration works, because we see it working in our schools.

Despite Mr. Packer’s assertions, we are not “getting rid of objective standards.” On the contrary, we are crystal clear about the educational heights we expect our students to reach, and we are committed to giving each of them what they need to get there. That will necessarily look different for every student, and we take on that challenge every single day.

Anna Allanbrook,
Principal, P.S. 146

Michael Perlberg,
Principal, M.S. 839

Arin Rusch,
Principal, M.S. 447
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Concerns about “meritocracy,” cited in George Packer’s essay, were what motivated us and hundreds of other parents in his Brooklyn school district to meet regularly over a period of six months to transform our racially separate and unequal middle schools.

We were persuaded by troves of research, produced over decades, showing that equity and excellence are not mutually exclusive—they reinforce each other, as we have experienced with our own children. We were also driven by values that would not allow us to accept that neighbors in our supposedly progressive community would continue to be sorted by race.

Undoing the injustices of racism and segregation has never been—and will never be—accomplished without conflict and hurt feelings on the part of long-privileged groups. But as the many schools nationwide that have persevered through those transitions demonstrate, students across the socioeconomic spectrum all ultimately benefit. Packer may feel that he lost in the demographic process, but perhaps he should expand his notion of what it means to win—and reconsider his assumptions about what makes an excellent school.

Carrie McLaren,
Coalition for Equitable Schools

Reyhan Mehran,
Parents for Middle School Equity
Brooklyn, N.Y.

I’m a biracial father of a 2-year-old child who will probably be defined by society as white. I’m a liberal person and someone who has a lifetime of experience with the complexities of race. The identity politics of the current liberalism scare me, and the fact that they’re the only plausible alternative to Donald Trump’s fearmongering kleptocracy scares me even more. I feel the author’s pain—there’s no right place for liberals who still find value in the views of others and are actually open-minded in the broadest sense. Liberal identity politics come from a deep and meaningful place, but their current incarnation is a caricature of what they should be.

Nate Holton
Milwaukee, Wis.

The issues Packer sees in his kids’ NYC schools are present all over the nation, certainly here in Minnesota, which has one of the biggest divides in the nation between the test scores of students of color and those of their white counterparts. My own kids received an excellent education in their large public school district, which has gradually (and since 2016 more intensely) become politicized.

There is still dedication and passion in teaching. The changes Packer notes are profound, though, and much of what we grew up learning and want our kids to know will not come back, at least not in the form we recognize.

Janet Ha
Hopkins, Minn.

George Packer replies:

I don’t know why Carrie McLaren and Reyhan Mehran write that I feel I “lost in the demographic process.” As my essay said, I support our district’s integration plan. This year I’m volunteering time in our son’s middle school to try to help make it a success. What I criticized was the plan’s indifference to the difficulties of academically mixed classrooms, and an intolerant ideology that answers good-faith criticism with a phrase like “hurt feelings on the part of long-privileged groups.”

Behind the Cover

In choosing a symbol to represent this issue and inaugurate the magazine’s redesign, we wanted something striking and metaphorically rich: A bloody hand. The contours of a (fractured) nation. The universal symbol for “Stop!” A body divided against itself. The photographer Sam Kaplan, the stylist Brian Byrne, and their teams captured the hand’s porous colors—every smudge and glint—in vivid detail, under the photography direction of Luise Stauss, and in doing so helped us construct an apt emblem for the political fractiousness and general chaos of the current moment.

Peter Mendelsund, Creative Director
Oliver Munday, Senior Art Director

The Facts

What we learned fact-checking this issue

This month, Tom Junod writes about his transformative friendship with Fred Rogers, the inspiration for a new film starring Tom Hanks. Junod recently recovered emails from the cardigan-wearing minister—they corresponded regularly from 1998, when Junod profiled Rogers for Esquire, until 2003, when Rogers died—and shared them for fact-checking purposes.

In 1999, Junod was assigned to write about the 11-year-old rapper Lil’ Bow Wow, and sought Rogers’s advice. What should he ask the boy—who, at age 6, had been handed his stage name by Snoop Dogg and had appeared in the music video for “Gin and Juice”? Rogers replied: “Does he have any friend(s) with whom he can share his times of sadness and fear (everybody has those you know)? … Does he have anything that gives him comfort when he goes to sleep? Could you tell him what it was like for you when you were 11?”

In his article about the tween, Junod mentions that he and Lil’ Bow Wow played hide-and-seek together. “How lovely,” Rogers wrote. “There’s [a child] in everybody, but B.W. gave you the invitation of ‘Seeking’ his out.”

Stephanie Hayes, Associate Editor

Q & A

In the October issue, McKay Coppins wrote about the battle between Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. to succeed their father and rule the MAGA empire. Here, Coppins answers questions sent in by readers.

Q: What surprised you most as you reported this story?

A: I was amazed to learn how much Friedrich Trump—a German immigrant, enterprising brothel owner, and alleged draft dodger—had in common with his grandson serving in the Oval Office. The way a family ethos can be passed down through generations fascinates me.

Q: Elevating family members and friends to high offices or unelected advisory roles is in fact a norm from past presidencies rather than an unusual feature of the Trump administration, as you observe. Going forward, what could be done to prevent the executive branch from engaging in this kind of cronyism?

A: An anti-nepotism law is already on the books that prohibits the president from giving jobs in federal agencies to family members. By appointing Ivanka and her husband, Jared, to the White House staff, Donald Trump exploited a loophole that many Democrats argue should be closed.

That said, it’s probably not possible to completely eliminate the influence of unelected relatives. That’s why I think the adult members of any first family should be subjected to the kind of rigorous scrutiny we tried to apply with this story.

Q: Was it hard to get people close to the Trump family to talk with you? What were their motives and fears?

A: Sources were understandably anxious about sharing the details of an intrafamily power struggle that the Trumps had no interest in publicizing. What I found, though, was that the more one faction cooperated with me, the more compelled others felt to talk. Don Jr.’s allies didn’t want their side of the story left out, and neither did Ivanka’s. It took several months and dozens of interviews, but over time, I was able to get a complete picture of this very unusual family.

Correction: “What Happened to Aung San Suu Kyi?” (September) incorrectly identified Aung Zaw as one of Suu Kyi’s student bodyguards in 1988. Aung Zaw was a student activist at the time.