In Defense of Private Schools

“It’s not independence that is indefensible. It’s inequity.”

Photo of magazine open to Caitlin Flanagan's April cover story on private schools
Katie Martin

Private Schools Are Indefensible

The gulf between how rich kids and poor kids are educated in America is obscene, Caitlin Flanagan argued in April.

As a public-school student in a district where 78 percent of our nearly 50,000 students are low-income, I find the facts in Caitlin Flanagan’s article hard to hear and even harder to ignore. The past school year has furthered the inequity between private and public schools. Again and again, public-school students are getting the short end of the stick. How can we compete with those who have been learning in person for slots at selective colleges that prioritize rich and legacy students? If private-school parents were really worried “that their kids will be emerging into a bleaker landscape than they did,” they would enroll their children in public schools where their money and power can make a difference.

Izzie Kim
Sacramento, Calif.

In 2020, I graduated from an independent New York all-girls school that is mentioned in Caitlin Flanagan’s article. Many of the phenomena Flanagan observes were evident at my school. Yes, the parents had too much influence, especially donors. Yes, the capital campaigns were absurd. Yes, the people were fixated on elite-college admissions. And yes, there was structural racism. Change is badly needed there.

But my school was, to me and so many others, more than a “consumer product for the rich” or a means of guaranteeing future money and power. I transferred there in high school, and as a humanities lover coming of age in a STEM-centric, test-score-focused, preprofessional educational climate, I felt I’d stumbled into intellectual paradise. I am certain that my school’s first value (before boosting its capital or launching its graduates into the professional stratosphere) was and is learning, joyfully, for its own sake.

That, I think, is something rare enough to be worth preserving, something that would be hard to replicate, something to which more students, not fewer, should have access. It’s not independence that is indefensible. It’s inequity.

Abigail Sylvor Greenberg
New York, N.Y.

Flanagan’s prescription against the ills of private-school excess leaves me scratching my head. Apparently, the solution lies in private schools “not only limiting the amount of money that individual parents can give, but also accepting that schools don’t need to be showplaces. In order to become more equitable, they would have to become less opulent.” In other words, the answer isn’t to make public schools better, but instead to make private schools worse. In truth, the only way to tear down these elite schools would be to build up the competition: public schools.

Jake Alrich
New York, N.Y.

The schools Flanagan cites, with billion-dollar endowments and facilities and offerings rivaling those of many colleges, may reasonably be accused of perpetuating social stratification. However, the picture she paints is incomplete. She tars all independent schools with the same brush, failing to mention or even imply the existence of numerous smaller and less influential independent schools serving crucial roles in the educational fabric nationwide.

Ed Carpenter
Portland, Ore.

As an alum of Sidwell Friends and a current public-school English teacher in an affluent suburban district, I found Caitlin Flanagan’s article resonant. Like Flanagan, academic rigor dominates my memory of private education in the 1990s. However, memories of the good old days are mostly false—wealthy private schools have always cultivated elite status within their student body. This is nothing new: Schools for the rich create narratives to excuse their own existence and to reshape elite status into a social good (consider the ubiquitous language of leadership in private-school mission statements). What is new is that social-justice language is now a powerful mechanism for signaling elite status. This presents a paradox for well-meaning teachers and earnest students in private schools and affluent public schools. How can equity-minded teachers and students in elite enclaves develop a just model of education that avoids simply teaching students the progressive language that is now a prerequisite for entry into the ruling class? Unmasking hypocritical parents, self-serving students, and disingenuous educators is easy. Teaching and learning real lessons of justice within fundamentally unjust institutions is very hard.

Brian Herrmann
Hull, Mass.

America Without God

As religious faith has declined, Shadi Hamid wrote in April, ideological intensity has risen.

I agree that “politics” are more divisive in the United States than they were during the 1937–98 period that Hamid harkens back to as the ideal. But that time was characterized by the systematic exclusion of everyone whose views differed more than marginally from the mainstream. Socialists, atheists, homosexuals, and minority races were all excluded from the “politics” that most were allowed to see.

The ending of that systematic exclusion is what we are seeing now. The divisions that exist and seem worse now were already there; the fact that we are seeing them and talking about them means that we are moving closer to the realization of our “American creed.”

Matt Halterman
Lake Villa, Ill.

Hamid creates a false equivalence between what he calls “wokeism” and right-wing conspiracy mongering. “Woke” means no longer ignoring the inconvenient reality of life in America experienced by other people. Unlike the deluded right, “woke” people are responding to observable facts such as poverty, systemic racism, and oppression. If the reality-based left has given up religion, which often requires accepting claims that contradict or lack evidence, this isn’t “displacement”; it’s just consistent rejection of unsupported beliefs.

Richard Plevin
Novato, Calif.

Shadi Hamid replies:

One might say that any revolution worth its salt takes its proper share of casualties, and that woke excess is the price to be paid for progress. But ending systemic exclusion does not, or at least should not, require this. If anything, the often superficial politics of representation, the preoccupation with elite manners, and the focus on “canceling” individuals who diverge from orthodoxy all detract from systemic questions. Corporations have been eager to jump on the woke bandwagon precisely because they find such distractions useful.

Those most intent on upholding the new orthodoxy are white liberals who—not incidentally—are considerably less religious than Black or Latino Americans. In the process, they patronize people of color, assuming that all Latino, Black, and Arab people are part of homogeneous collectives, grateful for the effort expended on their behalf. Richard Plevin says that woke people are merely responding to “observable facts.” Yes, poverty, systemic racism, and oppression are facts, but reasonable people disagree on their proximate causes as well as what types of policy interventions help address them.

Behind the Cover

In this month’s cover story, Clint Smith confronts the myth of the Lost Cause. In his reporting, Smith spoke with people who would keep that myth alive. What would it take for them to finally acknowledge the role that slavery played in American history—and the role that their Confederate heroes played in defending that institution? For the cover, Ricardo Rey rendered the Confederate flag as a melting symbol, its power slowly diminishing.

Paul Spella, Senior Art Director


“How Special Ops Became the Solution to Everything” (April) stated that a special Israeli unit stormed a hijacked airliner on the tarmac in Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976, to rescue hostages. The hostages were in fact rescued from an airport in Entebbe. “Private Schools Are Indefensible” (April) stated that two-thirds of the winners of Princeton’s Sachs Scholarship over the past decade came from private schools. In fact, more than half did.