Thursday, February 10, 2022

The Unbearable Bleakness of American Schooling

A phenomenal essay, from Robert Pondiscio, at Commentary, "How contemporary education fetishizes the bad and the broken in American life":

On a mild October night in 1962, a frightened housewife, eight months pregnant, climbed into bed in Yonkers, New York, with her two-year-old daughter. Her husband was at work on the West Coast and not with his family on what she felt certain would be the last night of their lives. Laying down in the dark holding her child, she cried and prayed until sleep overtook her.

Morning came and they were both still alive, not incinerated in bed as she had feared after President Kennedy shocked the nation with his televised address on the Cuban missile crisis the night before.

I was born five weeks later. Days before my first birthday, Kennedy was shot to death in Dallas. By the time I started kindergarten on Long Island, nearly 30,000 American GIs had been killed in Vietnam. I learned to read in Mrs. Bobrowitz’s first-grade class the same year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; race riots tore apart Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, and other cities the summer before I started second grade. My elementary-school years were marked by levels of domestic unrest and political violence that in retrospect stagger the imagination. There were more than 1,900 domestic bombings in 1972 alone. Airplane hijackings were common. My dad flew for American Airlines.

My parents made no attempt that I’m aware of to shield me from the turbulent events of my childhood years. I thumbed the New York Daily News every morning after checking the Mets box score; I plucked Newsday out of the mailbox when I came home from school. The television was rarely turned off in our home. I watched Eyewitness News at 6 p.m. and, once I was allowed to stay up late, again at 11. It became a forgone conclusion that I would someday work in the news business after I had stayed up all night mesmerized by Jim McKay’s coverage of the Black September terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics the summer I was nine. Vietnam stretched far enough into my middle-school years that I wondered whether it would be over before I was old enough to be drafted.

In short, I grew up understanding that the world could be a dangerous place of unpredictable menace.

But I was not tyrannized by this knowledge.

I went to school, played unsupervised in the street, and had blanket permission to range widely on my bike, far from my neighborhood, provided I was home when the streetlights came on. Adults were not omnipresent as they tend to be in children’s lives today, but they seemed in charge and mostly competent. I also knew one thing with certainty about my country, reinforced by my parents and teachers and in the media and culture at large: We were the good guys.


The mental landscape of American childhood is very different today. By any reasonable measure, the world is safer and more stable than at any time in living memory. Adults could hardly be more active in children’s lives, but at the same time we seem less inclined to play a reassuring role. This is particularly true in schools, where curricula and school culture seem nearly to revel in the bad and the broken, suggesting to children that they have suffered the great misfortune to have been born into a country that is racist to its core, whose founding documents were lies when written, and where democracy is hanging by a thread. Not that it matters, since we are just a few short years away from irreversible climate catastrophe, all but certain to render the world a spent and burned-out husk by the time they are grown. Neither is it a given that American children will internalize the idea that their country is a force for good in the world or an engine of freedom and prosperity. In fact, quite the opposite.

Forget adult competence. Children are told, sometimes explicitly in school and in the broader culture, that the world is counting on them for deliverance from problems grown-ups heedlessly created and have proven incapable of solving. In 2019, Time magazine named 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg the youngest “person of the year” in its history. A group of Parkland, Florida, high-school gun-control activists topped the magazine’s list of the world’s most influential people. The article praising their efforts was written by Barack Obama.

Worst of all, this pedagogy of the depressed—America the Problematic—is thought to be a virtue among professional educators who view it as a mark of seriousness and sophistication...

Keep reading.