Unwoke and Illiberal
A behind-the-scenes dispatch from the vanguard flank of the anti-CRT school wars
Jennifer C. Berkshire | March 3, 2022
Photos: John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images, Bettmann/Getty Images, Bob Dean/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Bret Stephens had come to Boston’s historic Copley Plaza Hotel bearing an ominous warning: Illiberalism is on the march, and free speech is under siege. As it happens, his claim was borne out by the growing number of states that have now enacted education gag orders, restricting how teachers can talk about race, but this was not the scourge that the New York Times opinion columnist had in mind. No, Stephens’ ire was trained on the schools—or as he described them, “feeders for woke culture in every part of society.”
It was familiar Stephens fare, dished up in column after column. But attendees at the Parents Unite conference, who’d shelled out $350 a pop to spend a recent fall weekend commiserating over the rising tide of wokeness in the nation’s elite schools, ate it up. After all, Stephens’ ties to the world of top-tier prep schools run deep. Not only did he board down the road in Concord at the Middlesex School as a lad, but he also serves on its board of trustees. These parents want their schools back, and Stephens was happy to help lead the charge.
In the increasingly crowded market catering to parent outrage, the Boston-based Parents Unite stands out for its pedigree. Yes, Moms for Liberty offers $500 bounties for teachers who violate education gag orders, and Parents Defending Education seeks to root out politics in the classroom via anonymous snitching. But Parents Unite, not to be confused with the pro-charter school, anti-union Massachusetts Parents United, aims for higher ground: “diversity of thought.” The group represents parents of children enrolled at top “independent” schools in New England, and according to its official origin story, the homeschooling measures of the Covid pandemic gave those parents a scarifying crash course in the sort of agitprop fare that their hefty tuition checks were underwriting. More specifically, it was what these parents saw as the over-the-top response by many private schools to the murder of George Floyd that launched them into full-scale revolt. For hundreds of years, parents have sent their children off to the elite precincts of Phillips and Hotchkiss, secure in the knowledge that the Ivy League awaits. And now all of a sudden these same schools wanted them to feel bad about their privilege?
But the outrage didn’t end there. As the proceedings at the weekend-long Parents Unite confab made clear, anti-wokeness is a slippery slope. What began as a howl of protest against “critical race theory” has quickly built to include a seemingly endless litany of conservative complaints about what gets taught in schools and by whom. As the conference wore on, grievance piled up upon fresh grievance. Classrooms were being “racialized, sexualized and politicized,” as one speaker put it. Kids were coming home defeated and deflated, charged another. Schools no longer teach real-world knowledge, complained one of the student attendees. The vast majority of his classmates don’t know the difference between a stock and a bond, he reported in astonishment. Wouldn’t they gain more from learning about that than about how to combat racism?
A panel discussion with the rather too-on-the-nose title “DEI: Under the Hood,” quickly moved on from the alleged excesses of diversity, equity and inclusion to fresh outrages, like social and emotional learning (SEL). This brand of instruction, it turns out, was actually brought into schools at the behest of businesses looking to recruit future knowledge-economy workers outfitted with “soft skills,” like team building and collaboration. But in the hothouse culture-war reveries of Parents United, SEL has taken its place alongside DEI and CRT as another sinister form of woke-ist mind control masquerading as sensitivity and empathy.
What began as a howl of protest against “critical race theory” has quickly built to include a seemingly endless litany of conservative complaints about what gets taught in schools and by whom.
Then there’s “gender ideology.” Erika Sanzi, who has herself recently transitioned from Obama-era charter school advocate to parents’ rights crusader, explained from the stage, parents who might be too fearful to speak out about CRT are going to revolt when they realize that the schools are trying to turn their kids trans.
What or whom specifically is carrying out all of this indoctrination? Teachers unions are to blame, naturally, along with graduate schools of education—a perennial source of political ire dating back to the early nineteenth century. (That private schools are overwhelmingly union free, and do not require the credentials dispensed by schools of education seemed to matter not at all here.) Most of all, though, it was young teachers—social justice warriors all—who bore the brunt of the ire. These self-styled revolutionaries eschew not just the classic texts but all texts, one panelist bemoaned. Older, tenured teachers—the same reliable villains who’ve been depicted as the enemy of progress throughout the modern era of education reform—are evidently now the last remaining bulwark against wokeism.
For parents rebelling against leftist indoctrination in the public schools, politicians have seized on a favorite conservative cure: school choice. This, too, was a baffling refrain at the Parents United conference: private school parents have already exercised that option. Indeed, one striking plaint running through the sessions in Boston was that parents who send their children to elite private schools are uniquely powerless—victimized by the meritocracy itself. To voice their grievances is to risk not just their youngster’s spot at Groton or Deerfield Academy, but also to jeopardize the great brass ring at the end of the prep school carousel: entrée into the Ivy League.
Desperate times, then, call for desperate measures. Kerry McDonald, the senior education fellow at the liberty-loving think tank, Foundation for Economic Education, proposed that instead of continuing to support “school,” parents return to the time-honored tradition of teaching their children themselves. But rather than going into despairing cultural retreat mode, in the manner of many latter-day evangelical homeschoolers, the refugees from the woke prep academies can count on the largess and thought-leading cachet of Silicon Valley. “Marc Andreessen has been talking a lot about homeschooling,” McDonald reported, citing the great market imprimatur of the Netscape founder-turned-venture-capitalist.
Andrew Gutmann—aka the Brearley Dad—who became a right-wing media star after he penned an angry missive republished on Bari Weiss’s Substack newsletter announcing that he was pulling his daughter from her upscale Manhattan girls’ school, went even further. He rallied his fellow private school parents to dismantle the whole woke-infected system, “until we break this track, of these fancy preschools to these fancy independent schools, to the Harvard and Princeton and Yales, to Goldman Sachs and McKinsey.”
Parents Unite has made a target of the institutions that accredit independent schools. If groups like the respectability-granting National Association of Independent Schools are intent on turning the nation’s elite private schools into social justice camps, goes the thinking, then why not junk NAIS for some new, less “woke,” body? But this crusade has a downside. Schools outside of the traditional accreditation process may not hold the same sway with elite universities. “If Dalton is held hostage by the accreditors,” opined a writer for The Washington Free Beacon last summer, “parents are held hostage by the meritocracy.”
Parents Unite is closely aligned with 1776 Unites, which aims to replace the narratives of “oppression, grievance and ignorance” in schools with tales of heroism and uplift. The campus free speech group FIRE looms large here, as does something called the Chicago Statement—a free speech manifesto-cum-policy platform that originated at the University of Chicago in 2015 and has since been adopted by some 80 educational institutions.
But for all the talk about diversity of thought and the “right to disagree,” illiberalism—of the book-banning and curricular white-washing variety—is a looming presence as the mood of culture-war belligerence continues to build. When the conference’s master of ceremonies, Charles Love, author of Logic: The Truth About Blacks and the Republican Party, suggests that cameras in the classroom might keep teachers from straying into forbidden territory, the crowd responded enthusiastically. So Love pushed on: What if parents made unwitting spies of their own children by attaching cameras to their backpacks? He was joking, of course—or was he?
Stephens’ alma mater, the Middlesex School, where he sits on the governing board, announced that it was canceling an appearance by 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones, out of concern over the “noise” it might create.
Beth Feeley, who addressed the conference on behalf of another conservative parent group, New Trier Neighbors, told the triumphant tale of how parents in that affluent north Chicago suburb successfully pushed back against a civil-rights-themed “Seminar Day” at New Trier High School in 2017. They sponsored a rival slate of conservative speakers. They even got the school board to abandon an equity pledge in favor of a commitment to free speech. But Feeley neglected to mention that New Trier Neighbors has since moved on—to trying to get books parents contend are too gay-friendly banned from the high school library.
Bret Stephens’ appearance, in a conversation with psychologist Pamela Paresky entitled “How to Turn a Whisper into a Roar,” was the highlight of the conference. He was on hand to confirm these parents’ worst suspicions: a rising tide of illiberalism and censoriousness, while not quite Gulag-adjacent, nevertheless ominously presages totalitarianism. “Anyone who has studied the literature recognizes what’s happening here,” Stephens chided. (However, just what’s happening here is, once again, distinctly in the eye of the beholder: Just a few weeks after the conference, Stephens’ alma mater, the Middlesex School, where he sits on the governing board, announced that it was canceling an appearance by his New York Times colleague, 1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones, out of concern over the “noise” it might create.)
The picture Stephens painted was unrelentingly bleak. Schools that once challenged students now coddle them—while also fashioning them into a Borg-like mass of wokeness so terrifying that their future bosses will cower in fear of them, afraid to express their real opinions. Fortunately, Stephens assured the jittery crowd that a remedy was close at hand. “We need to reclaim the high ground of liberalism,” Stephens said, musing fondly about the days when great teachers “blew kids’ minds” by questioning every truth.
But do parents want their kids’ minds blown, their truths interrogated? Pamela Paresky, Stephens’ interlocutor and the author of Habits of a Free Mind, offered the weekend’s bluntest assessment of what the private school parent revolt is really about. Parents, Paresky said, “want their children to be able to stay in these schools, and they want their children to be able to get into the equally elite and selective colleges that these schools are supposed to be feeders for.” The parent revolt now thundering through the nation’s K-12 schools stops, it seems, at the gates of the Ivy League.
Jennifer C. Berkshire hosts the education podcast Have You Heard. She is the author, with Jack Schneider, of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door.