Bonfire of the Schools
There’s an old story about Germany’s “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898). Indeed, it’s so old (and apparently obscure) that I can’t find a reference to it on the Internet.
Still, I heard it over lunch at the Pentagon long ago. I was seated next to a visiting German admiral, back when I was on the staff of Chief of Naval Operations.
We were discussing the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 — not an unusual form of mealtime banter for the Pentagon, I might add.
According to the admiral, this war was the unifying point for modern Germany.
For many centuries before the war, Germany was a region comprised of independent states and principalities. It wasn’t a nation like you envision today. And in the early 1800s, Napoleon overran the area and inflicted quite a bit of hardship.
Then in July 1870, France declared war on the Kingdom of Prussia and invaded a month later.
Across all of Germany, this resurrected historical memories. With French troops on the attack, a group of independent southern states allied with the North German Confederation (dominated by Prussia) to fight back.
Combined German armies performed well in the field, besieged Paris and by May 1871 France was defeated. Germany was well on the road to becoming a united single nation that eventually dominated central Europe. (Although Bismarck did predict eventual troubles for Germany, which came to pass.)
And it brings us to the point I really want to make here at the outset of this Whiskey tale.
According to the German admiral, after the Franco-Prussian War Bismarck was a celebrated personality, as you can probably understand.
At one event, a distinguished member of German society walked up to him and said, “Herr Chancellor, this victory over France is a great credit to our German generals.”
To which Bismarck replied, “Perhaps so. But I prefer to think that this victory over France is a credit to our German schoolteachers.”
In other words, per Bismarck, it wasn’t generals who were the backbone of German nationhood and national power. It was schoolteachers who helped create a well-educated populace.
Which brings us home to the U.S., where anymore the process of mass education has become a national disgrace (if not an ongoing disaster).
Let’s dig into this…
At the outset, you might be thinking that we’ll discuss the widespread problem of failed public schools in inner cities, declining suburbs and rural areas across the land.
Of course, these areas hold many examples of wholesale educational failure across entire age groups, places where underachievement and failure has become the academic norm.
It’s a problem of national scale and one well worth discussing.
For example, one recent account from Baltimore described how hundreds of students were failing pretty much everything at one school. One student in particular received a passing grade in just three classes over four years. Yet this youngster ranked near the top half of his class with a 0.13 grade point average.1
That alone reflects a human catastrophe: lost potential, with hundreds of young people in one school handicapped for life by poor reading and math skills. And then, after all those years in the school-mill, these kids roll out and are nowhere near capable of functioning in the economy that awaits.
It’s a long, dreary, tragic story, but I won’t dwell on it just now.
Because my focus today is on another part of America’s education game: a story from the upper reaches of the pyramid, so to speak.
Recently, I’ve followed accounts from a number of top-shelf, prestigious prep schools. These are bright stars in the galaxy of what are called independent schools. And I don’t mean those quaint little country day programs you find in many leafy suburbs.
No, I mean ultra-high-end, destination-level schools.
Some institutions are nestled in the wealthy heart of Manhattan. Others are in upscale locales across New England and other cities full of money straight out of Washington, D.C., Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
These schools have sticker-shock tuition rates, in many cases north of $50,000 per year — even for kindergarten.
These are places where monied moneybags send their kids, K through 12. Hedge funders, corporate execs, trust fund families, show biz big names and even politicians who supposedly toil for a measly government salary (don’t ask).
But to these parents, dollars are no object. They write a $50,000 tuition check and then turn around to donate twice that amount to the capital campaign.
Meanwhile, the price tag is almost the least of the issues. Because through it all, there’s the underlying expectation of outstanding college placement into the usual list of institutions that generate America’s ruling class.
Along the way, these prep schools commonly boast of the superb credentials of faculty members, many with Ph.Ds. in their field, often from big-name universities.
Just imagine someone with a Ph.D. in chemistry from Cornell teaching ninth graders, if not running the advanced placement program for more advanced grades.
Or a mathematics Ph.D. from Stanford, teaching Algebra 1, let alone the advanced placement course in calculus. You get the idea.
Add in things like an archaeologist in residence, such as one New York school boasts. Or access to a world-class astronomy telescope, as another school advertises.
You can see where this is going.
Interestingly, and for as high end as some of these schools are, many Americans have never heard of them: consider two New York names like Brearley and Dalton.
To which you might say, “Huh?”
And that’s fine with those schools and their stakeholders. Primarily, it’s important that the “right kinds” of parents are familiar.
But definitely, it’s critical that admission officers at top-tier colleges know about these schools.
For example, over the past five years, Harvard accepted 31 Brearley grads. And Columbia accepted 20, Yale took 15, Princeton admitted 13 and so on.2
Not bad for a school where the graduating senior class numbers a bit over 60 per year.
More than a few of these Brearley grads are Ivy legacies, meaning mom or dad went to Harvard, Yale, etc., so there’s already a leg up here.
Then again, Harvard admission officers have the luxury of rejecting 97 out of 100 applicants; yes, a 3% admission rate this year. It’s a brutal process and a discussion for another day.
Still, a place like Brearley has a long history of success. It delivers applicants to the Harvard-Yale-Princeton-etc. doorstep with great grades and SATs (optional now, but 1,500+ never hurts), plus advanced placement courses and recommendation letters from well-regarded movers and shakers.
So now you might be wondering, what’s the problem? After all, we’re a long way from those failing Baltimore schools.
Well, here’s the issue. It all blew up in the past couple of weeks.
A math teacher at New York’s Dalton School ($54,000 per year) went public with his concern over how much time is being devoted to racial issues, in particular how much emphasis is going towards so-called “critical race theory” (CRT).
The teacher claims that Dalton is running a time-consuming effort that in essence is “demonizing white people for being born.”3
And face it, even well-off kids in high-tuition schools can become confused and miseducated when they are beaten over the head with destructive, fundamentally Marxist, psychobabble pedagogies like CRT.
If you’ve spent much time around academe, then you’re probably familiar with the generally left-leaning trends of many people who work in education. Heck, I’ve seen it even in institutions that ought to know better, like West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy.
But in the case of Dalton, the school’s faculty, administration and board have set the place adrift into a deep sea of Wokeness.
According to the teacher/whistleblower, massive amounts of school time are devoted to deconstructing American history, a form of postmodern nihilism.
Yet most children of high school age barely know the basic facts of national and global history, let alone do they have mental analytical tools necessary to string together a working narrative.
Generally, per the teacher, the Dalton program tracks towards an educational end focused on how totally wrong the whole American enterprise was and is.
Stated another way, apparently there’s a lot of “bad-mouthing the country,” as my old Marine Corps drill instructor once phrased this kind of worldview.
On top of this, the school expects parents literally to sign on to this faddish, CRT dogma with a pledge to support the school’s teachings in the home environment.
As an outsider looking in, it appears that Dalton offers a curriculum of Howard Zinn on steroids, amplified by the current academic cult of weaponized empathy and social engineering a la noblesse obliges. All that, plus an East German level of home-front reinforcement.
For raising these points, and then going public, the Dalton math teacher was recently relieved of his duties, barred from campus and will surely be terminated at the end of his contract.
In the same vein (and coincidentally not far from Dalton) at Manhattan’s above-described Brearley School, there’s another example of CRT run amok. And in this case, it’s not me interpreting third party news accounts for you.
Recently, an irate Brearley parent sent a letter to about 600 other parents and school staff, explaining why he is withdrawing his daughter from the institution.
“I write to you,” he said, “as a fellow parent, to share our reasons for leaving the Brearley community but also to urge you to act before the damage to the school, to its community, and to your own child’s education is irreparable.”
Yes, it’s a tough letter. And he continues:
“It cannot be stated strongly enough that Brearley’s obsession with race must stop. It should be abundantly clear to any thinking parent that Brearley has completely lost its way. The administration and the Board of Trustees have displayed a cowardly and appalling lack of leadership by appeasing an anti-intellectual, illiberal mob, and then allowing the school to be captured by that same mob.”4
This was just the kickoff. There’s more:
“I object to mandatory anti-racism training for parents, especially when presented by the rent-seeking charlatans of Pollyanna. These sessions, in both their content and delivery, are so sophomoric and simplistic, so unsophisticated and inane, that I would be embarrassed if they were taught to Brearley kindergarteners. They are an insult to parents and unbecoming of any educational institution, let alone one of Brearley’s caliber.”
The entire letter is worth reading, here.
The reply from Brearley’s administration was characteristic of the Woke crowd. The head of school breezily dismissed the parent’s letter as a hurtful missive that somehow frightened and triggered numerous people who work at and attend the institution.
There was no reply from the administration to the substance of the parent’s letter. Naturally. Because CRT is nothing but a self-righteous, self-licking ice cream cone.
All of this is evidence of intellectual rot at the very top of American secondary education.
We’re not talking about overwhelmed, under-resourced schools located along the mean streets of Baltimore or some other inner city, or downbeat suburb or rural district across the land.
No, Dalton and Brearley are big, well-endowed names in the prep school arena. They have serious parents who pay serious money for a serious education to get the kids into seriously top-notch colleges.
And yet these schools have gone totally Woke.
They’re burning up teenagers’ precious academic time on current politics, versus emphasizing true foundations of knowledge. Right now, it appears that the kids are learning lots of CRT-style slogans and doing it in an expensive milieu.
Another way to look at this is that it’s university-style academic politics. All of the typical, collegiate faculty lounge bromides and kookiness has filtered down into the secondary and primary schools. And it’s happening at the very top of the elite food chain.
To bring it back to Bismarck and his comment at the beginning, this is not the kind of education that builds a nation.
No, this is the kind of education that occurs within a country in serious, perhaps terminal decline. One that awaits its Napoleon, if not its Napoleonic wars and disasters.
What we see here is a negative, intellectually destructive process that churns out confused, miseducated kids who will struggle to find a path in life. (Of course, there’s always the family trust fund, right?)
Sad to say, but we’re currently watching the country unravel and disintegrate. Every day. Top-down. Right before our eyes.
We’re living through a pre-revolutionary era; we’ll be fortunate if it’s not the lead-up to overall societal collapse. And where it goes from here and how it resolves is anyone’s wild guess.
And finally… Often in Whiskey, we discuss the virtues of gold. But today, we see how education can also be gold, unless crazy zealots at the top turn it into lead.
On that note, I rest my case.
That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder
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4 You Have to Read This Letter, Bari Weiss