In Matt Taibbi’s latest piece on Substack (click below for free access, but subscribe if you read often), he’s worried that the Democrats aren’t really parsing what happened when a Republican, Glenn Youngkin, defeated Democratic incumbent Terry McAuliffe in the recent race. A lot of it was about schooling, and about McAuliffe’s comment that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach,” which apparently drove a lot of voters towards Youngkin. Taibbi sees this gaffe as on par with Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment during her run against Trump, and thinks that Democrats are dismissing McAuliffe’s statement as one that simply appeals to racists.
Taibbi, on the other hand, thinks there’s more to it than that, and Dems should be thinking hard about education. 23 Democrats are planning not to run for re-election in Congress next year, and that’s a big worry.
Once again this falls in the category of words and actions that make Democrats look like elitists in the eyes of Middle America, and there’s something to that. The dismissal of parents’ concerns is exemplified, says Taibbi, by recent words of Nikole Hannah-Jones, head of the NYT’s 1619 Project:
On the full Meet the Press Sunday, Todd in an ostensibly unrelated segment interviewed 1619 Project author and New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones about Republican efforts in some states to ban teaching of her work. He detoured to ask about the Virginia governor’s race, which seemingly was decided on the question, “How influential should parents be about curriculum?” Given that Democrats lost Virginia after candidate Terry McAuliffe said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach,” Todd asked her, “How do we do this?”
Hannah-Jones’s first answer was to chide Todd for not remembering that Virginia was lost not because of whatever unimportant thing he’d just said, but because of a “right-wing propaganda campaign that told white parents to fight against their children being indoctrinated.” This was standard pundit fare that for the millionth time showed a national media figure ignoring, say, the objections of Asian immigrant parents to Virginia policies, but whatever: her next response was more notable. “I don’t really understand this idea that parents should decide what’s being taught,” Hannah-Jones said. “I’m not a professional educator. I don’t have a degree in social studies or science.”
Even odder were her next comments, regarding McAuliffe’s infamous line about parents. About this, Hannah-Jones said:
We send our kids to school because we want our kids to be taught by people with expertise in the subject area… When the governor, or the candidate, said he didn’t think parents should be deciding what’s being taught in school, he was panned for that, but that’s just a fact.
In the wake of McAuliffe’s loss, the “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach” line was universally tabbed a “gaffe” by media. I described it in the recent “Loudoun County: A Culture War in Four Acts” series in TK as the political equivalent of using a toe to shoot your face off with a shotgun, but this was actually behind the news cycle. Yahoo! said the “gaffe precipitated the Democrat’s slide in the polls,” while the Daily Beast’s blunter headline was, “Terry McAuliffe’s White-Guy Confidence Just Fucked the Dems.”
If Hannah-Jones abjures expertise in educaiton, why is she trying hard to foist the message of the 1619 Project on American secondary schools? She’s being disingenuous.
What’s happened, says Taibbi is that Dems are fobbing off McAuliffe’s loss as on racist parents who don’t want their kids to learn about Critical Race Theory, and those Democrats who still adhere to mantra “defer to the experts” that they use, usually justifiably, for science. But it didn’t work for economics or foreign policy, and, says Taibbi, is certainly doomed to fail when it comes to education:
But parenting? For good reason, there’s no parent anywhere who believes that any “expert” knows what’s better for their kids than they do. Parents of course will rush to seek out a medical expert when a child is sick, or has a learning disability, or is depressed, or mired in a hundred other dilemmas. Even through these inevitable terrifying crises of child rearing, however, all parents are alike in being animated by the absolute certainty — and they’re virtually always right in this — that no one loves their children more than they do, or worries about them more, or agonizes even a fraction as much over how best to shepherd them to adulthood happy and in one piece.
Implying the opposite is a political error of almost mathematically inexpressible enormity. This is being done as part of a poisonous rhetorical two-step. First, Democrats across the country have instituted radical policy changes, mainly in an effort to address socioeconomic and racial disparities. These included eliminating standardized testing to the University of California system, doing away with gifted programs (and rejecting the concept of gifted children in general), replacing courses like calculus with data science or statistics to make advancement easier, and pushing a series of near-parodical ideas with the aid of hundreds of millions of dollars from groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that include things like denouncing emphasis on “getting the right answer” or “independent practice over teamwork” as white supremacy.
When criticism ensued, pundits first denied as myth all rumors of radical change, then denounced complaining parents as belligerent racists unfit to decide what should be taught to their children, all while reaffirming the justice of leaving such matters to the education “experts” who’d spent the last decade-plus doing things like legislating grades out of existence. This “parents should leave ruining education to us” approach cost McAuliffe Virginia, because it dovetailed with what parents had long been seeing and hearing on the ground.
So, he says, it’s not merely resistance to teaching Critical Race Theory in schools. All of us hear constantly about the trend to lower school standards in the name of equity, and if you care about your kids’ education, that rankles, especially if you want your kid to excel. I’ll give just one more quote:
The complaints of most Loudoun parents I spoke with about curriculum were usually double-edged. The first thing that drove many crazy was the recognition that whatever their kids were learning in school, it was less and less the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Kids were coming home showing weird deficiencies in obvious areas of need, forcing parents, and especially working mothers, to devote long evening hours to catching their kids up on things like spelling and multiplication tables. “I grew up laughing at the idea of homeschooling. I thought that was an idea for religious kooks,” one mother told me. “But after a while, I caught myself thinking, ‘I’m doing all the teaching anyway, why not just cut out the middleman?’”
Parents talked incessantly about the lowering of standards in Loudoun, whether it was the dropping of midterms and finals in 2015, or the school’s new “Retake Policy,” which not only set an arbitrary floor of 50% on all “summative assessments” (the word “test” has been mostly out of use for at least a decade there, apparently because it puts too much pressure on students), but automatically allowed students to retake tests if they scored below 80%. The rule also required teachers to accept a humorous euphemism called “late-work.”
School bureaucrats are motivated in almost every case to not only avoid giving bad grades, but to pre-empt efforts to track children as ahead or behind by slotting them in certain classes. In a phenomenon replicated in other parts of the country, kids in Loudoun take the same math classes all the way through their junior years in high school, when they’re finally allowed to take advanced courses. As a result, students who are ready for calculus sit in the same classrooms as students still struggling with pre-algebra, putting teachers in a nearly impossible bind — how do you design “summatives” for kids on such different levels? — and all but guaranteeing that the bulk of kids don’t learn much, or near enough.
Some version of this dysfunction story is going on in districts all over the country. If you drill down into reasons, they usually come down to local bureaucrats discovering that lowering standards and eliminating measurable forms of achievement works as a short-term political solution on a variety of fronts, from equity politics to dealing with parent groups, teachers’ unions, and public and private funding sources.
Those who lower standards never admit what their real reasons are, but you’d have to be without neurons not to know the real reason.
I think all of us who mourn the lowering of standards will understand that: it’s not just about CRT, but about all the changes being made for one reason only, to ensure “equity” in achievement and representation. Middle America, apparently, isn’t as woke as Upper (Middle) Class America, and they want their children challenged to achieve. Eliminating SATs, homework, tracking, and so on, will, assets Taibbi, help “Bring back Trump”, for it tells worried parents that the message of the Democrats is “we know how to raise your kids better than you.”
I am no pundit, but at least this makes sense. And I’m sure James Carville would agree.