Discover more from The Will Leitch Newsletter
Volume 4, Issue 83: Sentimental Education
"Maybe his time over there with me whipped him into shape a little."
Here is a button where you can subscribe to this newsletter now, if you have not previously done so. I do hope that you enjoy it.
Because Georgia schools have been back in session for more than a month now, this week was Curriculum Week for my kids’ schools, a night when parents are invited to visit their children’s classrooms, meet with their teachers and get some sort of semblance of what the hell they’ve been doing in there all day. I’ve been going to these since my soon-to-be-12-year-old was in pre-K—they’re now old enough that I have to go to two different Curriculum Nights for two different schools—and I always come away invigorated by them. That’s partly because of the schools themselves, but it’s largely because it’s legitimately exciting to see how your children are viewed by teachers and staff who, unlike yourself, see your children simply as regular people, not as the center of the entire world and a definitive answer to whether or not this is a good and just universe. I am constantly studying and observing my children not just because I love them and have much of my ultimate value as a human being wrapped up in whether or not they turn out being kind, happy and productive members of society, but because also they’re the only children I ever see: If it were, say, my job, I might be a little bit less awed by the wonder of childhood than I currently am. I’d probably just be relieved nobody peed on the floor that day.
It’s instructive to have a brief glimpse into that classroom petri dish. How do my kids come across in that environment? How are they in the real world? How do other people see them? There’s no better way to tell that by visiting your kids’ school. They’re not nearly as special there as they are in your house, which is a terrific way to learn even more things about them that you didn’t know.
I have noticed, though, in the last couple years, really every year since the pandemic, that the teachers and administrators at these curriculum events, while still having the good cheer and infinite patience their job requires of them, look a little bit more nervous than they used to. They pause a lot when describing what they’ll be teaching, talking slowly during parts and rushing through others. They give presentations in groups rather than individually, as if to assure they will have backup if challenged. They introduce their lessons plans with clear cautiousness, almost standing on their back feet, already in a defensive crouch, fearful of battle.
Most of all: They look tired. They look like they are doing the job of teaching our children the way they know how, the way they believe children need to learn, the way that reflects why they got into this tremendously difficult field in the first place. They look like they are confident, even resolute, in what they are teaching. But they talk to parents like they are a little nervous we’ve all gone insane.
I am not sure they are wrong.
St. Charles, Missouri is a charming suburb of St. Louis situated on the Missouri River, a place where Daniel Boone once lived, the fictional hometown of Peter Quill, the town where my sister got married five years ago. It’s a lovely place.
It is also the home of the St. Charles County Parents Association, a group, like many across the country, that is causing absolute chaos for their local schools systems. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported this week, the group, which calls itself a collection of “fellow patriots,” in addition to haranguing local school board members and disrupting their otherwise-mundane meetings, has begun creating “opt-out” forms for their parents to sign and give to the teachers at their schools. These forms are wide-ranging, have no actual authority and are completely nonsensical. From the Post-Dispatch piece:
The opt-out forms available for download state they “shall additionally serve to make clear that without my prior written consent, under no circumstances shall my child be subjected to the planned, systematic use of methods or techniques, as part of any program not mandated by the State of Missouri, that are not directly related to academic instruction and that are designed to affect my child’s behavioral, emotional, or attitudinal characteristics.” … Tailored to each of the county’s five school districts, the forms cite programming from the companies Leader in Me and iReady along with nonprofits Compass Health and CHADS suicide prevention. The forms also cover topics such as social-emotional learning, anti-racism and critical race theory.
There are all sorts of loaded words there—for the billionth time, the so-called “critical race theory” is not being taught, and has never been taught, in public K-12 schools; what these people mean when they say “critical race theory” appears to be “teaching that racism has existed in the United States,” something that, for perhaps predictable but still depressing reasons, is something they’d rather their kids not know—but what’s most staggering is that what they’re trying to ban, or at least harass out of being, goes beyond basic intro-to-social-studies understanding of the history of this country and its people. They’re going after the basic principles of what school is.
If you don’t have kids in school, you might not know what Leader in Me or iReady are. They’re pretty straightforward. Leader in Me, which is part of my kids’ public school system, is basically built around giving kids a trust structure in which they are encouraged to be leaders and, most important, compassionate and understanding of the people around them. It teaches them to be members of society. Says the site: "Students, families, and staff learn how to be responsible, show initiative, be creative, set goals and meet them, get along with people of various backgrounds and cultures, resolve conflicts, and solve problems. Students and staff learn to use a common language and build an understanding of how to work effectively, independently, and interdependently, in all aspects of life, not just at school.” iReady is even more straightforward than that: It is simply an online program that allows kids access to basic instructional materials and encourages kids to discover their own learning initiatives: It lets them learn at their own pace, and to push themselves. It also gives teachers basic diagnostic information, both nationwide and for their individual classroom, to help tailor their instruction.
A teacher might do a better job of describing Leader in Me or iReady than I just did; that’s why they’re teachers. But the point is that there is nothing strange about any of it. My kids have been using it for years, and I like to think they’re pretty smart. The way school is taught now, though, is different than the way I was taught—and my fellow parents were taught, or for that matter all the teachers—when we were all kids. The math is different. The techniques for problem solving are different. The larger context—the understanding that the world is bigger than just our immediate environment, and our place in it more connected—is different. It has changed. And how could it not? I went to elementary school in the 1980s. It is currently the 2020s. It would be a pretty depressing state of affairs if we had learned absolutely nothing about education in that time. I will admit that sometimes the way they teach math now is confusing to me. That does not mean they should return to the way they taught it when I was a kid just because it would make me more comfortable. Because it’s not about me. The world moves forward, even if we ourselves do not.
I think that is what is the source of much of this madness, seen in St. Charles and of course Florida and increasingly around the country as a whole. It’s not about “freedom” or “systematic use of methods or techniques.” It is about a whole class of parents deciding at some point that they were no longer interested in learning more about the world than they already thought they knew and, even worse, attempting to impose that same knowledge freeze on their children. The whole point of education is for your children to be exposed to things, to discover things, to make some attempt to understand things, that they would not have access to at home. An attempt to stifle this is an assault on education itself—on curiosity, on empathy, on the opening up of the larger world.
I understand the temptation, as one gets older, to revert back to the way you thought you once understood the world rather than make the effort to reckon with the ways it continues to change. This has always been at the center of all culture wars, not just the current one: Older people being confronted something they never had been confronted with before, and deciding, rather than to re-examine their prior knowledge and test it, instead to plug up their ears, and to then attempt to plug up everybody else’s. It also shows an inherent lack of trust in one’s supposed core beliefs, and one’s importance as a parent, in the first place. If I believe that the values I’ve attempted to instill in my children—my attempts to shape them into the people I hope they will be, in ways that are in themselves somewhat reflections of my own values—are lasting and important and powerful, then I should not be the least bit concerned about anyone “indoctrinating” them into anything. I should be able to trust them, these children I’m supposedly so concerned about in the first place, to be able to decipher for themselves what is important, what they value, what they want to learn more about. If I’ve done my job as a parent correctly, I should have nothing to worry about. To believe that schools are teaching things that will inherently corrupt your child, even if you do think these lessons are in fact corrupt, is to show zero faith in your children … and it doesn’t say much for you either.
But that’s what, to me, all this is based in: That fundamental decision by people, as they get older, to decide they have done all the learning they are going to do—that the world must freeze exactly at the moment that they understood it to the best of their capabilities, and they will go no further. This strikes me as an abdication of one of the fundamental obligation of being alive, which is to always try to get better, in any way you can. But it is even worse when seen through the prism of being a parent. It is deciding that because you’re done with life, your kid has to be too. It’s the exact opposite of what a parent is supposed to be.
And in the middle are the teachers and the school administrators, who are just trying to constantly find new ways to best honor the awesome responsibility on their shoulders. They are charged with no less than the future of the world. And for this, we underpay them, we question everything they do, we complain to them (and about them) and question them like we’re a frustrated customer, we blame them for our own deficiencies, we drag them into our own insecurities and culture wars rather than take responsibility for our own lives, and our children’s lives. It is no wonder that they are on their back feet, nervous about what we’re going to say to them, what we’re capable of, when they tell us how they’re trying to make our children’s lives better, how they’re trying to expand their horizons, how they’re trying to go on this same journey that our kids are on. Being a teacher has always been one of the hardest jobs on earth. And now they’ve got parents giving them fake opt-out forms they downloaded from some Facebook group and demanding they honor. I’d be exhausted too. Who wouldn’t?
My son William, now in the thicket of middle school, is currently reading a young adult book called Refugee. Written by Alan Gratz, it tells the story of three children at three different time periods of human history:
Refugee follows the stories of three different children and their families, each attempting to flee their violent homelands, in different regions of the world and during different decades. Josef and his family flee Nazi Germany in 1938; Isabel and her family flee Cuba in 1994; and Mahmoud and his family flee Syria in 2015.
The whole class is reading this book and, according to the teacher at the curriculum night on Tuesday, they all love it as much as my son does. It has done for him, and them, what any piece of art or literature should do, and what any lesson you’d learn in this life should do: It expands their world. It introduces them to something they didn’t know about, and helps them to understand. It makes them more.
I didn’t know about this book. I would have never been given this book as a child in school. And my education suffered because of it. There was so much that I didn’t know. There is so much my kids can.
I, as a parent, can only do so much for my children. That is why we have school, and learning, and teachers, and, really, the whole world itself: To explore, to discover, to empathize, to expand … to engage. My son, my beloved son, this beautiful kid, needs to be bigger than me: I want him to have access to things I never had, to see the world in ways I couldn’t, to do all the things I know he’s capable of. It’s my job not to stand in his way. He, and his brother, will see more of this world than I ever could, just like I saw more of the world than my parents ever could, like they saw more than their parents ever could. That requires letting them be a part of that world … and to trust those who have made it their calling at transitioning them into it. There is nothing more American than wanting the world to be better for our kids than it was for us. That’s what all of this is supposed to be about. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing this for.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
Denzel Washington Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. Updated with The Equalizer 3.
Your AL West Race Breakdown, MLB.com. Pieces that become instantly outdated are my favorite pieces.
Your August MLB All-Star Team, MLB.com. Only one more of these to go!
Grierson & Leitch, we previewed the fall festival season and discussed “Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”
Seeing Red, Bernie and I praised Willson Contreras and nothing else.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, actual games to preview, we discuss UT-Martin, kind of.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“Scenes from Hollywood’s Hot Labor Summer,” Michael Schulman, The New Yorker. The number of people I know who have slowly been driven cuckoo-banana-pants by the strike this summer is … plentiful. Here’s a good piece about the phenomenon, and all of it.
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
This is your reminder that if you write me a letter and put it in the mail, I will respond to it with a letter of my own, and send that letter right to you! It really happens! Hundreds of satisfied customers!
Write me at:
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Jesus Is Bored,” Hiss Golden Messenger. Spent the last half hour trying to figure out which song from the new Hiss Golden Messenger album I was going to put on the playlist. Take your pick, really.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
It’s that time of year again.
See you all out there today. Go Dawgs, go Illini, go your team, unless it is playing mine.