identity politics

About George Packer's takedown of wokeness: is moral absolutism the problem?

About George Packer's takedown of wokeness: is moral absolutism the problem?

Generally at GetReligion we try to avoid duplicate posts on one article, but Terry Mattingly has graciously agreed to let this piece follow his analysis of “When the Culture War Comes for the Kids.” I wrote it on the weekend, before I had any idea that tmatt had called dibs on a specific religion angle in this must-read piece in The Atlantic Monthly in a message to my more prolific colleagues.

Here, then, is my perspective. There are many important topics in Packer’s essay.

Packer’s 10,000-word essay on how hard-edged wokeness affected his children’s education is a stirring account of a liberal writer who has been backed into one too many corners by illiberal progressives and entrenched powers. Most of Packer’s work here makes me want to welcome him to the freedom of not caring what wokeness partisans think of you.

Packer describes conflicts in education first as a clash between democracy and meritocracy, sometimes with a self-effacing humor:

True meritocracy came closest to realization with the rise of standardized tests in the 1950s, the civil-rights movement, and the opening of Ivy League universities to the best and brightest, including women and minorities. A great broadening of opportunity followed. But in recent decades, the system has hardened into a new class structure in which professionals pass on their money, connections, ambitions, and work ethic to their children, while less educated families fall further behind, with little chance of seeing their children move up.

When parents on the fortunate ledge of this chasm gaze down, vertigo stuns them. Far below they see a dim world of processed food, obesity, divorce, addiction, online-education scams, stagnant wages, outsourcing, rising morbidity rates — and they pledge to do whatever they can to keep their children from falling. They’ll stay married, cook organic family meals, read aloud at bedtime every night, take out a crushing mortgage on a house in a highly rated school district, pay for music teachers and test-prep tutors, and donate repeatedly to overendowed alumni funds. The battle to get their children a place near the front of the line begins before conception and continues well into their kids’ adult lives. At the root of all this is inequality — and inequality produces a host of morbid symptoms, including a frantic scramble for status among members of a professional class whose most prized acquisition is not a Mercedes plug-in hybrid SUV or a family safari to Maasai Mara but an acceptance letter from a university with a top‑10 U.S. News & World Report ranking.

What leaves me restless in Packer’s essay is the language he sometimes uses to describe the conflict. In disputing the school’s resistance to standard testing, he refers to the tests’ fierce opponents as engaging in “moral absolutism.”

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The Atlantic bravely attempts a religion-free (almost) look at New York kids in the culture wars

The Atlantic bravely attempts a religion-free (almost) look at New York kids in the culture wars

One of the most talked about articles in the American news media last week, at least in the Twitter-verse, was not a news piece.

But it could have been a news piece. In fact, I would argue that it should have been a news piece — at least in a world in which New York City metro editors have their ears open and can spot religion-and-culture angles in public and private schools.

I am talking about George Packer’s essay at The Atlantic Monthly that ran with this poignant and news double-decker headline:

When the Culture War Comes for the Kids

Caught between a brutal meritocracy and a radical new progressivism, a parent tries to do right by his children while navigating New York City’s schools.

This is, I think, one of the few times that readers can see the term “culture wars” used in a manner that reflects the definition given that term in the landmark James Davison Hunter book “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” Here is how I described the University of Virginia sociologist’s main point in a tribute column long ago, on the 10th anniversary of my national “On Religion” column. In that work:

… (He) declared that America now contains two basic worldviews, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."

On one level — the most obvious level — Packer’s Atlantic piece is about the role that fiercely woke “identity politics” is playing in elite New York City culture, as demonstrated in public schools. So what does “identity politics” mean, right now?

This whole article wrestles with that issue, from the point of view of a progressive parent who has been shaken awake by the facts on the ground. However, Packer also noted that not all identities are created equal, in this world. This is one of the only places where readers get a glimpse of the religious and moral implications of this fight, in the years after Barack Obama era:

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Yes, colleges are going crazy: But there may be newsy debates at those God schools, too

Yes, colleges are going crazy: But there may be newsy debates at those God schools, too

Hello reporters and editors. Let's talk for a moment about stories linked to higher education.

Students and parents who are part of traditional religious traditions -- especially Catholics -- hang on. I'll be back to you shortly.

So, journalists, are there any colleges or universities near you? Are there any interesting stories at the moment out there in higher education circles? I mean, other than the state-school chaos at places like Evergreen College and the progressive private-school world of Middlebury College.

Obviously, there are all kinds of First Amendment issues hitting the fan.

But, journalists, stop and think for a moment. Are there any RELIGIOUS colleges and universities near your newsrooms? In my experience (oh, 25 years or so teaching in Christian higher education), when things start going crazy on campuses from coast to coast, many students and their parents -- especially religious folks -- start considering alternatives.

But are there any interesting stories to write about on those campuses, events that are rippling out from the wilder world of secular higher education? Yes, think Wheaton College. Yes, think Gordon College. Or think about the whirlwind of events, this past year, that surrounded the famous literature professor Anthony Esolen at Providence College.

This brings us to this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which grew out of an "On Religion" interview I did with Esolen about his departure (after 27 years and a tenure nod) from Providence after students accused him of every progressive academic sin in the book. Click here for an essay offering Esolen's take on what happened: "Why I Left Providence College for Thomas More." Here is my short summary, drawn from the column:

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