Mugged by unreality

Steve has written about an important essay in the Atlantic by George Packer called “When the Culture War Comes for the Kids.” Packer is a liberal who first came to my attention as a fierce critic of President George W. Bush.

His latest essay is, in part, an expression of dismay at the identity politics/standards-shredding orthodoxy that has overtaken New York’s public schools under Bill de Blasio. Some conservatives are describing this as a case of a liberal being “mugged by reality.”

The description is fair as it relates to the portion of Packer’s essay that describes how identity politics infects the way his son has been instructed in school. But earlier in his article, Packer recounts the absurd ways in which he and other upscale parents in New York City attempted to have their kids accepted into elite private schools and programs. Here, I think Packer has been mugged by unreality.

Packer blames the absurdities on our “meritocracy”:

The system that dominates our waking hours, commands our unthinking devotion, and drives us, like orthodox followers of an exacting faith, to extraordinary, even absurd feats of exertion is not democracy, which often seems remote and fragile. It’s meritocracy—the system that claims to reward talent and effort with a top-notch education and a well-paid profession, its code of rigorous practice and generous blessings passed down from generation to generation.

The pressure of meritocracy made us apply to private schools when our son was 2—not because we wanted him to attend private preschool, but because, in New York City, where we live, getting him into a good public kindergarten later on would be even harder, and if we failed, by that point most of the private-school slots would be filled. . . .

I think Packer misreads his own story. The problem isn’t meritocracy, it’s Packer’s lack of confidence in meritocracy.

Liberals (and not just liberals) have convinced themselves that our meritocracy is a fraud — that getting ahead is less about real merit than about manipulation of the system by “privileged” parents to all but ensure their kids get ahead. Packer basically admits this when he defines meritocracy as “generous blessings passed down from generation to generation.”

If this sounds more like aristocracy than meritocracy, that’s no coincidence. It has become an article of left-liberal orthodoxy that, indeed, our meritocracy resembles an aristocracy, not of the landed gentry but of privileged modern elites.

Liberals who view our meritocracy as a fraud aren’t entirely wrong about their ability to game the system at various stages. It is possible, I take it, to leverage “privilege” to get one’s three year-old into a fancy pre-school program. Indeed, as has been confirmed recently, it’s possible through bribery, in effect, to get one’s 18 year-old into a fancy college (although it’s not clear how widespread this practice is).

Where these liberals (and not just liberals) go wrong, I think, is in hugely overestimating the advantage they bestow on their kids through manipulation. Actual merit will have a vastly greater say in determining ultimate success — success as adults — than will successful parental manipulation of various admissions processes.

At times in his essay, Packer seems to understand this. At the outset, he challenges “the conceit that your child’s fate lies in your hands at all.” But he can’t let go of the conceit that meritocracy is to blame not just for parental neurosis but, along with racism, for “keep[ing] children trapped where they are.”

Meritocracy has always been about enabling people of merit to move forward from where they are. It still is.

To some degree of course, merit, along with the desire to obtain and cultivate it, is passed on from parent to child via DNA and inculcation of a work ethic. This probably happens more now than before because of the way people pick their mates these days.

But this form of “transmitting” merit is different from attempting to pass merit on by knowing how to get one’s kid into an elite pre-school. Biology’s role in our meritocracy doesn’t delegitimize the system.

Packer concludes his piece this way:

That pragmatic genius for which Americans used to be known and admired, which included a talent for educating our young—how did it desert us? Now we’re stewing in anxiety and anger, feverish with bad ideas, too absorbed in our own failures to spare our children. But one day the fever will break, and by then they’ll be grown, and they will have to discover for themselves how to live together in a country that gives every child an equal chance.

I wouldn’t count on a breaking of the fever that drives upscale parents to obsess over giving their kids advantages they don’t really need. As for a country that gives every child an equal chance, we will never have that. Parenting (though not parental manipulation of the system) plays a meaningful role in determining a child’s chance, and parenting will never be equal.

As for when Americans lost our talent for educating our young, I suspect it began when we lost confidence in our meritocracy, that confidence being an important component of our pragmatic genius in education.

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