In a recent article in the Atlantic, journalist George Packer describes at length the discomforts of trying to raise and educate his children in a world (in his case, the rather strange world of New York City) where two powerful yet contradictory influences are at play: on one hand, the warped standards of a ruthless meritocracy that determines a child’s entire life trajectory according to what pre-school she’s admitted to, and on the other, the increasingly baroque demands of identity politics as practiced in urban and other liberal enclaves, which presumes that all emblems of success are the unearned rewards of racial and economic privilege, and that testing scholastic achievement is an act of suppression.
Packer’s account of his family’s attempt to navigate this minefield is enlightening and appalling, not only because it illuminates a central contradiction between the American ideals of meritocracy and democracy, but because it illustrates how thoroughly balkanized our values have become, how what once were communities have become ideological battlegrounds, and how ignorance itself is being weaponized by zealots on both ends of the political spectrum. If we cannot agree on matters as fundamental to society as what our children need to learn in school, and whether and how the quality of their education should be measured, what could we possibly agree on?
We are constantly reminded by the news media that we are a divided nation, that across a range of issues – gun control, reproductive rights, health care, immigration and the rest – the American people longer speak a common political language, but have withdrawn into silos of self-reinforcing opinion, much of it hostile and willfully ignorant. This is as noxious and depressing a state of affairs as I’ve witnessed in my adult life, but it’s hardly unprecedented. The Sixties were visciously divisive, I’m here to tell you. One need only recall the overt racism that propelled George Wallace’s run for the presidency in 1968, or the bloody antiwar riots outside the Democratic convention in Chicago that same year, not to mention the fistfights and cudgelings that regularly occurred on the floor of Congress in the years leading up to the Civil War, to realize that we’ve never been a nation of genteel intellectuals politely discussing policy with each other. It’s mostly been a fistfight.
But it’s possible that in the last decade we’ve passed a tipping point without knowing it, that the historical arc from the end of the Second World War to the election of Donald Trump is one that now bends downward, into a state of politically promoted ignorance as corrosive as any tyranny. And our only hope is that most tenuous of enterprises, public education.
The Second World War galvanized all the elements that we would later associate with American greatness: a quantum leap in industrialization and the breakneck pace of innovation and urbanization that came with it, an outward-facing role of stewardship toward the world’s democracies, and the unification of the popular imagination behind a relatively narrow set of social values that boiled down to a mix of romance about individual freedom and a sense of responsibility and affection toward one’s community, be it a town, a church, or a nation.
Community had a different connotation then; it was national in scope. Hard on the heels of the war came the advent of mass media, the supervention of a thousand little radio stations and local newspapers by the colossus of broadcast television, run by only three companies with barely distinguishable profit models or perspectives on reality. The news, when time was made for it, became a commodity, and we lapped it up.
But with rare exceptions like Walter Cronkite’s finally calling BS on the doctrinaire military narrative about the war in Vietnam, it was one news, all the time. The only available model for broadcast news was, of course, the urban newspaper, which was both capital-intensive and carefully edited. There were no alternative facts, no marketplace of ideas with low barriers to entry. Outside of the corner bar, there was no ready forum, like the internet of today, for outliers, cranks, or the dementedly opinionated. Strong opinion, particularly around politics, was not thought cool, let alone profitable, and the networks wanted to be both. Besides, there were laws on the books that required holders of broadcast licenses provide equal time to both sides of a given public issue.
This charmed interval, in which a commonly-accepted version of events and values was broadcast over public airwaves, persisted for decades, only mildly fragmented by cable TV and the repeal, in 1987, of the Fairness Doctrine. Meanwhile, DARPA and Stanford developed a form of peer-to-peer computer communication, initially intended for use by scientists and spies, that would literally upend the processes of information distribution altogether, turning what had been a top-down system of curated reporting into a radically democratized, bottom-up flash-mob of undifferentiated opinion, flattening the meritocratic information hierarchy and smashing it into an infinite number of isolated, metastasizing cells. In the space of twenty years, the gatekeepers of the written and spoken word had become also-rans in an online competition for eyeballs and clicks.
Some of us are old enough to pine for that bygone world of credentialed expertise, professionally-vetted news, and a meritocracy of ideas. Some of us, presented with a large black button that, if pushed, would undo the internet and all its works, couldn’t push it fast enough. But somewhere in the closing years of the twentieth century or the dawn of the twenty-first, a tipping point was reached, that old world died (though it staggers on, zombie-like), and the sense of national community fostered by the old informational gatekeepers began to unravel.
It shouldn’t have mattered so much in a country with a firmly-entrenched system of public education. We shouldn’t have needed a common filter to perceive common truths and preserve common values. Like the endless choice presented by the internet, education operates at the individual level. It is the only irreducible filter, the last editor, the final gatekeeper.
But like the old gatekeepers, it is under siege. Public schools at the elementary, secondary, and college levels remain vastly underfunded. The average salary of public schoolteachers in the US, adjusted for inflation, is lower than twenty years ago. As I write this, Chicago public schoolteachers are engaged in a prolonged strike for class size limits and more student counselors. And as starkly illustrated in George Packer’s Atlantic article, in many communities there is no longer a consensus about what students should be taught or how success in teaching them should be measured – if it should be measured at all. It’s perhaps more likely that the average sixth grader will be taught, however laudably, about Native American genocide or Chinese dynastic epochs than about what we used to call civics – the founding of the republic, the functions and relationship of the three branches of American government, the mechanisms of democratic choice.
Even more important is an education in critical thinking – the skill of applying a set of objective, neutral criteria to information however it is presented in order to form a judgment about it. A polity unversed in critical thinking is ripe for the sort of social media demagoguery that infected the last election and is likely to get even worse next time around. It should be deeply disturbing to all of us, but to Republicans in particular, that fully half of those who voted for Trump in 2016 lacked a college education (64% of white voters), and that white voters without bachelor’s degrees make up a growing segment of the Republican Party, whereas the more highly educated you are, the more likely you are to vote Democratic. There would seem to be only two possible reactions to this fact on the part of a Republican politician: either (a) the degree of one’s education doesn’t matter where political and social judgment is concerned; or (b) I must be doing something wrong.
But the left is not blameless in this regard either. In a zealous pursuit of an ever-narrowing definition of social justice, self-styled progressives have mounted an assault on the very notion of meritocracy, and the mechanisms, including but not limited to standardized testing, by which differences in educational quality and individual effort might be measured and rewarded.
Education does matter; how informed and discriminating an electorate is does matter. The failure of our educational system to inculcate critical thinking in a generation of voters goes a long way toward accounting for Trump’s victory in 2016, and the persistence of his popularity among those who watched him on a reality TV show for close to ten years and mistook his fame for character, his arrogance for competence, and equated his resentments with their self-interest.
We need to recognize that the outcome of their choice represents not only a triumph of political manipulation, but a failure of American education. It’s a failure we must not amplify by depriving our children of the tools and standards that are the best defense against the political propagandists, on both ends of our strained political spectrum, who are intent on weaponizing ignorance.
 Business Insider, August 21, 2019.
 Pew Research Center, An Examination of the 2016 Electorate, Based on Validated Voters (Aug. 9, 2018).