I appreciated the brief email exchange after reading your Atlantic article, “Private Schools Are Indefensible.” I know you have received an avalanche of responses and read follow-on articles but as a private school alum and retired private school teacher, tech integrator, dorm adviser, et. al., I thought I would write a more formal response. My goal is to add some context to the assertion in your title. I would also like to suggest a potential explanation for the behaviors of the private school parents to whom you refer that I will call The Magic Carpet Fallacy.
Let’s begin with a brief look at the landscape of private schools and the proposition that not all private schools are alike. You know this since you taught and were a parent at Harvard-Westlake. We can agree, I hope, that you are talking about DEI programs at a small group of elite schools known as independent schools. Given your focus, I will ignore the current DEI controversies in state legislatures. Most of your target schools charge steep tuitions and fees and are accessible primarily to affluent families. While there is financial aid available, diversity has been challenged by insufficient resources with a resulting “barbell” effect, meaning that the student demographic is primarily affluent full-pay students and talented lower-income full-financial aid students. Middle-class kids are often squeezed out of that admissions equation. Let’s agree that most private schools have worked hard to increase the diversity of their communities, but few have achieved ratios that reflect the national or regional demographic.
Equity and inclusion are the areas that have suffered the most, even with additional diversity, most likely because those values require real commitment to a new mindset for private school communities that are currently grounded in exclusivity. The tragic murder of George Floyd inspired a rejuvenated and proactive commitment to equity and inclusion, and some private schools (as well as the rest of education and the corporate world) felt pressured to respond in kind. Since education cultures do not respond well to shifting priorities overnight, the easiest solution to market was wholesale curriculum changes, a strategy that might raise awareness for a few in the community, but would not result in a culture shift. Unfortunately, the most visible response was one of anger from the parent community and many students. At the schools you write about, the curricular shift was also accompanied by a persistent theme of white guilt. With that in mind, let’s move to the parents you have very specifically targeted in your article, and they will help to explain the Magic Carpet Fallacy.
You’re right that parents wanted a high-quality experience for their children, and that the academic portion of the experience was a smaller piece of the magic carpet ride: parents either believed privilege would carry their children a long way and insulate them from the conflicts currently visible in our world or, more practically, the formula of attending elite private schools seemed to produce the outcomes they were looking for (admission to elite colleges, prestigious careers, etc.). Engaged, excited, and self-esteem were all appropriate words to define expectations, but notice that the list of words did not include conflict resolution, rethinking one’s history, empathic listening, personal and civic responsibility, and coping with the challenges of adolescence. That is the source of the blow-up to which you refer in the article. Privilege was fueled by a carefree goodness and an aversion to struggle or confrontation, creating the illusion of a magic carpet ride for such children; thus they (and their parents) find themselves unable to cope with the contemporary stresses that exist throughout our culture, and most importantly today, equity and inclusion (recall Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Coddling of the American Mind). As a result, magic carpet parents feel fear and anger because their children are not as “carefree” as they were in earlier generations and the future success formula of 30 years ago no longer applies. Thus, the current magic carpet fallacy.
As you point out, there is a fundamental conflict between the original exclusive missions of elite independent schools and the anti-racism movements today, which call for acute attention to equity and inclusion. That conflict, if it remains unresolved, could cost some of these schools enrollments, and given the unsustainable financial model that exists today at most elite private schools, a true existential crisis for a few. The authors of the heavily-read Intrepid Ed News article “12 Questions to Ask Before Your DEI-Anti-Racism Strategy Blows Up” (Sanje Ratnavale & Pat Bassett) provide a pathway for independent schools that will lead them to an effective DEI program, one that will take several years and a hefty investment of time and resources. There are many reasons why only a few schools will be able to fully embrace their prescription, but many more will aspire to adoption. With an anti-racism or broader equity and inclusion focus, there will be a disconnect between what many affluent parents (customers) want (the magic carpet ride) and what the greater culture demands. Resolving that conflict, making clear the magic carpet fallacy, is the crux of the issue at hand for independent schools. For many families, the response will be one of support for the overall initiative, but not for one’s own children. Depending on geography and demographics, some of these schools will escape making a decision for the moment. They will continue as is, and not face heat either from their parents or the local culture. All the other schools are at a crossroads.
If some continue to serve their customers, then they revert to the kind of school they were (with a 21st-century look and feel), that was most visible during the 1980s. The real change will be the higher selectivity of the colleges these kids apply to. They will be part of a truly elite school network producing the aristocracy of our country. The magic carpet ride continues for the fortunate few. Alternatively, some schools will push forward, embracing enlightened anti-racism and a true DEI mission, understanding that their customer profile will change, and by necessity, their financial model. One result will be a major disruption to the parent population who are feeling the magic carpet fallacy. They will no longer be able to protect their children from societal tensions that are grounded in some form of inequity nor will they be able to ensure that the adult lives of their children will be secure and successful, irrespective of relative family wealth. These schools will reinvent learning to meet the needs of the most passionate and engaged students, regardless of their zip code. In short, the schools that you claim are indefensible have the opportunity to again play a leadership role: instead of dominating the most elite education sphere, they might dominate the highest quality education space that thrives because of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The competitive zero-sum game will be replaced by an agregate increase in human capacity. To do so, the soft skills will ultimately define the hard skills.
Again, you are right to say that many of the current DEI initiatives involve shaming white students or challenging societal icons such as capitalism. The strategy is an overreaction to a very visible issue. It is doomed to failure both because it distances a school’s most loyal families and it is a retrospective view of the situation that focuses on identifying blame rather than forward-looking communal solutions. That’s not to say the past is unimportant. We honor the past as a means of understanding the present. “How did we get here and what do we do next?” is something schools can work with. Think about “what might be” if independent schools could develop a capacity for longer-term shifts in their cultures, and anticipated converting some current families, gaining new ones, and losing those who are unable to cope with the magic carpet fallacy.
We both know the independent school world well. There are many wonderful things that kids experience at these schools, but they are, in a sense, mini-utopias that can easily be derailed once the magic carpet ride becomes a fallacy.
Intrepid Ed News