In a new interview, staff writer for The Atlantic George Packer responds to critics of his controversial essay about education in Brooklyn.
By Alexander Russo
It’s no simple task when journalists decide to write about their families’ school choices and their children’s classroom experiences. Even when the result is considered a success, as in Nikole Hannah-Jones’ memorable 2016 New York Times magazine feature, Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City, the arrangement — in which the writer is forced to give up the traditional role of dispassionate observer — is an awkward one.
So it’s not entirely a surprise that The Atlantic’s September 13 publication of a lengthy first-person piece from longtime writer George Packer about his unhappy parenting experience at a progressive Brooklyn school set off an internet firestorm.
Unlike Hannah-Jones, Packer is a politics and culture writer. And unlike in her story, Packer’s piece is not a tale of principled individual action in response to systematic inequality. In When the Culture War Comes for the Kids, Packer finds progressivism has run amok at his older kid’s Brooklyn school, fast approaching a state of affairs in which rigorous education takes a back seat to political correctness, diversity of viewpoints is no longer tolerated, and obviously flawed ideas are treated as truths.
Over the past week, the response to the story has been highly polarized, with conservatives generally applauding Packer’s concerns and progressives and many education journalists criticizing the piece for being inaccurate, its topic poorly suited to its author. Like author Jonathan “The Corrections” Franzen on climate change, Packer is objectionable to many not just for his critique but for who he is.
That’s too bad, because while Packer may be a highly imperfect messenger with an incomplete mastery of the current education debate, some of his observations deserve more careful attention than they seem to have gotten so far.
As you’ll see in the following email interview, Packer is unapologetic about the piece, which he says was assigned, edited, and fact-checked through the usual process. According to Packer, the piece was never intended to be a condemnation of the school or the city’s education system, the polarized response has been an illustration of the intolerance his essay laments, and the questions raised by education journalists and others arise from misinterpretations of the piece or the personal essay form in which he was writing.
The following email interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
George Packer during a Morning Joe appearance following the publication of his article.
Alexander Russo: Did you anticipate how gleefully conservative readers would respond to the piece, or how harshly liberal readers would tear it apart?
George Packer: I knew the piece would be controversial, but I didn’t anticipate how quickly and thoroughly the reaction would break down into ideological camps, with misreadings, distortions, and flat-out falsehoods on both sides. Lots of readers have responded positively, in public and in private. But on the whole the reaction has borne out the argument of the piece — that we are living in an illiberal, intolerant moment when complexity and nuance are almost impossible to sustain in public conversations. It’s been disappointing.
AR: Did you intend for the piece to suggest that your experience was generalizable to other schools?
GP: No. The school is an outlier, or perhaps a vanguard of certain trends. The piece doesn’t say, “This is the New York public school system.” It says, “This was my experience at my son’s school, which reflected recent political and ideological currents in America.” The piece is more about what I call the new progressivism than it is about education policy. Still, there are signs that these currents are spreading through the NYC system — for example, in the way that the district-wide integration plan has been implemented.
AR: What misinterpretations or errors have readers and reviewers asserted about the piece?
GP: First, some readers claim that I’m arguing for segregation, when the opposite is true: I made it clear that I support the new integration plan for middle schools in our district, but I also have criticisms of how it was crafted and put in place, and I find some statements of public officials, including the schools chancellor, unnecessarily polarizing. If those criticisms make me a segregationist, then there’s no room for debate and the culture is even more authoritarian than I thought.
The piece is about the tension between being a parent and being a citizen, and between merit and equality. I want higher standards for every student, which requires integration but doesn’t end there.
Second, some readers on both the left and the right, including some school parents, claim I’ve written a terrible indictment of our son’s school. In fact, there are dozens of lines in the piece about what our family liked about the school — the diverse mix of students, the sense of community, the volunteer spirit, the attention to the individual child, the classroom work. It’s a sign of bad faith that so much of the criticism ignored the warm comments about the school. This crude simplification let critics on the right create an imaginary nightmare and let critics on the left accuse me of unfairness, if not disloyalty.
The third goes back to your question about generalizing the piece to other schools. I’m not an education writer, and I wouldn’t claim to know what’s going on across the NYC school system, let alone the country’s schools. I write about American politics and culture, and in this story I’ve written about these subjects in a personal context. My experience at my son’s school corresponded to something that’s happening in the country. It hit me where I live, and I wanted to call attention to the effect of illiberal thinking on kids. I hope that we can talk about it without making it even worse.
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AR: What was the rationale for not naming the school, a decision that seemed problematic to some readers?
GP: This wasn’t an exposé, it was a personal essay, and I had no desire to shine a floodlight on individuals or institutions. I knew that insiders would be able to figure it out pretty easily, but I also wanted to give as much privacy as I could within the limits of a piece like this. Some readers asked why I identified the student named Q. The reason is that Q and his parents already had made his identity known in a series of interviews with local public radio. [See Yasmeen Khan’s A Child Moves From ‘She’ to ‘He’ With Confidence (2015) and A Transgender Child Confronts Growing Up (2017)].
AR: So much of the outraged response to the piece seems to focus on your standing as a white, male, privileged parent and an interloper in the world of education whose conclusions differ from conventional wisdom. Would it have been better to give another parent the time and space to write about their own experiences choosing a good school for their kids?
GP: I think some critics would have been fine with a long piece by a privileged, white, male writer who said exactly what they wanted to hear. And perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to differ from conventional wisdom.
AR: On Twitter, Hechinger Report education reporter and fellow Brooklyn New School parent Meredith Kolodner lamented the lack of other voices and perspectives in the piece. What if any obligation does a piece like yours have to convey other viewpoints?
GP: While working on the piece I talked to a number of school parents, including ones whose backgrounds and points of view are different from mine. But in the end — see above — a personal essay reflects the experience and thinking of the writer.
Most of the coverage I read these days — in the Times and other leading outlets — is focused on integration and equality. That’s a long-overdue emphasis. But what I hear from many parents, and not only in my socioeconomic group, is deep concern about quality and rigor across the board. — George Packer
AR: Chalkbeat’s What you should know about that contentious Atlantic essay notes that the school you’re writing about is not typical enough of the rest of the school system to be illustrative. What evidence do you have to suggest that it is illustrative, or is that not a claim you’re making?
GP: It’s not my claim (see above). The line I’d draw is from my experience to trends in our society, not to the objective reality of the school system as a whole, which is vast and diverse.
AR: Your piece stands out for focusing on parents’ complicated views about what schools do with their kids. What else are parents thinking and talking about that might not be making it into news coverage?
GP: Most of the coverage I read these days — in the Times and other leading outlets — is focused on integration and equality. That’s a long-overdue emphasis. But what I hear from many parents, and not only in my socioeconomic group, is deep concern about quality and rigor across the board. These have become afterthoughts or assumed givens in the turmoil around the discussion of diversity. I’ve also heard parents remark on a silence where perhaps the key discussion should be — early education. Maybe because improving elementary schools across the city seems so much harder than integrating the specialized high schools.
AR: What are some of challenges and opportunities of taking on such a personal subject as one’s child’s own education, from a reporting and writing perspective?
GP: One of the biggest worries is for the privacy of one’s own child. Do I have the right to expose him or her to public scrutiny? Which personal experiences deserve to be made public and which are too petty or idiosyncratic? How are my inevitable biases affecting the writing? It’s also risky to engage in self-criticism, as I do several times in the piece. I’ve always found that to be an imperative of strong writing, but in our moment it’s an invitation to attack.
AR: In the Columbia Journalism Review, Alexandria Neason reminds us “that a press corps that does not sufficiently reflect the people whose stories it purports to tell fundamentally fails at its civic mission.” Do you agree with her views on newsroom diversity especially when it comes to coverage of communities of color?
GP: I’m all for it, and it’s becoming more and more real in the outlets I know. I’d stop short of insisting that only reporters of a certain identity can cover certain stories. That limits the work of everyone and could lead to a ghettoization of news reporting.