On the March issue:

Classroom Crisis

To the Editor:
I take exception to Robert Pondiscio’s article on U.S. schools (“The Unbearable Bleakness of American Schooling,” March). I have no doubt the author believes he is channeling some sort of deep truth about American education, but he draws his broad conclusions with little to no evidence.

Pondiscio writes: “By any reasonable measure, the world is safer and more stable than at any time in living memory.” Is he aware that we are in the second year of a global pandemic? He goes on to imply that the rise in the number of children who are “more depressed and medicated than ever before” is related to teachers giving them prompts about “their personal problems.” While it is true that, according to the CDC, childhood depression has risen about 3 percentage points in the past 20 years, there is zero evidence linking essay prompts in English classrooms to this trend.

Pondiscio also claims that teachers are normalizing “the depressive forces in children’s lives” because some of them assigned The Hate You Give as reading material. But he offers no evidence on how often this book is actually assigned. Similarly, Pondiscio declares that the Pedagogy of the Oppressed is one of the “most frequently assigned books in teacher-prep programs.” I have taught in a public school for 25 years and have hosted dozens of teacher candidates. This book has never come up in a discussion with any of them.

Public education in this country does not resemble what this writer is describing. Pondiscio’s theme is that schools are teaching students to hate America, making students depressed, and are too focused on making students think critically about their country. The notion that America itself has failed these students is not even considered. Perhaps students of color, who routinely see police misconduct in their communities, are suffering from depression and anxiety because of that reality and not because they read The Hate You Give in English last semester. Perhaps the growing economic inequality and widespread poverty in this nation are contributing to the lack of patriotism that Pondiscio believes is spread by teachers. Maybe having sufficient health care and a decent minimum wage would do more to inspire patriotism than reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every morning.
Mark Foley
Urbana, Illinois

To the Editor:
Robert Pondiscio absolutely nailed what’s happening in our country’s schools today. I am a child and adolescent psychiatrist, and my husband is a high-school English teacher. He’s leaving his private-school alma mater to escape the cloud of wokeness that has come to envelop it. And we’re taking our two young children out of the school as well. Pondiscio has eloquently articulated what we feel in our very cores. Thank you for publishing this article.
Rachel Bennett, M.D.
Merchantville, New Jersey

To the Editor:
I taught at public and private schools for 35 years. Everything in Robert Pondiscio’s article is valid and sadly true. Despite my heartbreak over our broken educational system, I still believe we are honor-bound to and morally charged to educate young people. We must have strong academics for all children, and we must challenge minds and spirits to go beyond the basics. Young people are perfectly capable of rigorous intellectual activity.
Rebecca Moore
Rockwall, Texas

To the Editor:
Robert Pondiscio is spot-on. I am an education consultant, and in my private practice, and in the vast majority of the thousand college essays I read this season for a top-100 university, students write of serious bouts with depression and anxiety. This in part serves to ratify their righteous belief that “goodness is rare.” Nearly half struggle with an “identity” that in some way departs from the supposedly privileged and oppressive cis-hetero-patriarchal-white norm. In one application after another, students explicitly denounce the U.S. as irredeemably hateful, corrupt, and broken. And both domestic and international students unquestioningly maintain that the earth is on the brink of environmental collapse.

These themes work in college applications precisely because the purpose of higher education has changed. It went from passing on the best that has been thought and expressed, and cultivating reason, logic, and clear communication, to the training of activists who will reject all that as oppressive in order to remake society around a new religion that brooks no heretics: diversity, inclusion, race, and equity.
Carolyn Kost
North Palm Beach, Florida

Robert Pondiscio writes:
I am indeed aware that we are in the second year of a pandemic. Mark Foley may be unaware (or unwilling to accept) that mere weeks into the crisis, it was already clear that we were imposing a steep and disproportionate cost on children that was unjustified given the relatively low risk to children that Covid represented. Our children and
grandchildren may forgive that we profoundly disrupted their lives and academic outcomes out of “an abundance of caution,” but we may not forgive ourselves once the long-term effects on their well-being come more clearly into focus.

The “evidence” that Mr. Foley demands is what he cites himself: a troubling rise in mental-health problems among our children. As noted in the piece, school is only one feature of the “psychic landscape” our children inhabit. But it’s an instructive one because schools are designed specifically to direct and shape children’s sense-making. What psychologists call our “primal beliefs” (whether the world and people are generally good or bad, for example) shape our behavior and mental health; this should inspire educators like Mr. Foley not to deflect responsibility, but to accept their influence and reflect on the sense-making signals they offer students. Alas, Mr. Foley’s exception-taking serves only to reinforce the argument that we are fetishizing the bad and the broken in American life, since he suggests that insufficient health care and a too-low minimum wage prevent us from imparting the optimism and gratitude that would more firmly invest children in civil society. I humbly suggest that cultivating an informed patriotism might inspire students to take up as adults the progressive reforms he views as vital to their well-being today.

I thank Rachel Bennett, Rebecca Moore, and Carolyn Kost for their kind and supportive comments. In the weeks since the piece appeared, I have been gratified by the number of people who have articulated the view expressed by Dr. Bennett that the unbearable bleakness of the world we are presenting to children is something “we feel in our very cores.”  We owe it to our children not to impose our own dark and cynical views on them.  

Chamberlain Rehab

To the Editor:
Meir Y. Soloveichik makes trenchant arguments about the obvious flaws of the film Munich: The Edge of War (“Don’t Trust Movies Named ‘Munich,’” March). It was indeed surprising to see a film about Munich without any mention of Winston Churchill. Historical fiction and movies cannot be trusted as accurate history. Churchill said of the Munich Agreement: “Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness” and “We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude which has befallen Great Britain and France…. And do not suppose that this is the end. This is only the beginning of the reckoning.” He was profoundly aware that Chamberlain had achieved not “peace with honour” but another diplomatic defeat at the hands of Hitler. Churchill knew this would have devastating consequences for the free peoples of Europe, especially its Jewry.  We remain deeply grateful for Britain’s brave stand under Churchill. I thank Soloveichik for reminding us that “Jews…have a special stake in seeing that the depiction of Munich and its aftermath are true and correct.”
Richard K. Munro
Bakersfield, California

To the Editor:
Regarding Meir Y. Soloveichik’s column on the recent cinematic representation of Neville Chamberlain, there has long been a cultural strain among the English elite that ascribes “buying time” as the overarching goal of appeasement.

I write as an American alumnus of the University of Oxford (1981), and my experience there more than 40 years ago was reinforced about a decade ago when a distinguished English scientist—a fellow of the Royal Society and president of an Oxbridge College—visited us in the Midwest. In solemn tones of utter self-assurance, he shared (oddly in passing with our STEM graduate students) that Chamberlain sought at Munich to allow the RAF time to build more planes and train more pilots for the anticipated Battle of Britain. This, he said, was canny leadership.

This historical aside was of course outside our distinguished visitor’s STEM expertise, but its particularity and incongruity with the historical record were jarring. It suggests that the “revisionist” strain (and stain) of elite thought in England has endured for generations. Citing the RAF provided a bitter irony: In the 1930s, it was Churchill, alone in the political wilderness, who steadily monitored the growth of German air power and who alerted Parliament to the deficiencies of the RAF, indeed often to the resentment of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and his successor Chamberlain.

I leave it to psychiatry-trained interpreters of history and culture to speculate on the psychodynamics underlying this long-standing denial of appeasement’s goals and consequences.
Michael A. Weiss
Indiana University
Indianapolis, Indiana

To the Editor:
If we are to ever learn from Neville Chamberlain’s mistakes, as discussed by Meir Y. Soloveichik, when will that be? When will the true moral lessons of such signal events outweigh the ever-invasive claims of apologists who are either ignorant of or ideologically brainwashed by a willful denial of evil? In thinking about the Chamberlain affair, the Iran nuclear deal comes to mind. I thank Commentary for the critique, as sorrowful as its revelations may be.
Keith Sherman
Boston, Massachusetts

The University and Its Uses

To the Editor:
According to Joseph Epstein (“The Commencement Address That Can Never Be Delivered,” March), “great things to do with one’s life” are restricted to being an “artist,” “scientist,” or “statesman,” or becoming a “teacher of artists, scientists, statesmen.” As for pursuing a career in business, that seems to be all about making money and therefore beneath the dignity of those who aspire to greatness.

As a huge fan of Joseph Epstein’s writing, I’m sorry to see he doesn’t acknowledge that plenty of businesspeople have done great things with their lives, including some who run the neighborhood establishments I patronize.
Gene Epstein
New York City

To the Editor:
Joseph Epstein’s essay on the college experience is a reminder that college is merely the most convenient place to learn how to learn. It is not an absolute determinant. It is altogether possible to become educated by reading books without ever attending class. But no commencement speaker dares say so out of fear of being declared persona non grata by college presidents.
Walt Gardner
Los Angeles, California

To the Editor:
Joseph Epstein’s article on universities was both depressing and liberating—more the latter than the former. I wouldn’t have stood chance at the University of Chicago, but after getting this glimpse into what it was all about and reading of Epstein’s “intellectual excitement” at encountering original works, I’ve resolved to try  to be a little less clueless from now on. Thank you, a thousand times over.
Chuck Kaufmann
Lebanon, Missouri

Joseph Epstein writes:
I regret that Gene Epstein thinks me in any way contemptuous of business and businessmen. My only point was that the University of Chicago eschewed the notion that money-making ought to be the chief goal in life. In any case, a society made up entirely, or even preponderantly, of artists, scientists, and statesmen would not be one in which I should care to live. 

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