On a mild October night in 1962, a frightened housewife, eight months pregnant, climbed into bed in Yonkers, New York, with her two-year-old daughter. Her husband was at work on the West Coast and not with his family on what she felt certain would be the last night of their lives. Lying down in the dark holding her child, she cried and prayed until sleep overtook her.
Morning came and they were both still alive, not incinerated in bed as she had feared after President Kennedy shocked the nation with his televised address on the Cuban missile crisis the night before.
I was born five weeks later. Days before my first birthday, Kennedy was shot to death in Dallas. By the time I started kindergarten on Long Island, nearly 30,000 American GIs had been killed in Vietnam. I learned to read in Mrs. Bobrowitz’s first-grade class the same year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; race riots tore apart Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, and other cities the summer before I started second grade. My elementary-school years were marked by levels of domestic unrest and political violence that in retrospect stagger the imagination. There were more than 1,900 domestic bombings in 1972 alone. Airplane hijackings were common. My dad flew for American Airlines.
My parents made no attempt that I’m aware of to shield me from the turbulent events of my childhood years. I thumbed the New York Daily News every morning after checking the Mets box score; I plucked Newsday out of the mailbox when I came home from school. The television was rarely turned off in our home. I watched Eyewitness News at 6 p.m. and, once I was allowed to stay up late, again at 11. It became a forgone conclusion that I would someday work in the news business after I had stayed up all night mesmerized by Jim McKay’s coverage of the Black September terrorist attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics the summer I was nine. Vietnam stretched far enough into my middle-school years that I wondered whether it would be over before I was old enough to be drafted.
In short, I grew up understanding that the world could be a dangerous place of unpredictable menace.
But I was not tyrannized by this knowledge.
I went to school, played unsupervised in the street, and had blanket permission to range widely on my bike, far from my neighborhood, provided I was home when the streetlights came on. Adults were not omnipresent as they tend to be in children’s lives today, but they seemed in charge and mostly competent. I also knew one thing with certainty about my country, reinforced by my parents and teachers and in the media and culture at large: We were the good guys.
The mental landscape of American childhood is very different today. By any reasonable measure, the world is safer and more stable than at any time in living memory. Adults could hardly be more active in children’s lives, but at the same time we seem less inclined to play a reassuring role. This is particularly true in schools, where curricula and school culture seem nearly to revel in the bad and the broken, suggesting to children that they have suffered the great misfortune to have been born into a country that is racist to its core, whose founding documents were lies when written, and where democracy is hanging by a thread. Not that it matters, since we are just a few short years away from irreversible climate catastrophe, all but certain to render the world a spent and burned-out husk by the time they are grown. Neither is it a given that American children will internalize the idea that their country is a force for good in the world or an engine of freedom and prosperity. In fact, quite the opposite.
Forget adult competence. Children are told, sometimes explicitly in school and in the broader culture, that the world is counting on them for deliverance from problems grown-ups heedlessly created and have proven incapable of solving. In 2019, Time magazine named 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg the youngest “person of the year” in its history. A group of Parkland, Florida, high-school gun-control activists topped the magazine’s list of the world’s most influential people. The article praising their efforts was written by Barack Obama.
Worst of all, this pedagogy of the depressed—America the Problematic—is thought to be a virtue among professional educators who view it as a mark of seriousness and sophistication. We want children to grapple with “honest history” starting in elementary school and to discover the power of their voices by writing authentic essays about their personal problems. Small wonder, then, that children are more depressed and medicated than ever before. A half-century of psychological research indicates that our beliefs about the world shape behavior and our sense of well-being. Whether one views the world as good or bad, safe or dangerous, enticing or dull, is correlated with outcomes such as life satisfaction or depression. We may think that we are doing children a good service by being “real” with them, refusing to spare them from the unpleasant facts of the tired world they will soon inherit, thus inspiring them to seize the day and set the world right. But strong evidence is emerging that we are mostly succeeding in creating a generation of overwhelmed young people paralyzed into learned helplessness.
It can no longer be questioned—or avoided—that America’s children are in the middle of a serious and alarming mental-health crisis. In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared the state of child and adolescent mental health “a national emergency.” Visits to hospital emergency rooms for suspected suicide attempts among adolescents grew by 31 percent in 2020 over the year before. In February and March of 2021, visits for suspected suicide attempts for girls ages 12–17 jumped 51 percent compared with the same time period in 2019 prior to Covid.
The crisis, however, predates the pandemic. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, in their book The Coddling of the American Mind, point to 2011 as the start of a measurable national rise in anxiety and depression among teenagers and young adults, citing the rapid spread of smartphones and social media a few years earlier as the likely culprit behind a sharp rise in mental illness and suicide. More screen time is also associated with fewer hours spent on sports and exercise, attending religious services, reading books, doing homework, and in-person social interactions, all of which correlate with lower rates of depression.
School is only one input in a child’s psychic landscape. But educators seem doggedly determined to validate and normalize the depressive forces in children’s lives, rather than resist them or offer a counter-narrative. Consider the impossibly bleak world of recent young adult (YA) literature. To be sure, dark children’s stories are not new. From the horror of Grimm’s fairy tales to the morbid humor of Roald Dahl’s books, authors have long had the impulse to make fear safe for children. But “socially aware” young-adult fiction of more recent vintage demonstrates a fascination with adult themes of tragedy and dysfunction that borders on fetishization.
The bestselling and most widely assigned young-adult books of the past 20 years include Thirteen Reasons Why, later made into a Netflix series, which has been accused of glorifying suicide (the title refers to the reasons why a high school girl killed herself) and features scenes of drug use and sexual abuse; and The Hate U Give, also a cinematic success, which centers on the shooting of an unarmed black youth by a police officer. The bildungsroman novel Perks of Being a Wallflower addresses themes of drug use, child molestation, and post-traumatic stress disorder; Vigilante is about a high-school senior’s gang rape. The plot of the wildly popular Hunger Games trilogy features children fighting to the death to entertain the population of a decadent successor regime to the United States. The bestselling books for teens since Harry Potter, the series ushered in an era of dystopian, violent young adult fiction. But this fog of depression and pathology was already sufficiently familiar to readers of contemporary YA lit that by 2004, Sonya Sones published a verse novel for teens knowingly titled One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies.
“It is difficult to understand why educators would so determinedly insist on immersing students in an unsavory worldview, portraying life in terms of its anomalies and unorthodoxies, as if there’s something wrong with you if there’s nothing wrong with you,” wrote Steve Salerno, nonfiction author and essayist, in a 2018 Wall Street Journal op-ed critical of the depressing cast of contemporary YA literature. But normalizing the pathological is precisely the point. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) defends the “power of young adult literature to depict the world honestly.” If parents have misgivings about its unremitting bleakness NCTE provides “talking points” for teachers, including that YA lit “gives teens honest stories,” guides them in everyday living, and “can be used to spark teens’ critical consciousness.”
If it is news to you that sparking a critical consciousness is a goal of K–12 public education, you have never been to a school of education. It is a principal tenet of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, among the most frequently assigned books in teacher-prep programs in colleges of education, and the urtext in the dark turn of education thought and practice over the last several decades. For Freire, the starting point of education is not sharing the best that has been thought and said, it’s the learner’s life situation. Liberating the masses from “systemic inequity” requires dismantling institutions and systems that “dehumanize both the oppressor and the oppressed.” This frame, the struggle between oppressors and the oppressed (reliably framed as a binary), has been a constant theme in American education for decades, but it burst into public consciousness only recently with debates over the prevalence (or putative absence) of critical race theory in K–12 education. It has been observed, not inaccurately, that if your child is being taught critical race theory, they’re in law school, not elementary school. But this obfuscation belies the degree to which critical theory—the belief that teaching should challenge students to “read the world” by examining power structures and inequality—deeply informs contemporary education thought and practice. Mike Gonzalez and Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation state the tension succinctly. “Simply put, Critical Theory amounts to an unremitting attack on all of America’s norms and traditions,” they write in National Review. It is “the main philosophical school in the identity politics of today.”
Readers unfamiliar with the folkways of American education, teacher training, and colleges of education may well wonder how an obscure Brazilian Marxist became one of American education’s most influential theorists, how developing “critical consciousness” became an explicit goal of its teachers, and how the methods and mindsets of those charged with providing a core government function—educating the nation’s children—drifted into an oppositional relationship with the institutions, traditions, and norms of a nation whose taxpayers pay for its existence and continued support. It is an excellent and largely unasked question.
The defiant relationship of American education to its host is not necessarily an explicitly political project; there is no reason to believe that a substantial share of our 3.7 million teachers are sub-rosa revolutionaries. However, the view of America as problematic echoes the sentiments of progressive elites who are politically invested in a dim view of the United States, downplay its ideals and accomplishments, and believe the country to be in dire need of radical reform. Teachers are measurably more left-leaning than the population as a whole, so it is not surprising that these views would seep into education thought and practice. It would be surprising if they didn’t.
A Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults conducted last year shows that about half (52 percent) of Americans say the U.S. is “one of the greatest countries, along with some others,” while fewer than one in four (23 percent) say “there are other countries that are better than the U.S.” The share of adults who say there are other countries better than the U.S. “is higher than it was a decade ago, with most of the increase coming among Democrats,” Pew reported. However, the most recent graduates of America’s schools, ages 18–29, hold the dimmest views, with 42 percent saying there are other countries better than the U.S. A mere 12 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents think their country “stands above all other countries in the world,” a figure that drops to a miniscule 5 percent among 18- to 29-years-olds. A solid majority (55 percent) of the youngest Democrats and left-leaners agree that “other countries are better than the U.S.” This, too, is not a surprise. Advocates may sentimentally invoke the idea of public education as the indispensable, democratic engine of fellow feeling and common ground, but children are increasingly likely to learn that the goal of their education is not to prepare them to build a more perfect union, but to dismantle it.
Our earliest thinkers on public education held notions about its role that seem deeply anachronistic by contemporary standards and might even offend many of today’s teachers. The famous remark attributed to Benjamin Franklin about our form of government—“A republic, Madam, if you can keep it”—resonated precisely because of its ominous suggestion that we would prove incapable of doing so. E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s 2009 book The Making of Americans noted that “this anxious theme runs through the writings of all our earliest thinkers about American education.” They were aware of the historical instability of republics and saw common schooling as the only path to create the virtuous, civic-minded citizens critical to social cohesion and national survival. “The school would be the institution that would transform future citizens into loyal Americans. It would teach common knowledge, virtues, ideals, language, and commitments,” Hirsch explained.
Early education theorists such as Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, and Horace Mann would undoubtedly be shocked to see today’s American public education evince obvious discomfort with these values, holding them at arms’ length, and even seeing virtue in opposing them.
Civic education, the long-forgotten founding purpose of American public schooling, has also morphed into a form that older Americans will no longer recognize. Learning how a bill becomes law and about the three branches of government is seen as passive and inauthentic. Your father’s government class has yielded to “action civics,” which also reflects a view of America as a collection of problems to be solved—by children, of course.
Harvard professor Meira Levinson, among the most prominent proponents of action civics, has described it as “the gold standard of guided experiential civic education,” designed to create “an engaged citizenry capable of effective participation in the political process, in their communities, and in the larger society,” she wrote in her 2012 book, No Citizen Left Behind. The point is not for students to learn civics, but to do civics. Conservatives detect more than a whiff of a leftist agenda in action civics, but its flaws run deeper than the suspicion that its goal is training junior activists to fight for progressive causes. Proponents argue they are merely encouraging children to “exercise power and control over their own lives” as part of their education and upbringing. But such lofty sentiments seldom reflect the realities of classroom practice or its outcomes.
A viral video not long ago captured an exchange between California senator Dianne Feinstein and students, some quite young, insisting that “our earth is literally dying” and seeking her support for the Green New Deal. “Some scientists have said that we have 12 years to turn this around,” one child says on the video. “Well, it’s not going to get turned around in 10 years,” Feinstein calmly responds, explaining that the Green New Deal has no chance of passage in the Senate without Republican votes. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I know what I’m doing.” When she tries to describe her own plan, the kids are unprepared to respond. “But we’re the people who voted for you,” a 16-year-old tells the senator, forgetting she was too young to cast a ballot. “You’re supposed to listen to us. That’s your job!”
The awkward exchange is not “action civics,” it’s theater. The students learned their lines by rote with no real understanding of government or politics, and Feinstein refused to play her assigned role as the indulgent elder, praising children for their engagement and pretending to be moved by their activism. The environmental group that organized the awkward exchange later called Feinstein smug and disrespectful. The senator was playing a different role, one the kids needed but never had: a civics teacher.
When education becomes activism, it dwells exclusively in the bad and the broken; at least tacitly it encourages children to see their community and country as nothing more than a collection of problems to be solved, with none of the virtues and blessings of citizenship. Fair-minded people can see that gratitude for what works and outrage at what’s not working are equally important in a well-functioning civil society. But when only the latter is emphasized, it creates in the minds of students the impression that their country is reflexively antagonistic to their interests: What we have, what we have been given, and what some may seek to preserve is wrong, unjust, and must be dismantled, root and branch. If children view their country as mostly or entirely hostile to their well-being, they cannot help but get the sense that there is nothing worth protecting and preserving. It should not be a controversial notion to say that public education must proceed from a moral commitment, grounded in optimism and, yes, patriotism. You must love something before you seek to change it. It is suicidal to think public education should have as its object the dismantling of the institutions and ideals that birthed it in the first place.
There are worrisome hints that this is all a little too much for many young people to bear. The evidence of an accelerating mental health crisis is troubling enough. But a bracing essay published by Yuval Levin at The Dispatch late last year hints at the emergence of a quiet crisis of despair that is changing the nature of social breakdown in America. We have long tended to think of the greatest threats to social order and human flourishing as unbridled desire for pleasure, wealth, and status. As parents, we fear that our children might derail their lives in reckless pursuit of those things, so we steer them toward the moderating influence of faith, education, fulfilling work, and stable marriages.
But in Levin’s telling, the challenges to America’s social order lately seem “less like exorbitant human desires driving people’s lives out of control and more like an absence of energy and drive leaving people languishing and enervated.” It is easy to look at declining rates of divorce or teen pregnancy and mislead ourselves into thinking that disorder is waning. But, Levin pointed out, there are fewer divorces because there are fewer marriages; fewer out-of-wedlock births because fertility rates are declining generally. “If social dysfunction is essentially a breakdown of discipline—if the core social problem is unruliness—then American life is getting better,” he concludes. “But that case is unpersuasive because the greatest virtues of social order are not functions of its ability to restrain commotion or even to empower choice but of its capacity to enable human flourishing….And we are finding now that there is more than one way to be unhappy.”
The “disordered passivity” Levin detects represents “more fundamental challenges to flourishing because they strike deeper and earlier than the dangers of unruliness.” This places a particular burden on schools to address the problem, not to admire or indulge it. When a child’s education dwells too much in darkness, when the problems of the world are not only caused by adult ineptness and indifference but are placed on children’s shoulders to bear and resolve, common sense suggests it can only contribute to the passivity Levin identifies. “The hallmark emotion of depression is hopelessness, and it’s on a global scale,” agrees Christine Sefein, a therapist and former professor of clinical psychology. “That continuous repetitive message—‘There’s no reason to care because it’s all messed up. I’m always gonna feel guilty that I’m white, or I’m always gonna feel badly that my people were slaves or oppressed, there’s no way out, there’s no light’—that message is going to throw people into depression.”
The teaching profession, however, seems to have reached a different conclusion over the past decade, elevating “social and emotional learning” (SEL) to a central concern of public education, giving it coequal status with academic achievement. The rise of SEL includes a tendency to borrow ideas and tactics from therapy, psychology, social work, and even the clergy, with teaching and education increasingly coming to resemble those fields. But acting as unlicensed and poorly trained therapists carries the risk of pathologizing childhood, encouraging educators to view children—particularly children from disadvantaged subgroups—not as capable and resilient individuals, but as traumatized and fragile. It also reinforces, at least tacitly, that childhood is a minefield for children to navigate en route to taking their place in a diminished country and an endangered world.
There is a fine line to be walked here. Few would argue that children should grow up in a protective bubble, cosseted and coddled, insulated from history and the realities of life. It would be impossible in our information and social-media-saturated age. But something is at loose in the land, a change in the weather that has changed how children perceive the world and their place in it. As adults and as educators, we are not merely failing in our responsibility to be a reassuring presence in their lives, we seem perversely determined to normalize and even valorize their despair.
Consider how much has changed in the lives of children, and the signals we give them about the world they inhabit, and their role in it. If Covid had struck 40 or 50 years ago, it’s neither naive nor ahistorical to think that the arrival of vaccines less than a year into a global pandemic would have been framed for schoolchildren as a triumph of science and human ingenuity, and cause for celebration. The middle school two blocks from my New York City apartment is named for Jonas Salk. Today, teachers in a school that honors the man who cured polio treat children as a matter of public policy, as walking hot zones. Teachers in some U.S. cities, even when fully vaccinated, have walked off the job rather than risk contagion. An American child in second grade or younger has never known a single school year uninterrupted by Covid or not conducted under a regime of masking, social distancing, and quarantines.
It’s not hard to imagine the psychic toll this takes on children: The world is deadly and dangerous. I am, myself, a potentially lethal threat to my teachers, my family, and my friends.
This is the world now on offer to our children. It doesn’t matter if our intentions are good, if we see virtue in being honest with children, or seek only to “empower” students to take on and change the world. We have broken childhood. We have succeeded only in creating a generation of children who feel overwhelmed and powerless, lacking in agency, and who are saying to themselves, in effect, “Why bother?”
If one is searching for green shoots sprouting from this bleak landscape, they are there. We see intriguing hints that parents are more willing than they have been historically to question their long-standing ties to public schools, and they may be searching for more edifying and enriching options for their children’s education—though at present it is nearly impossible to disentangle that impulse from frustration with the inability or unwillingness of school leaders simply to keep their buildings reliably open for in-person instruction.
For decades, polls have tended to show that Americans hold dim views of public education at large, even as they regard the schools their own children attend as exceptions to the rule. The pandemic, however, has put all of this in play by placing local schools under a microscope to an unprecedented degree. Remote instruction and quarantines have served to pry open the black box of the classroom, with schools beamed into millions of homes via Zoom. That visibility has in many instances shaken parents’ confidence in the content and quality of instruction that their children are receiving in “good” local schools.
Parents have complained to school boards, but they’re also voting with their feet. Late last year, National Public Radio gathered head-count data from more than 600 school districts in nearly two dozen states and found a decline of 3 percent in public-school enrollment compared with pre-pandemic levels—including about 50,000 students gone missing in New York City; 26,000 in Los Angeles; and 25,000 in Chicago. All told, about 1.5 million students have exited the traditional public education system. A significant number, perhaps a majority, are low-income students whose relationship to formal education was already tenuous. But the Census Bureau reports a greater than threefold increase in the rate of homeschooling, from 3.3 percent pre-pandemic to 11.4 percent in the fall of 2020. Private-school enrollment is up, and Catholic schools are adding students after decades of decline. There is also burgeoning interest in classical academies and charter schools. The Great Hearts Academy charter-school network in Arizona and Texas reported over 13,000 students on their waiting list last year—an average of more than 400 students for each of its 30 schools.
These data may mostly be a reflection of new patterns of mobility driven by Covid, or a search for more predictable options than on-again, off-again district schools. But at the same time, at least some of the churn seems to be a response to long-festering dissatisfaction with the status quo in education and an inchoate sense that something is off about it, and that it’s all getting worse, not better.
For decades, the price of peace between the political left and right in education policy and practice has been to narrow our focus and expectations of public schools to their measurable outcomes, meaning test scores. In the main, it’s been unsuccessful, but even more significant, it’s been unsatisfying. Decades of technocratic meddling have too often reduced schooling to a dry regimen of reading, math, and not much else, the loaf leavened by endless rounds of test prep. However critical and worthwhile the impulse to reverse the national embarrassment of poor test scores, the unintended consequence has been to make schooling less engaging and interesting for students. Grafting a social-engineering agenda onto that and placing race at the heart of the enterprise have proven no more satisfying or successful, and even more politically volatile than testing.
In the final analysis, American education needs nothing as badly as a reset—a rethinking of the social contract between teachers, parents, and other stakeholders in schools. Education’s highest object is to nourish the soul and inspire human flourishing, not to be a hobbyhorse for either ambitious technocrats or social-justice activists. Even if students or their parents can’t always articulate it, there has been in recent years a nagging sense, as manifested in school culture and curriculum, that we lost the plot. We’ve failed to ask the fundamental question: What is school for?
We may come to see in retrospect that the pandemic was a trip wire, forcing the question onto the table—and countless kitchen tables—in ways that might not have occurred absent the pandemic. A large and growing number of Americans are either seeking or at least open to alternatives to the cultural habit of traditional public education as we have long known it. They want something different for their children.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.