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The Real Challenges Facing Public Education

Critical Race Theory is a distraction and 'equity' is just a buzzword. A new book by an award-winning teacher argues that the real challenges facing public education go much deeper than political ideology.

· 9 min read
The Real Challenges Facing Public Education
Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

Review of: Hollowed Out: A Warning about America's Next Generation by Jeremy Adams, 256 pages, Regnery Publishing (August 3, 2021)

This past May, my community sought to fill four open school board seats. Prior to election day, the candidates congregated at a local barbecue restaurant to give their best stump speeches. As a parent in the town and a frustrated school district educator, I was eager to attend. But what I heard from the candidates only left me more disheartened.

It quickly became apparent that nearly all of the candidate platforms fit neatly into one of two distorted worldviews: either that of the MSNBC viewer or the Fox News viewer. They parroted the same vaguely defined talking points that dominate the broader political conversation—equity for the Left and allusions to Critical Race Theory (CRT) for the Right—but, to the ears of an educator, each platform simply revealed how little was understood about the real challenges facing public education and youth culture more broadly.

Too often this is the case. The terms have been dictated by opportunistic third parties concerned more with ideology than accuracy. The public inherits a distorted view of reality that fixates the conversation in irrelevant and futile directions. Overcoming this confusion requires wise, informed, and honest voices that can transcend the tired dogmas of the moment to reveal what is really going on. It is no surprise that, in this case, that voice comes from a teacher, the 2014 California Teacher of the Year, Jeremy Adams. Let me explain.

Teacher and author, Jeremy Adams

Regardless of political leanings, to the majority of teachers, CRT is just a distraction (most teachers in most states never think or hear about it) and equity is just a buzzword used by those who don’t have to deal with the realities of equity-focused policies. But talk to high school teachers and they’ll stridently point to a set of far more urgent and unifying concerns. Even at the best of schools, teachers are disrespected with a frequency and degree that would once have been inconceivable. Being cursed out in the halls is now an expected part of the job. As is being questioned by parents any time a grade isn’t to their liking. And teaching… whew!… teaching is now better described as pleading. Please quiet down for just a minute! Please just attempt the assignment. Please give me something. I’m trying to pass you!

It is no wonder a recent NEA survey revealed that fully 55 percent of teachers now plan to get out of the profession earlier than they’d originally expected. With so many teachers looking for the exits (and so little talent coming in), it is hard to imagine any policy will matter unless it starts by addressing the reasons teachers are leaving.

The easy (and common) thing is to blame this all on COVID-19. But to do that is to miss what’s really happening. COVID policies may have fanned these flames but, as teachers will tell you, these trends, like the disturbing decline in youth mental health, were evident long before the pandemic. Teacher and author, Jeremy Adams was sounding this alarm as far back as 2017. His recent book, Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation, transcends the superficiality characteristic of our modern discourse and clarifies the real roots of our problems and their obvious solutions.

Cover of Hollowed Out: A WARNING About America's Next Generation (2021)

What everyone knew until yesterday

By “obvious solutions,” I do not mean “common.” Indeed, Adams quotes G.K. Chesterton as saying, “Every high civilization decays by forgetting obvious things.” What comes out of reading Adams’s fantastic book is a sense of rediscovering the once-common assumptions and conventional wisdom that were responsible for so much good yet have been taken for granted in recent decades. Things like the importance of maintaining long-term friendships, the foundational role of families and family dinners within a healthy society, and “…the notion that young people are incomplete, that they require teachers (and parents) to lead them to big ideas…” In other words, the notion that children need to be raised.

These assumptions have proven invaluable over the long arc of history. But they aren't novel or sexy, and they fly in the face of the more avant-garde disposition that everything new is progress and everything old reeks of oppression. As Adams astutely discerns, such progressive biases impede our ability to respond well:

Despite all their material advantages, young Americans today are more miserable, depressed, and lonely than any other generation in American history. Why, I ask, is this not considered a national crisis? I suspect it is because we do not want to know the answer to the crisis. All the data points to the fact that the happiest, best-adjusted kids come from stable, two-parent families who teach their children that life is a gift, right and wrong are not negotiable, and interacting with real people directly is better than dealing with them on screens.

Adams’s thesis is that, contrary to the hip rationalizations of mainstream youth apologists, all values are not equal, and, in fact, the beliefs and behaviors characteristic of today’s youth culture are particularly toxic. As he concedes, this isn’t a particularly novel starting point. Older generations have bemoaned the waning virtue of younger generations since time immemorial. But Adams is imploring us to see what is obvious to any teacher—that, unlike more recent warnings about rock ‘n’ roll or television, today’s panic is justified. As he writes:

It is not just that many students can’t recognize America’s leading politicians; it’s not just that they lack knowledge that you might expect them to have; it’s not just that they appear to have no interest in acquiring wisdom. That would be bad enough, but it goes far deeper, and is far more worrying. They seem bereft of an understanding of what it means to be fully human. What do I mean by that? I mean that they seem mysteriously barren of the behaviors, values, and hopes from which human beings have traditionally found higher meaning, grand purpose, or even simple contentment

To Adams, it is a matter of lost humanity. Our children are less activated, less capable, and, in a very real sense, less human than any previous generation of Americans. And it is they who suffer most for it.

It would be easy for those who do not read Hollowed Out to typecast Adams as a disconnected, square, middle-aged man. But what surprised me most was his peerless understanding of modern teenagers: their beliefs, their drives, and their experiences. Adams’s keen insight comes from years in the classroom, engaging and striving to connect with hundreds of students. He sees the way students live on their screens and understands the uniquely modern anxiety that drives their behavior. He’s heard from them about their reluctance to engage in social events not mediated by their phone. He has talked with them about their growing disinterest in Friday night football games, dating, and leaving home. He gets why students hate Facebook. He gets that they think being “famous for being famous” is just as good, if not better, than earning a reputation for actual achievement. Most of all, he gets the grander implications these changes have on the quality of students’ lives and the nation they’ll inherit.

A guide to living well

At heart, Hollowed Out is a book about life and the pursuit of a life well lived. The son of a high school teacher himself, Adams is aware of the rich cultural tradition of which he is a beneficiary. His masterful grasp of history and the classics informs his romantic soul. Far from making him less accessible, his liberal arts background seems to give Adams access to a novel and refreshingly balanced perspective about what is going wrong in our culture.

Without sacrificing a smidgen of coherence, Adams cuts to the core of a number of misleading paradoxes. He takes on ubiquitous porn and Tinder hookup culture while noting the counterintuitive link to an equally troubling decline in sex across America. He argues that the emphasis millennials place on travel and having a “positive impact” may sound high-minded, but, more often, these are an unfulfilling substitute for traditional concerns like marriage and having children. Finally, he bemoans the fecklessness and unwillingness of many young people to commit to a profession but also the culture of “careerism” that has convinced so many of them to seek their fulfillment in the “Cathedral of Perpetual Hustle.”

For the millennial and Gen Z sold on the merits of digital nomadism, remote working, and getting “insta-famous,” Adams offers an essential counterpoint. The point of life is not ceaseless pleasure, easy fame, frictionless convenience, or infinite novelty. What ultimately matters may actually be all those things we avoid (many of which have been actively demonized): sacrifice, humility, tradition, religion, community, family, and friendship. At the end of the day, these pesky entanglements, commitments, and responsibilities are what give life meaning.

Across the many modern woes discussed, Adams sees one common cause: the disease of self, which he traces to the success of postmodernism. Much has been said of postmodernism over the past few years, but Adams’s perspective is insightful. All his time engaging and trying to connect with modern students over the past decades has led Adams to a subtle yet powerful conclusion:

Post-modernism is not ascendant, it is triumphant; it is how my students live and see the world; it represents their underlying assumptions, and they are no more aware of its impact on their minds and souls than a fish is cognizant of water. To young people, radical individualism is not emblematic of being a renegade, an iconoclast or a rule-breaker; it is not zealotry; it is, in a strange way, its own banal conformism.

The triumph of the postmodernist ethos, and the subsequent elevation of self over any “higher” or objective goods, is the foundational argument of the book. If he is right (and I think he is), this should have dramatic implications for how we go about solving modern problems and how young adults think about raising their children. Whether we like it or not, our children will yearn to be “normal” and, right now, no path could be hollower.

If I have a complaint (and I may be sensitive to this because I am a millennial), it is that throughout Hollowed Out, Adams does not draw a clearer distinction between the millennial generation (roughly, those born between 1980 and 1995) and Generation Z (born between 1996 and 2012). This is a noteworthy oversight given the dramatic changes we have seen in the characteristics of Gen Z compared to preceding generations. At times, the trends Adams notes are cultural trends that were rising in millennials and have only grown incrementally worse with Gen Z. But, at least as often, the “hollowing out” he notes is unique to those who have come of age in the age of the smartphone. For example, generational psychologist Jean Twenge notes that “12th graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.” These are differences in kind, not degree. And this only makes Adams’s warning that much more dire.

Teaching the hollowed-out generation

Unfortunately, our schools are not helping. They are, like our children, flittering about in reactivity with no clear sense of mission and nothing more than feelings to guide their judgments. Much of this, as Adams clarifies, is the result of another paradoxical shift. We put too little stock in the importance of forming well-educated citizens yet too much expectation that schools can and will fix every societal ill. Consequently, our schools have disregarded the liberal arts tradition and opted, instead, for a confused oversentimentality. As Adams writes:

The job of the modern teacher is largely therapeutic—make students feel safe, make them feel good about themselves, impart the curriculum without insisting with too much awkward emphasis on how they might benefit from engaging with big thinkers, big ideas, big themes, thinking historically or philosophically rather than about the Almighty Me.

We’ve forgotten that the lessons we teach actually matter. We’ve forgotten that there is such a thing as a better and worse argument and, likewise, that there are values that will be more or less fruitful. We’ve forgotten that the lessons we learn should have an impact that goes far beyond a grade on the report card. In the absence of these crucial assumptions, we’ve come to doubt whether we have any authority at all. Every misstep is excused, every marginal grade inflated, and everyone is held responsible for the students’ outcomes except for the students themselves. The entire ordeal has become largely performative.

Teachers have compromised, settled, and rationalized change after change under the assumption that their work is still noble—that there is still no better way for them to make an impact. But there is a point where they begin to wonder if they make a difference. Or, like frogs in boiling water, have they been turned into cynical, resentful, and hollow shells of themselves? The teachers can only be pushed so far. It can only get so ridiculous before they wonder whether they are helping more than they are hurting. As Adams explains:

Many teachers feel they are being held hostage to an ideological experiment that harms them and their ability to teach, that harms innocent students who are trying to learn, and that in the end harms the very people it is meant to help by not holding them accountable for their actions.

If one wants to understand (and fix) the teacher exodus, they need look no further. The problem is not a policy. It is our core assumptions—our very soul.

Schools cannot fix everything, but they are the place to start. It is time that our schools and teachers began to clarify what matters again—to define the standards and expectations that they will live by and enforce them with confidence and conviction. It’s time that a great teacher, like Mr. Adams, reminded us of what matters and what is worth standing for.

Teachers, parents, citizens: I implore you to read this book. It has the power to restore that common sense for which we are all yearning.

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