Each generation confronts the question of education anew. The problems that faced one generation are distinct from those that face the next.

Today’s families feel unprecedented anxiety about the state of education. The public school, the primary mechanism for education and values transmission, has lost their confidence, as many educators have abandoned traditional pedagogy in favor of indoctrination. Many families have scrambled for alternatives, switching districts, enrolling in private schools, or starting home schooling programs. These families have absorbed a critical lesson: education cannot be neutral; it must be oriented to a set of principles. The only question is which ones.

I have spent considerable effort in my professional capacity studying and exposing the process of ideological capture in American education. I have traced the rise of left-wing race and gender ideologies from the margins to the center of public life, culminating in reports, essays, and a best-selling book.

These investigations were, at first, objects of my intellectual curiosity. My political commitments were opposed to these ideologies, and like an engineer, I sought to understand how they worked. But these concerns have become more personal and urgent for me since starting a family and watching my children grow up. It’s one thing to break a story about a public school drilling students in “heteronormativity” or “white privilege”; it’s quite another to consider your own child as the pupil.

I’ve spoken with many parents, particularly those in elite cities, who lament that these ideologies are inescapable. They are not wrong. The language and assumptions of the academic Left are increasingly those of American institutions and, with assistance from technology firms and human resources departments, the informal orthodoxy of polite society. The social costs of opposing the Left’s rotating social movements—#MeToo, BLM, transgenderism, and whatever is next—are swift and severe, and can render mum otherwise self-confident people. 

I have tried to build a life in which I can speak freely and, after having a family, in which my children habituate themselves to sturdier principles than the current consensus offers. This has required sacrifices. My wife and I left Seattle after it became untenable. We deal with ongoing security concerns. As they get older, my children will have to negotiate the reality of having a father who is involved in political controversy.

But one thing we have not had to do is compromise. After settling in a small town on the Puget Sound, we built a community of people who shared our principles. We found a school and a church that challenged us to deepen, rather than undermine, our commitments. During a particularly tense political moment when we were under threat, our neighbors rallied to our defense. The men promised to show up with heavy arms if we had any trouble; the women organized a group to pray for our protection.

This is not to say that you can escape America’s cultural problems by leaving cities. In our town of 10,000 residents, a local high school student recently died of an accidental fentanyl overdose. A friend who teaches at a local middle school told me that one-third of his female students identify as “trans,” “queer,” and “non-binary,” which he is required to “affirm” and keep secret from parents. National culture, again aided by digital technology, truly has become ubiquitous.      

Youth subcultures have always challenged normative standards. This is healthy for young people and, in proportion, for society. The problem now, however, is that anti-normative ideologies today are not relegated to subcultures but have become the dominant culture. These ideologies are inherently critical—based on negation, critique, deconstruction—and their proponents are not bound by a corresponding sense of responsibility. Further, they are not the creation of restless adolescents but of politically motivated adults, who seek to impose these ideologies on other people’s children from positions of authority.

The ultimate problem with the critical theories of race and gender is that they do not work, and they do not work because they are at odds with both human nature and human flourishing. The rising generation of American children is the most anxious, depressed, and antisocial in memory. The structures and traditions that once provided guidance and discipline are castigated as “racist” and “sexist,” and have been displaced by the demands of “social justice.”

Upon reflection, I am convinced that our task as parents is to create a world in miniature for our children. Not to shield them from the world beyond, but to prepare them for it. We try to create, to the best of our capacity, an ideal, knowing that it cannot be sustained forever. Given the current social moment, in which our institutions are actively opposed to preserving childhood innocence, striving for a comparatively utopian upbringing is a radical act. Those who build and sustain a local culture that repudiates the dictates of elite opinion—teachers, pastors, donors, volunteers—are nothing short of heroic.

For the past several years, I have been fighting a very public culture war against the organized Left. But the most important, and the toughest, war is always at home. As the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci understood, modern politics is a form of trench warfare. And while offensive measures are the only way to score victories, it is imperative to build defenses around the people and institutions one loves. We should plan campaigns—but also dig trenches.

Photo: panithan pholpanichrassamee/Moment via Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next