Our schools are failing not because of what happens in the classroom, but because of what happens—or more to the point, what doesn't happen—at the dinner table. If we wish to be a serious people, then we must bolster our institutions with the power to humanize and domesticate the bedlam within us all.
In the final season of the wildly popular series Succession, fictional media tycoon Logan Roy sobered his four children with the ultimate oratorical coup de grace: "I love you, ... but you are not serious people."
Not only was it a striking emotional dart of paternal honesty, Roy's bitter honesty also captured the take-no-prisoners ethic of personal ambition untethered to any trace of sentimentality. Could this sentiment—that we are no longer "serious people"—be applied more widely? To the American electorate writ large? To the modern American demos? To many of us living in both the red and the blue states?
I think so.
On any score of important social concerns—politics, health, well-being, relationships, the way we spend our time—hysteria and frivolity quickly supplant sober-minded introspection. The issues that are decisive for our future, that will inform and color what a "pursuit of happiness" will look like in the next generation and beyond, are routinely ignored. Instead, we are endlessly outraged by Budweiser commercials and country music songs. We obsess over the megalomania of Elon Musk or the micro-dosing habits of Silicone Valley titans. Young men have become so tragically addicted to the palliative intoxication of video games that they now violently attack their parents for cutting off their access. The most common reason for childlessness among young people is "wanting time for themselves." Yet this is but a paltry sideshow in comparison to our refusal to be serious about our children's education.
A Bleak Educational Landscape
This summer has brought a disquieting deluge of bad news on the education front. Every eighth-grade student at LeBron James's "I Promise School" in his hometown of Akron, Ohio failed the state math exam. National test scores for 13-year-olds dropped precipitously in both reading and math, with black students bearing the heaviest burden of a 13-point dip in math scores; the yawning gap between white and black students widened significantly to a jaw-dropping 42 points. Twenty-three Baltimore schools don't have a single student who is proficient in math. The list could go on and on.
As the next school year begins, Americans have a vague sense that all is not well in our schools and in the souls of our children. Whenever I give an interview or a speech or I appear on a podcast to discuss the proliferating problems of American education, the same question comes up time and time again, like a ghoul in a low-budget horror film that refuses to die: how are we going to fix all these failures?
It's not just a fair question. It is the question, perhaps the most central and pressing question of our time. But underneath it is a substratum of expectation that the answer must be rooted somewhere on a school campus—in a reform, a new curriculum, a tweak to pedagogy, or the advent of a new gizmo or tech toy. Maybe there isn't enough money. Maybe the teachers aren't good enough. Maybe we need to emulate Finland or Singapore or South Korea.
But if we want to face a tremendously daunting truth, if we genuinely want to become serious people in the face of this epochal challenge of broken schools and broken children, then we must acknowledge a reality that policymakers and ed-tech aficionados simply don't want to hear: the solutions to our school problems do not come from school.
Politicians hate to hear this because they have no policy levers to pull.
Innovators hate to hear it because it destroys the utopian notion that the answers are "out there" in the ether.
The public hates to hear it because it sounds like catastrophism without a plan for ending the catastrophe.
If we were being serious and honest, however, we would admit that the outcomes of a school are almost always decided by the relationships, values, and behaviors that are formed before a student sets foot on a school campus. How can we be naïve enough to believe that broken families and passive parenting, violent neighborhoods, and a narcissistic culture won't color and shape the outcomes of our schools?
For example, our literacy crisis starts in the home. Yes, classroom instruction is pivotal and the science of reading is complicated, but nothing in the classroom can take the place of years of parents' reading to their children. Nothing can take the place of thousands of hours of conversation and verbal engagement between a child and his or her parents. Nothing can replace the power of a home furnished with books aplenty.
Teachers can assign meaningful homework and make grades available to parents. But teachers cannot make the parents monitor their own children. These same teachers cannot regulate how much their students are on their phones at night. They cannot make sure an adult is modeling responsible study and organizational habits. Teachers cannot ensure that values about the dishonor of cheating or, conversely, the virtue of hard work, have been omnipresent throughout a child's life. Yet, these are the very influences that are necessary to ensure not only that students are actually doing their homework, but that they're meaningfully engaging with the material.
Schools can offer an ever-enticing array of sports programs. They can build staggering stadiums and sprawling practice facilities and fundraise for new uniforms every year. But those teams will only be as good as the participants in those programs. The dirty little secret about so many American sports these days—tennis, golf, baseball, hockey—is that the highest achievers almost always come from families of means. Tens of millions of American children play in organized sports leagues. The most elite, however, are supported by parents whose entire focus of family life—the weekends, the weeknights, the disposable money—is oriented around their kids' sporting life.
We can use the 1776 curriculum or the 1619 curriculum or any type of curriculum, but none will compensate for the fact that many students never attended a Memorial or Veterans Day Parade. Many never talked to their parents about politics or current events at the dinner table. The curriculum won't alter the advantage bestowed on those children whose grandparents told tales of grim sacrifice about fighting in World War II or Vietnam, or whose parents visited Washington, DC, or Gettysburg when they were children.
"What has been the biggest change in the last ten years of teaching?" is a question I often ask my fellow teachers around the country. High school teachers invariably point to the advent of smartphones and short attention spans as well as the specter of teaching manically distracted human beings all day. But what the kindergarten teachers say is horrifying. They respond that the parenting style they witness today is terrifyingly unengaged. They tell of parents who refuse to check their child's folder at night for work and announcements; parents who complain that academic work should always be done exclusively at school with nothing ever sent home. Teachers who highlight classroom behavior problems to mom and dad are told their student's misbehavior is a "school issue," not a "home issue." The notion of education as an intensive partnership between the home and school is increasingly foreign to parents of Gen Z students.
All this leads to the central and climactic question: what does it mean to be serious people?
On a peripheral level, it means acknowledging how we have failed our children: how we have hollowed out their educational institutions of excellence and simultaneously failed to say once and for all that school failure is, in large part, due to a crumbling of the home, the most vital cultural institution. But on a deeper level, seriousness asks how, when, and why the centrality of home as a child's first and primary source of learning crumbled. Have we forgotten how to pursue a form of freedom that is productive and purposeful not only for ourselves but for the children and students observing our behavior? Have we forgotten how to model freedom for our children in a way that avoids the wilderness of moral chaos and a streak of self-indulgence? These are not rhetorical questions. They are intensely practical because these failures of freedom are manifesting themselves in our schools and in our children: in test scores, in absenteeism, in rates of campus violence and a teacher exodus from the profession. The habits and behaviors our students bring to school do not start at school.
If we want better schools, then we must use our freedom to be better parents and citizens, from putting down the TV remote at night, to checking children's folders nightly, to protecting them from the moral anarchy filling their social media feeds. If we want better schools, then we must fight the urge to fetishize frailty, and instead valorize grit and resilience. And if we want better schools, then we must freely and effusively tell our children what they do not want to hear: that education takes time, diligence, focus, and tremendous effort. There are simply no shortcuts, no "hacks," no detours to a well-formed mind and soul.
Depositories of wisdom that used to be found in the fortifying institutions that instruct, mold, and cultivate a sense of possibility and responsibility—the home, the community, the church, and yes, the American school—are largely bereft of the authority they once wielded. Yet these are the places where the most essential education occurs, where young minds are fitted and framed either to receive or to reject the lessons of the classroom. Our schools are failing not because of what happens in the classroom, but because of what happens—or more to the point, what doesn't happen—at the dinner table. If we wish to be a serious people, then we must bolster our institutions with the power to humanize and domesticate the bedlam within us all.
Until we can do that, we will all be Logan Roy's unserious American children.
Jeremy Adams. "If We Want Better Schools, We Need to Be a Serious People." The Public Discourse (September 25, 2023).
Reprinted with permission from The Public Discourse.
Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the forthcoming book Hollowed Out: A Warning About America's Next Generation. He has been a high school and college civics teacher for over two decades in Bakersfield, California and was the 2014 DAR California Teacher of the Year. Mr. Adams is the first public school teacher ever inducted into the California State University, Bakersfield Hall of Fame.Copyright © 2023 The Public Discourse