A call across the aisle for a respectful conversation


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I frequently have noted that I spent my early adulthood as a liberal, supporting Democratic Party candidates, the welfare state and other manifestatiwons of liberalism. 

For example, I was president of the Young Democrats as an undergraduate in college in the 1960s and participated in the protest movement while in graduate school in the 1970s. I still look back sentimentally at Judy Collins and Peter, Paul and Mary and the folk singing culture of that era and the idealism it represented. 

As late as 1995, on my 50th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, I was recognized by the St. Louis chapter of the United Nations Association as one of 50 local “people who have devoted their lives personally and professionally to the values of peace and justice.” 

However, over time, I gradually abandoned liberalism or, as I like to say, liberalism abandoned me. 

This did not necessarily translate into support for Republicans, as I became an independent voter. And it did not even entail a shift in values, as I remained committed to individual freedom, compassion for disadvantaged people, combatting racism and other such concerns. It was just that liberalism no longer seemed to adequately embrace what I stood for. Conservatism wasn’t a perfect alternative, but it seemed a better fit. 

I often have quietly reflected on how that transition came to be. What drove me away from liberalism?

I believe it started in the 1980s, when I became a parent and began observing how, under the banner of progressive education, liberalism was  evolving in ways that resulted in the dumbing down of education, the undermining of fairness and equity in the treatment of students, and other negative impacts in the schools and larger society. 

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.

I explained all this in my 2002 book “Class Warfare: Besieged Schools, Bewildered Parents, Betrayed Kids, and the Attack on Excellence.” The book received wide coverage on radio stations across the country and garnered testimonials from the director of education policy at the Brookings Institution and other luminaries. (You can access my talk at Left Bank Books by googling “Rochester C-SPAN Book Talk Class Warfare.”) 

I defined the problem as follows:

“First, there is an inadequate focus on academics in our schools – there is a growing ‘social’ mission of schools as they are increasingly assuming functions traditionally performed by family, church and other institutions. … Second, to the extent academics are still the stuff of schooling today, there is systemic collapse of standards occurring.”

I went on to relate this specifically to what my wife and I were experiencing in the University City schools our two sons attended:

“[Our son] Stephen had just been chosen for the all-county band as a saxophonist and was very much looking forward to the day when he would be able to play in the renowned U. City High Jazz Band. The band always had attracted the best musical talent (both white and Black) in the district based on auditions … and had produced numerous accomplished musicians. … Then we learned … that the powers-that-be in U. City had decided that the jazz band had become too ‘elitist’ and that, in an effort to create a more egalitarian music program, it was being phased out and folded into the high school marching band. The jazz band director … resigned in protest and ended up taking over the band at John Burroughs School.

“I started noticing that, as time went on, the … curriculum statements endorsed by the school board contained fewer and fewer references to words such as ‘rigor,’ ‘homework,’ ‘standards,’ ‘merit’ and ‘discipline’ and more and more  references to ‘equity,’ ‘diversity,’ ‘self-esteem,’ ‘inclusion,’ ‘multiculturalism’ and all the other buzzwords that are now recited with rote monotony by K-12 educators.”

That was 20 years ago. Unquestionably, the trends I observed then have only become magnified since, as today the norm is that virtually all students are now considered gifted and suited for Advanced Placement coursework, schools spend as much time if not more on “social-emotional learning,” “social justice” concerns, and other nonacademic pursuits as on traditional academic subjects, and English, math, and other proficiency scores have stagnated nationwide.

Ask yourself: 

• How much sense does it make that Advanced Placement courses, originally created to provide the most difficult, demanding coursework a school district had to offer, are now considered doable by every last kid in the building?  And how fair is it to the academically brightest and hardest working students to see the academic challenge and integrity of such courses diminished by lowering the standards for admission? How wise is it for society to engage in such leveling?

• Why are schools now so obsessed with discussing social justice, race, gender and other social issues when, although the latter deserve attention, the main focus of schools should be doing what they are uniquely suited to do — that is, teach physics, math, English and academic subjects? Do schools risk usurping the prerogatives of parents in assuming the role of teaching values? In teaching values, shouldn’t schools at least give equal time to traditional values such as work ethic, merit, family, patriotism and such?

• Doesn’t lax enforcement of discipline poison the classroom learning environment for the vast majority of students who want to learn? Why privilege the weakest, most disruptive students in the class? How is this equitable and conducive to sound education? 

Liberals do not have good answers to these and dozens of other questions. Do you?

Yet  liberal hegemony in the form of the woke culture is now so pervasive that it even dominates the most elite private schools. If you think not, read Bari Weiss’s March 9 article in the City Journal, “The Miseducation of America’s Elites.” Weiss writes that “affluent parents, terrified of running afoul of the new orthodoxy in their children’s private schools, organize in secret” to try to combat leftist educators. They are tiring of  paying  annual tuition of $40,000 at Harvard-Westlake in Los Angeles so that their kids can be shamed for being racist and can be taught that capitalism is evil. 

Similar backlash has been witnessed lately in Rockwood and other St. Louis school districts.

If such nonsense were confined to schools, it would be bad enough. But, of course, it increasingly infects media, entertainment and most other sectors of our society.  

Liberals, including critics of my op-eds, have every right to dissent. I would be more respectful of their opinions if they could offer reasonable responses to the questions I have raised instead of mostly ad hominem attacks on me and other conservatives who dare to defend the proposition that the United States, however imperfect, has been the largest, most successful, most prosperous experiment in mass democracy in the million years Homo sapiens have inhabited the planet.

Indeed, I would be willing to meet liberals halfway, toward a more perfect union, if only they were willing to show me the same tolerance and respect for (viewpoint) “diversity.” 

Shall we try?