The Real Challenges Facing Public Education

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.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/08/01/the-real-challenges-facing-public-education/
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" . . . 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. [T]hey seem mysteriously barren of the behaviors, values, and hopes from which human beings have traditionally found higher meaning, grand purpose, or even simple contentment."

When I read these words, I knew I would love this essay. And I did.

My additional thoughts: In my day, there were one or two “disrupters” in a classroom of 30 students. A teacher could handle them (often, me, BTW). Now, I’m guessing there are six or seven out of 30. There needs to be an easy way for a teacher to remove them. Add to this a bit more one-on-one instruction (perhaps from volunteers).

But, but, but…Everyone is equal, a victim, a tragic end to the Noble Experiment.
Sixty years ago, when in college, we saw this coming and dropped out.

Let’s do an Ike and make the problem bigger.

The problem is government running education. Obviously, when the government runs the schools they are not run with the interest of parents and children in mind, but in the power interests of the ruling class, and also the need for the ruling class to listen to the teachers unions and their union dues.

When Horace Mann invented the “common school” in the 1830s he was not thinking about the interests of the parents. When a Harvard president proposed mega-high schools in the 1950s, he didn’t ask parents what they wanted. When wokies impose critical race theory they don’t care about the kids but about their glorious ideology.

It’s up to us to tell the experts and the ideologues to take their gubmint schools and put 'em where the sun don’t shine.

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Great essay. Redolent in its mourning of the lost sense of purpose for the young, which previous generations took for granted. Perhaps some literary genius should repurpose the title of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’.

Although I disagree with China’s Social Credit system, on one thing they are entirely correct- the purveying of social media through smartphones in its current form is psychic poison for children. It robs them of so much, whilst offering so little in return. Perhaps we should simply ban them for the under 16s- or at least have docking stations in schools which redirect parents calls directly to the school switchboard. Maybe we should also make social media inaccessible for children with phones whose location tracking shows the kid in motion.

Having said that there are certain potential advantages to smartphones. They can eliminate the need for marking homework- and, provided one designs a system which is suitably flexible to state or city needs, it should be possible to create an educational progress tracking system which serves the function of both consolidation homework and a method to ensure that learning is accomplished in real-time and on schedule relative to the current week of the semester.

The Chinese are right on this one. Currently smartphones and social media are harmful to children, but perhaps they don’t have to be…

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As soon as you surrender with any form of caveat, you lose. Smartphones should be unavailable to anyone who cannot purchase alcohol.

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My intent what to present a superficially conciliatory option, which for all practical purposes is unworkable- especially given that it would present an indelible and ongoing record of grossly inadequate teachers. The Unions would never wear it.

The author forgot one other important element in the discussion: Fuck teacher’s unions.

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I disdain public school more than nearly any other social ill. Articles about the demise of public schooling never move me. Destroy the entire model. End the unions. End public education for good. I have little concern over the plight of any fool who chooses to send their child to a public school.

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Civilization peaked in 2008. Then the iPhone was introduced. It’s all downhill from here.

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A very thoughtful essay on a very thoughtful book.

I think young people are happiest when they feel they have all the time in the world. “Endless summer days” was a familiar expression in the not-too-distant past. No mobile phones back then. Nowadays the young are, by the evidence given by the crutch of the smart phone, hard-pressed for time. The time spent reading a book might be seen by today’s youth as detrimental to their social lives. “I’ll fall behind my friends” or “I’ll never get that time back.” That feeling might be the same as when boys play video games by themselves. In the company of friends, they can do no wrong, as they would see it, no matter how many hundreds or thousands of hours they play. In this technology-hooked environment today, I don’t see great guitarists ever emerging again. The image of the spotty teenager practicing his guitar for hours and hours by himself, contentedly alone, was not disparaged in the past, but would be by HIS PEERS today. His own friends! They could not contact you as easily in the past. But nowadays of course one may be hounded by one’s friends - even when one is half a world away. It’s hard to create one’s own little world today. Lest one be judged!

By burdening today’s youth with information and doubt, grimness and cynicism, by throwing all the world’s problems on their young shoulders, well, what’s the point? The youth are aware that from old photographs their own forebears who worked with their hands could smile even when they had had so little. And they may resent modernity because of that! To paraphrase Cyndi Lauder, the youth just want to have fun. And fun learning. They are not even aware that it is okay to … stare into space, or stare at raindrops zigzagging down a window pane and think nothing. That’s an activity that is bemoaned by busybody “activists” no matter what political views they have, in this all-engrossing technology age we are in.
In fact, the very young right now just need to ditch their phones for a time and vegetate by watching plain old-fashioned television. A bigger screen, if you will. For a little increase in happiness. Nobody was ever jittery lying on the couch watching The A-Team.

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Progressivism began a takeover of schooling about a century ago.
Its major effect was on elementary education. The vehicle for progressivism’s entry — and now dominance — was/still is “schools of education,” which are the gate-keepers for the teaching profession. Columbia Teachers College was then/still is a major progressive influence.

Racial Integration, and later, mass immigration from culturally disparate countries began to have a profoundly complicating effect, as academic, behavioral and cultural disparities became and remain a tremendous challenge. How to explain stubborn disparities?

One now dominant idea was voiced by Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to Be An Antiracist” and luminary of the new Woke ideology, in the New York Times in 2018:

“As an antiracist, when I see racial disparities, I see racism.”

Try to imagine an educator or education administrator with the courage to challenge Kendi’s concept — or some version of it — that all disparities are explained by racism. Few can take the risk. So in some form it guides policy on behavioral and academic standards from pre-school to the university level.

The hope, it seems to me, such as it is, is in alternatives to government-funded and controlled schools.

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The problem I fear is much broader than the schools. Race and gender disparities exist. At the most basic level, this can be due to one of two things. Either the environment is prejudiced and neglects that particular sector, or it is inherently inferior in the dimension in question.
For thousands of years we have believed the latter, which has then been re-enforced with the former.
It becomes self fulfilling. We now have convinced ourselves that we cannot tolerate an assumption of gender or racial inferiority in a any dimension, so it has to be prejudice or neglect.

Good luck with convincing folks that some genders or some races are not predisposed to be successful in certain dimensions either due to genetics or culture. That assumption in itself will be deemed to be racist.

Net result, overcompensation for an internal characteristic that does lend itself to good performance at a particular task will aggravate the situation and re-enforce the prejudice and the problem.

First step is to recognize that you might inherit certain genetic and cultural attributes that do not lead to success in certain tasks and situations. You might be the exception, but it is not going to be the rule.

You’ve stated the (now) multicultural West’s dilemma well, Pragmatist. But there are some cultural metrics that aren’t terribly threatening that one can use to challenge Kendi’s sweeping claims without risking censure or termination (though I may misjudge the moment. I’ve been retired for 25 years).

Here’s one: VERTICAL BAR GRAPH: TIME SPENT ON HOMEWORK BY RACE/ETHNICITY:

Data displayed: Full-time high school students, average over entire year. Valerie Ramey, UCSD

SOURCE: UC-San Diego Source: “Asian Students Study Twice as Many Hours, Says UC San Diego Economist,” May 4, 2011, By Inga Kiderra:

Interesting article which of course fit the stereotype that Asians are “book smart”.
In my own personal experience Chinese and Indian kids in America do spend more time studying than other ethnic groups, but this is not the case back in China and India for a whole lot of complex reasons. So it is a select minority that has made it to the USA. This also does not universally apply to South East Asians like the Philippines or Indonesia.

This as you suggest can and does lead to these folks being more qualified than other groups and having higher earning potential. But this may be limited to occupations that lend itself to absorbing large volumes of facts. So Asians dominate the medical profession and law.

Whites however continue to dominate engineering with something like 70% of engineers being white and predominately male. Asians particularly Chinese also have a significant interpersonal relationship problem and are the least likely of all ethnic groups to be promoted to senior management positions in the USA.

I guess you don’t learn how to interact and lead people by sitting in the library.

Male and female representation in STEM subjects is largely 50:50, but again massively skewed with woman dominating healthcare practitioners and technicians and men computers and engineering.

You look at that disparity and determine it is because an entire race, from different countries and backgrounds, all have a problem with “interpersonal relationships” and spend too much time “sitting in the library”? Really?

I look at that disparity and see in a predominantly white country, with a past full of racial injustice, that being white is still an advantage on par with hard work and study.

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The disparities are real. The debate is whether they are due to the environment (including racism), or more intrinsic (culture or genetic). Now you can convince yourself that it is external, and insist that if we change the environment we can expect a different result, but what if you are wrong?

What if something in the German DNA and culture makes them inherently better at Engineering than folks from the Caribbean? What if folks that have a propensity to study long hours in libraries don’t have great interpersonal skills to win big deals or inspire confidence in others as leaders?

The alternative to explain the disparity is intrinsic, not external. My concern is that if you are wrong, then trying to force the issues is going to make things worse. You could end up being a major part of the problem rather than the solution.

I’m not insisting that you are wrong, I’m just asking the question, what we would we do differently if you are?

And I was not debating the consequences of either idea. I was challenging your assertion. An assertion I see you did not even bother to defend once challenged and instead decided to reframe the exchange to another question entirely.

Its certainly not impossible. In fact, research into genetic disposition tends to find that certain races have organs which display superior traits. There is no reason to believe the brain functions any differently.

My point was that America is a country with a shameful past of dealing with non-white races. Even long after slavery was abolished Black people lived, at best, as second class citizens. So when you notice an entire racial group with a strong educational culture and good work ethic still somehow manages to show a massive disparity in positions of leadership, one should look to more prosaic explanations first.

Instead your go-to argument is “Well they probably are just genetically inferior when doing things like ‘dealing with other people’”.

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I notice that this is a tendency on this platform, to try to pin someone down on a particular point, presumably so that they can score points. Not my intention at all, all I am trying to do is clarify a point and my thinking at the same time.

If that is genuinely important to you, I am happy to go back there.

@TomShuford produced a chart that showed Asians have a tendency to study at least twice as much as everyone else. The article eluded to the fact that they spend less time playing sport or socializing than anyone else.

I reflected on my own experience with folks which one often calls “nerds” that spend a lot of time with their books. They tend to have poor social skills in my own personal experience. In fact I have been very successful in acting as a go between some very awkward smart people and management types.

This had me thinking, is it possible that Asians do face some challenges with interpersonal relationships - the idea is only a few hours old in my mind, I had not given this any thought previously.

I did a quick Google search and came up with several articles like the one I took a snapshot of, which suggest that in spite of these folks being highly compensated and highly qualified, they don’t make it to leadership positions. This re-enforced my hypothesis. Now you can force this into a claim of racism if you want, and you still could be right, but I just thought it might be a dimension worth considering. Interestingly Latino’s are apparently far more successful than Asians in leadership roles. Again I know it is racial profiling, but visiting any South American country is a whole different social experience than anywhere in Asia, and I have done a lot of global travel in my life.

Now this challenge is an interesting one, because my experience is in fact that European and Asian immigrants to the United States tend to be folks with technical skills, not general managers. The sample of folks that appear to be so technically smart are in fact a tiny portion of the total population of India and China. I have visited both countries on many occasions, and it did not strike me that the general population was inherently smarter than the rest of the world, but the ones emigrating might in fact have a specific cultural and genetic profile.

I don’t know what the answer is, but my concern is that if we are not prepared to consider this dimension, we could be creating enormous pain in the future for these minorities.

So for example if we insist that woman should be able to compete on an equal footing with men in everything, we would do away entirely with woman’s sport and force woman to partcipate with men. What if computer science and engineering for some reason are also things that men just inherently are better equipped to deal with than woman? We can push the issue, we will end up with many unhappy and disillusioned woman, and currency to get hold of a now even more scarce male resource will skyrocket.

Exactly not what was intended.