If you’re an American schoolchild, you’ve probably spent much of your recent life alone at home in the mesmerizing glow of a screen, twitching between Google Classroom and innumerable online distractions. Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to spend most days in an actual classroom with two-thirds of your face wrapped up, trying to make yourself heard and hear others, taking 30 seconds to shove your lunch down. Your schedule is often unpredictable; some days there’s no one to teach you at all. During the pandemic, you’ve lost at least three months of instruction—or nearly twice that, if your family is poor—as well as the steady company of people your own age. The grown-ups around you fret incessantly about your “mental-health issues” and “social-emotional learning,” which only makes your anxiety and depression worse.
You’re also the nonvoting, perhaps unwitting, subject of adults’ latest pedagogical experiments: either relentless test prep or test abolition; quasi-religious instruction in identity-based virtue and sin; a flood of state laws to keep various books out of your hands and ideas out of your head. Your parents, looking over your shoulder at your education and not liking what they see, have started showing up at school-board meetings in a mortifying state of rage. If you live in Virginia, your governor has set up a hotline where they can rat out your teachers to the government. If you live in Florida, your governor wants your parents to sue your school if it ever makes you feel “discomfort” about who you are. Adults keep telling you the pandemic will never end, your education is being destroyed by ideologues, digital technology is poisoning your soul, democracy is collapsing, and the planet is dying—but they’re counting on you to fix everything when you grow up.
It isn’t clear how the American public-school system will survive the COVID years. Teachers, whose relative pay and status have been in decline for decades, are fleeing the field. In 2021, buckling under the stresses of the pandemic, nearly 1 million people quit jobs in public education, a 40 percent increase over the previous year. The shortage is so dire that New Mexico has resorted to encouraging members of the National Guard to volunteer as substitute teachers.
Students are leaving as well. Since 2020, nearly 1.5 million children have been removed from public schools to attend private or charter schools or be homeschooled. Families are deserting the public system out of frustration with unending closures and quarantines, stubborn teachers’ unions, inadequate resources, and the low standards exposed by remote learning. It’s not just rich families, either, David Steiner, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, told me. “COVID has encouraged poor parents to question the quality of public education. We are seeing diminished numbers of children in our public schools, particularly our urban public schools.” In New York, more than 80,000 children have disappeared from city schools; in Los Angeles, more than 26,000; in Chicago, more than 24,000.
These kids, and the investments that come with them, may never return—the beginning of a cycle of attrition that could continue long after the pandemic ends and leave public schools even more underfunded and dilapidated than before. “It’s an open question whether the public-school system will recover,” Steiner said. “That is a real concern for democratic education.”
The high-profile failings of public schools during the pandemic have become a political problem for Democrats, because of their association with unions, prolonged closures, and the pedagogy of social justice, which can become a form of indoctrination. The party that stands for strong government services in the name of egalitarian principles supported the closing of schools far longer than either the science or the welfare of children justified, and it has been woefully slow to acknowledge how much this damaged the life chances of some of America’s most disadvantaged students. The San Francisco school board became the caricature of this folly last year when it spent months debating name changes to Roosevelt Middle School, Abraham Lincoln High School, and other schools with supposedly offensive names, while their classrooms remained closed to the city’s children. Republicans have only just begun to exploit the fallout.
But I’m not interested in joining or refereeing this partisan scrum. Public education is too important to be left to politicians and ideologues. Public schools still serve about 90 percent of children across red and blue America. Since the common-school movement in the early 19th century, the public school has had an exalted purpose in this country. It’s our core civic institution—not just because, ideally, it brings children of all backgrounds together in a classroom, but because it prepares them for the demands and privileges of democratic citizenship. Or at least, it needs to.
What is school for? This is the kind of foundational question that arises when a crisis shakes the public’s faith in an essential institution. “The original thinkers about public education were concerned almost to a point of paranoia about creating self-governing citizens,” Robert Pondiscio, a former fifth-grade teacher in the South Bronx and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told me. “Horace Mann went to his grave having never once uttered the phrase college- and career-ready. We’ve become more accustomed to thinking about the private ends of education. We’ve completely lost the habit of thinking about education as citizen-making.”
School can’t just be an economic sorting system. One reason we have a stake in the education of other people’s children is that they will grow up to be citizens. Education is a public interest, which explains why parents shouldn’t get to veto any book they think might upset their child, whether it’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Beloved. Public education is meant not to mirror the unexamined values of a particular family or community, but to expose children to ways that other people, some of them long dead, think. In an authoritarian or rigidly meritocratic system, schools select the elites who grow up to make the decisions. A functioning democracy needs citizens who know how to make decisions together.
If the answer were simply to push more and more kids into college, the United States would be entering its democratic prime. In 1960, when Richard Nixon chose not to contest an extremely narrow loss to John F. Kennedy, and Nixon partisans didn’t storm the Capitol looking to hang the speaker of the House, 7.7 percent of Americans had college degrees. By the time of last year’s insurrection, that proportion had surpassed one-third. Law degrees from Harvard and Yale didn’t keep Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley from trying to tear up the Constitution. Americans with college degrees are likelier to vote and otherwise participate in civic life than those without; they’re also likelier to spend hours throwing clever online darts. One study found that college-educated Democrats were more likely to hold false views about their political enemies than those without four-year degrees. More education generally makes people more Democratic, but not more democratic.
So the question isn’t just how much education, but what kind. Is it quaint, or utopian, to talk about teaching our children to be capable of governing themselves? Possibly, but I doubt it’s ever been more necessary. The COVID era, with Donald Trump out of office but still in power and with battles over mask mandates and critical race theory convulsing Twitter and school-board meetings, shows how badly Americans are able to think about our collective problems—let alone read, listen, empathize, debate, reconsider, and persuade in the search for solutions. If these habits have something to do with education—and every kindergarten teacher knows that children can be taught to compromise—then democratic citizenship can, at least in part, be learned. We owe our beleaguered children, the victims of our inadequacy, a chance to be better than we are.
We can start by giving them a way to survive the curriculum wars without being captured by one side or the other. The orthodoxies currently fighting for our children’s souls turn the teaching of U.S. history into a static and morally simple quest for some American essence. They proceed from celebration or indictment toward a final judgment—innocent or guilty—and bury either oppression or progress in a subordinate clause. The most depressing thing about this gloomy pedagogy of ideologies in service to fragile psyches is how much knowledge it takes away from students who already have so little. The history warriors build their metaphysics of national good or evil on a foundation of ignorance. In a 2019 survey, only 40 percent of Americans were able to pass the test that all applicants for U.S. citizenship must take, which asks questions like “Who did the United States fight in World War II?” and “We elect a President for how many years?” The only state in which a majority passed was Vermont.
A central goal for history, social-studies, and civics instruction should be to give students something more solid than spoon-fed maxims—to help them engage with the past on its own terms, not use it as a weapon in the latest front of the culture wars. In “The Propaganda of History,” the last chapter of his great study of Reconstruction, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote: “Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?”
The truth requires a grounding in historical facts, but facts are quickly forgotten without meaning and context. The Stanford History Education Group, a research organization, has developed a curriculum called “Reading Like a Historian,” which assembles material from various chapters of American history and poses a thematic question for students to answer. For example, to answer the question of what John Brown was trying to do when he raided Harpers Ferry in 1859, they read several accounts, including one by Brown’s son, an excerpt from the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, and a speech and letter from Brown himself.
The goal isn’t just to teach students the origins of the Civil War, but to give them the ability to read closely, think critically, evaluate sources, corroborate accounts, and back up their claims with evidence from original documents. This kind of instruction, which requires teachers to distinguish between exposure and indoctrination, isn’t easy; it asks them to be more sophisticated professionals than their shabby conditions and pay (median salary: $62,000, less than accountants and transit police) suggest we are willing to support. “We have a desperate shortage of teachers,” David Steiner of Johns Hopkins said, just as we’re making teaching more difficult by “politicizing education.” It’s easy and satisfying for adults to instruct children that America is an exceptional experiment in freedom, or a benighted system of oppressions. It’s harder, but infinitely more useful, to free them to think about history for themselves.
To do that, we’ll need to help kids restore at least part of their crushed attention spans. If remote learning taught parents anything, it was that staring at a screen for hours is a heavy depressant, especially for teenagers. One day, and I hope soon, the masters of social media will stand before Congress with their hands raised in the manner of the Big Tobacco bosses, and try to deny what they’ve long known about the damage their products can inflict on human minds, especially young minds. After these hearings lead to belated regulation of web advertising and toxic algorithms, we’ll look back on the amount of time we let our children spend online with the same horror that we now feel about earlier generations of adults who hooked their kids on smoking.
Of course, students can’t quit cold turkey. “It’s not a choice between tech or no tech,” Bill Tally, a researcher with the Education Development Center, told me. “The question is what tech infrastructure best enables the things we care about,” such as deep engagement with instructional materials, teachers, and other students. But kids need help mastering what now masters them. Releasing them to do “research” in the vast ocean of the internet without maps and compasses, as often happens, guarantees that they will drown before they arrive anywhere. A nonprofit called the News Literacy Project helps teachers guide students in assessing the credibility of news articles and social-media posts. Like learning to read as historians, learning to sift through the tidal flood of memes for useful, reliable information can emancipate children who have been heedlessly hooked on screens by the adults in their lives.
Finally, let’s give children a chance to read books—good books. It’s a strange feature of all the recent pedagogical innovations that they’ve resulted in the gradual disappearance of literature from many classrooms. The phrase English Language Arts already sounds at best indifferent to books. The ELA portion of high-stakes testing hacks up literature into what Steiner calls “bleeding chunks of texts”—isolated passages used to assess comprehension. This approach treats reading as just another skill, like long division or woodworking. When students do read whole books, they’re rarely part of the state assessments. “What’s the incentive for teaching The Bluest Eye deeply and seriously?” Steiner asked.
The best way to interest young people in literature is to have them read good literature, and not just books that focus with grim piety on the contemporary social and psychological problems of teenagers. We sell them insultingly short in thinking that they won’t read unless the subject is themselves. Mirrors are ultimately isolating; young readers also need windows, even if the view is unfamiliar, even if it’s disturbing. The ability to enter a world that’s far away in time or place; to grapple with characters whose stories might initially seem to have nothing to do with your life; to gradually sense that their emotions, troubles, revelations are also yours—this connection through language to universal human experience and thought is the reward of great literature, a source of empathy and wisdom.
The culture wars, with their atmosphere of resentment, fear, and petty faultfinding, are hostile to the writing and reading of literature. The novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently predicted that the novels of the next 10 to 15 years “will be awful … Art has to be able to go to a place that’s messy, a place that’s uncomfortable,” she said. “Literature is the last thing that we can depend on to tell us the truth about who we are.” The connection between reading and democratic citizenship might not be direct, but it’s real.
The pandemic should have forced us to reassess what really matters in public school; instead, it’s a crisis that we’ve just about wasted. The classroom has become a half-abandoned battlefield, where grown-ups who claim to be protecting students from the virus, from books, from ideologies and counter-ideologies end up using children to protect themselves and their own entrenched camps. American democracy can’t afford another generation of adults who don’t know how to talk and listen and think. We owe our COVID-scarred children the means to free themselves from the failures of the past and the present.
This article appears in the April 2022 print edition with the headline “School Shouldn’t Be a Battlefield.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.