This has been a good week for the New York Times. Yesterday I wrote most of a post about the legacy of the Iraq war, prompted by an excellent story there about the chaotic situation in Iraq today, which has not had an effective state since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Today, however, I have been diverted by another long piece of investigative reporting that appeared this morning: a look at the New York area's Hasidic schools, which educate about 50,000 young orthodox Jewish boys and a lesser number of girls (for which the story does not give any figure. It turns out that most of the children in in these schools--particularly the boys--are receiving almost no real education. In some of them not a single student has been able to pass state standardized tests in reading and math. Many give all their instruction in Yiddish, and do little or nothing to help their students learn English--much less history or science. The instruction deals mostly with the Talmud and other religious topics. Corporal punishment is very frequent. As a result, thousands of kids graduate from these schools without marketable skills and immediately fall into poverty. Meanwhile, the Hasids have used their political power to secure considerable financial assistance for the schools from both the state and federal governments, and have successfully blocked serious investigations of their performance.
I was reminded of the talk I heard last May at the conference I participated in by the black scholar Shelby Steele, an almost exact contemporary of mine who was one of the first and most severe critics of victimhood culture among black Americans. Now available on youtube, that talk argued that when the great civil rights acts gave equal rights to black Americans in the mid-1960s, they created a situation that was too frightening for some black Americans to cope with. They now had to compete on an equal footing with everyone else, with no excuse for failure, and some preferred to argue that the system was still rigged against them. After the talk I introduced myself to Professor Steele and tried to extend his argument. Modern life, I argued, in which every one of us has to prove themselves in a free labor market, is terrifying for many people of all backgrounds, and many of them would gladly seize upon a psychological escape hatch to avoid the competition. He agreed with me.
Both the Hasids running Yiddish schools and the critical race theory acolytes railing against standardized tests, middle-class work habits, and the idea of meritocracy as racist constructs, it seems to me, are revolting against the modern world. So are some evangelical Christians who want to make their religion the foundation of our educational system and our law. So are MAGA Republicans who will not accept the clear results of elections even if certified by other Republicans. And so are the majority of academics in the humanities, such as the ones who descended upon President Sweet of the AHA a few weeks ago and compelled him to write a letter of self-criticism confessing the sins of objectivity and disregarding their feelings. In place of rationalism and fair competition, they want tribalism and redistribution of resources based on various forms of superstition, both ancient and modern. And they are well-organized and powerful within many institutions and within both political parties.
The story about the Hasids raises interesting questions about the history of American Judaism. The battle between tradition and modernity took place within many immigrant families a century ago, including my own father's. His father became for a time a successful American businessman and encouraged his younger children to go to college, while his mother was a staunch traditionalist who had never wanted to leave Ukraine for the United States and tried to force his father to return there. Modernity triumphed among American Jews in the mid-century period, but traditionalism has had something of a comeback. The authors of the Times story are Eliza Shapiro and Brian M. Rosenthal, and Jonah Markowitz took the photographs. They evidently are among the great majority of American Jews who do not regret the transition to modernity, and I commend them for exposing Jewish attempts to subvert it. They are counterparts of Shelby Steele, my friend the economist Glenn Loury, and young podcaster Coleman Hughes, black Americans who reject the black revolt against modernity. The future of the United States depends on men and women of all backgrounds like all of these, whose first loyalty is to impartial principles.
Modernity unfortunately has come under effective attack because it has itself gone off the track during the last half-century. Modernity can be cruel and helpless. A meritocratic educational system reveals that a small minority of young people are much smarter than anyone else. The establishment, I think, cannot sell modernity to the great mass of the people if the rewards for that small minority--and the hardships of those who do not belong to it--are too great. That is the situation today, when our whole elite educational system seems designed to identify our smartest young people and funnel them into careers on Wall Street and where CEOs make hundreds of times as much money as their workers. Franklin Roosevelt brilliantly focused on the plight of the average American and did a great deal to improve it. Since Ronald Reagan we have left the average American behind. Our future depends not only on better ideas, but on better policies. Only they can preserve our modern heritage against increasingly widespread attacks.