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Public Education, Justice, and Solidarity

September 16th, 2019 | 4 min read

By Matthew Loftus

Firing up the ol’ blog machine (in no small part because the excellent Tara Isabella Burton has joined the Mere-O world) for a series of disjointed thoughts on this Atlantic piece about a family that tried to escape the insane world of… competitive New York preschools?! for a more integrated public school for their kids. They were trying to not contribute to the problems created by school segregation while also trying to not to lose any advantages for their kids.

In no particular order:

  • We have to free ourselves from the fantasy that a just society can be achieved without sacrifice, risk, or suffering. It’s just not possible! A lot of what makes society unjust is the way in which suffering and risk have been deliberately concentrated among people who are powerless; while I don’t believe it’s a zero-sum game at some level it is inevitable that de-concentrating that suffering means that those who have less risk of suffering have to take on more. I wrote about how I think Christians should go about this a while ago.
  • Even people that want to work for justice and are willing to make sacrifices for the greater good like being able to control those sacrifices. This is an entirely natural thing, but it will result in resistance when too much power is exerted from the top down to make changes. The higher the level of government acting on these issues, the more arbitrary and imprecise they’ll feel.
  • As my friend Michael Wear pointed out on Twitter, the Atlantic story isn’t entirely representative but it can’t be dismissed. The bonkers bits about pre! school! interviews! are just a biting satire of the whole system of meritocracy, and the dude who wants anti-bias training to convince people that white supremacy includes “worship of the written word” is probably an outlier among public-school administrators in the country. (Read this by Helen Andrews if you want a really juicy historical take on meritocracy.) You New Yorkers will have to sort yourselves out; the rest of us have a slightly simpler path ahead (see below).
  • I am inherently suspicious of applying justice arguments to public schools because I think many public schools are a quaint relic of an era where we thought that grown-ups should be treated like machines in a factory and children should be educated similarly. I am hopelessly biased by own experience as a homeschooled kid who probably would have been undereducated and overmedicated whilst dragging down the experience of my fellow students and teachers, even in the best public school possible. Children should not be warehoused and made to sit still for hours and hours every day; the fact that we have managed to force some of our children to thrive in this system does not make it any better for them or for society at large. Applying questions of justice to public education requires that we think more about what public schools are for.
  • Zaid Jilani linked to this interesting article on Raleigh public schools, which have been busing for generations and… it works! They just make sure that poverty is not concentrated in any one school and they make sure there’s just enough nice stuff that the meritocrats at the top don’t pull out en masse. Seems like a good idea to me, with the huge caveat in my previous point. I suppose if we’re going to warehouse children, we might as well do so in an integrated fashion.
  • Lots of people want what George Packer wants: a more just society, but for their kid to get a decent education. It seems that the question for well-meaning liberals like Packer is, “How decent is decent enough?” In other words, “How much are you willing to give up?” I think, ultimately, each family has to find that line for themselves because not every public school is just a few more middle-class students away from success and not every kid will be able to thrive in a public-school environment. (See, for example, black homeschoolers.)
  • In most places that are not New York, you can still be neighbors with people who are not like you by choosing to live near them. In fact, this is the simplest and best way to do so, no contorting yourself into knots about preschool interviews required! You can send them to your local public school if you pray and discern that is the best for your family and your community, but you don’t have to! There are lots of other ways to sacrifice, build community, live in solidarity, etc. etc. for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed to those who need it. The question is whether or not Christians who have been blessed as richly as we have will choose to squander God’s resources on trying to get into a really nice college or steward them for the sake of those who are just trying to break the cycle of poverty.

Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at