By: Chris Robling*
New Trier Township High School has been a national model at least since World War II. Today, unexpectedly, it models the nation’s divisions over how to discuss – and act on – inequities based on race.
Few public high schools can compare to New Trier’s past – or present. Life Magazine’s October, 1950 Special Issue “U.S. Schools, They Face a Crisis,” put a New Trier girl on its cover and presented the school as a Valhalla of secondary education, the very national example North Shore parents had hoped would keep their kids at home, and out of eastern boarding schools.
Today, New Trier is a launch pad for children of the high-performing couples who gravitate to Wilmette, Kenilworth, Winnetka, Glencoe and parts of Northfield and Glenview. Its top graduates matriculate at our most competitive colleges and universities.
In recent years, New Trier has offered a Seminar Day as a break from regular classes. It’s a school-wide focus on a particular topic. Last year, Rev. Martin Luther King — but only 60 percent of students came.
The topic this February 28 is, “Understanding Today’s Struggle for Racial Civil Rights.” So far, student attendance is unknown. But controversy, division and allegations of political motivations in programming the day have noisily appeared in online postings, chats and petitions.
To some parents, the Seminar Day’s classes, lectures, readings and talks read like a reunion of Education Professor and 1960s Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers’ graduate students and their thesis topics.
“The Seminar claims: ‘Identity’ is defined by race. Period. It is fixed and determinative. (The term ‘racial,’ ‘racist,’ ‘bias,’ and ‘systemic racism’ suffuse the panel descriptions, together appearing over 80 times. Meanwhile, in a Seminar Day devoted to, ‘Understanding Today’s Struggle for Racial Civil Rights,’ a working definition of the term ‘civil rights’ is not offered),” the opposition “parentsofnewtrier.org” write.
They appeal for balance. They suggest broadening the discussion: Adding speakers, classes, seminars, etc., to expose students to multiple views, so they can hear, evaluate and decide for themselves.
Other parents find the agenda to be precisely what’s needed to immerse privileged white kids in their view of 21st century American racism. They resist any change.
“We believe that the Seminar Day actively works toward New Trier’s values of ‘committing minds to inquiry, hearts to compassion, and lives to the service of humanity,’” several said in an open letter on Facebook.
“The overwhelming lack of diversity (racial, socioeconomic, etc.) is the *only* reason I was very hesitant to move my family from the city and into this district. We have moved and I still have the same concerns, but knowing that NTHS considers these very real and very important issues by planning and providing a seminar such as this one allays my concerns to some degree,” a parent posted.
Another parent asks – apparently with genuine unawareness of the differences between, say, Thomas Sowell and Al Sharpton, “what is the other side of ‘Understanding Today’s Struggle for Racial Civil Rights’? ‘Not Understanding Today’s Struggle for Racial Civil Rights’?”
Having put together countless panels, including many dealing with race and race-related issues, for the Union League Club, City Club, WBEZ, WMAQ-AM, and joining conversations on WTTW and elsewhere, I think New Trier’s administration ordered — or simply approved — a starkly one-sided agenda.
New Trier is presenting a robust, full-throated and unapologetic introduction to Leftist race theory. Competing analyses are not presented. New Trier is indoctrinating dogma.
That’s surprising – or not. What matters now is redressing New Trier’s bias, out of respect to the significance of the very issues under discussion, to students developing their critical faculties, and to its community of dismayed parents.
New Trier’s purposes of inquiry, compassion and service fail if “inquiry” actually means “uncritically accepting one side of an issue.”
Objectors have met with administrators. They said, ‘No changes.’ Will New Trier’s board of education back that hard line at its February 20 meeting?
That would be an unworthy lesson for so important a school – and a sad example that discussion of race and overcoming inequities, even in 2017, even at august New Trier, is less important than advancing a pre-determined agenda.
*New Trier alum Chris Robling is a commentator for WGN TV and Radio.