briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, August 29, 2019

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Thursday, August 29, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The Despair of Failed Programs: Why Government Can’t Solve Pre-Political Problems

There’s a pattern we’re going to be noticing as we try to analyze by worldview many of the headlines around us. They sometimes appear not to be connected at all. But then upon reflection, we see a larger pattern.

First, we’re going to turn to New York City. A headline: “Desegregation Plan: Eliminate All Gifted Programs in New York.” Eliza Shapiro was the reporter. Here’s the bottom line: In the city of New York, the liberal establishment has come to the conclusion — and by the establishment we mean the government of Mayor Bill de Blasio — it has come to the conclusion that the only way to bring some form of equity to outcomes in the New York City public schools is to eliminate all gifted programs, all programs that would offer educational advantages to students.

Behind this is a pattern of massive significance to which we need to pay some attention. You’ll notice here that the big issue is equity. Is equity a Christian concern? Well, in one sense, of course it is. That would mean that inequity would require some kind of explanation. But here’s where we need to understand something else. This is a basic principle, for example, of economics. Poverty never has to be explained. Wealth has to be explained. Poverty happens by doing nothing. Wealth happens by doing something and not just any something, but something that actually produces wealth.

If you simply step back and let the natural order of a fallen world take its shape, then it’s going to be poverty and that’s simply because wealth has to be explained. Something has to explain why wealth has been produced, why goods and services have produced an income, why someone sees value and begins to reward that value, why someone invests in a corporation or builds a house. All that requires some kind of explanation.

At the same time, achievement requires some kind of explanation, a lack of achievement in the first place does not. And that’s because of lack of achievement, just like poverty, is the natural state of a fallen world. That’s not to say it is the state that God had intended in creation. It is not to say it is the state with which human beings should be satisfied. It is just to say that doing nothing leads to the inevitable results of doing nothing. It is something that has to be explained.

This is also possible for Christians to look at many situations and say that inequities are actually a result of some kind of prejudice or some kind of active injustice. Any form of injustice, biblically defined. will lead to some kind of sinful distortion of God’s intention.

But when we’re looking at this headline news story in New York, it is particularly troubling because it tells us that when you have these kinds of dreams detached from reality, when they crash, they crash in a way that crushes human aspirations and often human dignity. When you’re looking at this article, the headline again tells us that the desegregation plan that is now proposed by the de Blasio government will eliminate all gifted programs in New York.

Eliza Shapiro says, “For years, New York City has essentially maintained two parallel public school systems. A group of selective schools and programs geared to students labeled gifted and talented is filled mostly with white and Asian children. The rest of the system is open to all students and is predominantly black and Hispanic. Now,” we are told, “a high level panel appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio is recommending that the city do away with most of these selected programs in an effort to desegregate the system which has 1.1 million students and is by far the largest in the country.”

Let’s step back for a moment with due sympathy for the predicament of New York City and the challenge faced by anyone who is the mayor of New York, and thus has responsibility for the New York public schools. You are looking at a massive city. You’re looking at a city with huge forms of structural problems. You are looking at pockets of extreme wealth and pockets of extreme poverty. You are looking at the fact that the educational system is now burdened with all kinds of responsibilities that aren’t actually even educational.

Much of what takes place in the schools is basically childminding and concern for child welfare. That’s one of the issues that has emerged with all kinds of social pathologies that have now affected not only so many American cities but also many rural areas as well. But the concentrations of everything are basically found more intensely in the cities because the cities are themselves concentrations. And so when you take the nation’s largest public school system, that school system is, sympathetically understood, going to face some massive problems.

But then you have to ask the question, what is a school system therefore? And at least you would think that common sense would dictate that the first mission of the schools is to educate children. But looked at that way, the New York public schools are now and have been a colossal, unmitigated, unquestionable failure.

Jason L. Riley in yesterday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal explains it this way, “After Labor Day, New York City’s 1.1 million public school students will return to the classroom. The majority of them can’t do basic reading or math according to state standardized test results released last week. And the numbers get even more depressing,” he writes, “when broken down by race and ethnicity. Black and Hispanic students make up 67% of the system while whites and Asians are about 15% and 16% respectively. Only 28% of black students pass the math exam versus 33% of Hispanic, 67% of whites and 74% of Asians. On the English exam, the passage rates were 68% for Asian, 67% for whites, 37% for Hispanics and 35% for blacks.”

The background to Jason Riley’s article is also the fact that education indisputably offers one of the few avenues for unquestioned social advancement in the United States. Gaining an education, being able to utilize that education, having access to a good education is crucial for advancement, not just for individuals, but for populations in the United States as well as elsewhere. That’s why just about every society or civilization has given primary attention to offering structures of education. That’s one of the central issues or concerns of a government or a civilization.

The difference is that over the course of the last several decades, the government has not just prioritized support for education, it has moved into the education business, now as the dominant entity not only when it comes to the public schools, especially with preschool all the way to grade 12, but also by its investment and its federal loans and its massive grants that are now going to higher education and research universities as well.

Now again, I want to state that the educational challenge, the challenges faced by the schools in New York City would be daunting under any circumstances. Just the scale would be daunting to think about. But we are looking at an indisputable pattern over the last several decades of absolute non-performance when it comes to the majority of the schools in cities like New York City. Other cities have school systems that fair comparably and fail comparably.

What makes this story so interesting and points to the larger pattern is that over the course of the last 20 or 30 years, especially the last two decades, the New York City public school system has sought to increase and expand educational opportunity by giving increased access to schools at the top of the system. And they did that by changing the way admissions would be structured for those schools.

Those most elite schools and gifted programs would have admission by meritocracy, by test. The test became the biggest issue, meaning that it didn’t matter how much money your parents made. It didn’t matter in which neighborhood you lived. If you could gain entrance by admission to these schools based upon your academic scores, then you were in. And in New York City, when it comes to these elite schools, it is a massive advantage.

But this particular effort to expand that kind of access ended up expanding it in ways that those who formed it did not intend. For example, it has led to the fact that there’s been a marked increase in Asian enrollment in these schools, and at the same time, there has not been by any measure an appreciable increase of African-American students in these schools.

But the big headline that appeared in The New York Times on Tuesday and yesterday has been covered throughout most of the major media, is the fact that this proposal that is presented by this panel that had been put together by Mayor de Blasio has suggested that the way to resolve this problem to at least mitigate the inequality is to eliminate, so far as New York City can, all of the selective institutions, all of these gifted programs.

I say “in so far as New York has the authority” because the most elite of these programs in New York City are actually structured by state law from Albany, not controlled by New York City. The proposal has to do with those schools that are under the control of New York City. And so the idea here is that if we cannot get more students into the gifted programs, then we will simply eliminate the gifted programs. Jason Riley gets it right in the headline in the Wall Street Journal when he said that what this means is that Mayor de Blasio has given up on educating poor kids.

A second insight we need to bring to this is that evidently though money is surely not irrelevant, money doesn’t solve more fundamental problems. For example, when you’re looking at many of the most problematic urban school districts in the United States, their per pupil funding is massive. It is higher than just about anywhere else in the nation. Over the course of the last several decades, more and more money has been spent. We’re talking about multiple billions of dollars, but it hasn’t had the intended effect. That’s heartbreaking for everyone. It should be heartbreaking to liberals. It should be heartbreaking to conservatives. It should be heartbreaking to all.

The intractable problems that are found in these schools because they are found in the communities and because they are found in the families — these haven’t been overcome by tax spending, by money. They aren’t going to be solved that way. They can’t be solved that way. It’s not to say that government can’t ever mitigate a problem. It is to say the government can’t solve a problem that is pre-political.

There’s another big issue when it comes to the panel’s report in New York City and that is the fact that the inequities are here blamed on the fact that individual schools often do not have what is considered to be an optimal representation of different groups from the population. But here’s the big issue. That is something that even the school system and even the civic government in New York can’t control.

Why? Because those who are in New York City and have their children in New York City are not captive to the school system if they have the economic means to provide some other form of education. And the numbers are just incredibly clear. We are talking about the fact that the vast majority of white parents in New York have made different educational alternatives available for their children.

It is interesting to note that many on the political left would say that is just an illegitimate demonstration of privilege. But at the same time, notoriously, they’d make the very same decisions when it comes to their own children. This has been true even for the kinds of politicians like President Barack Obama who said that this was unfair and it was not equal. It was not just. And yet he sent his own daughters to a very elite private school in Washington D.C.

The fact is that the city government of New York, as powerful as it is, is not constitutionally able to coerce parents in New York to keep their children in the public schools when they do not believe that it is right. But this gets to something else and that is the fact that even as Christians looking at this picture see such brokenness — and we have an explanation for it, that sin is the brokenness of the world; it’s Genesis 3 working its way out even in educational statistics — we also understand that we are not without hope, but ultimately, government can’t be that hope. No panel for any mayor can be that hope.

We operate out of a biblical worldview based on a biblical theology and that biblical theology unfolds from creation, to fall, to redemption, to new creation. What does that have to do with this issue? In a fallen world, we understand that the structures God has given us in creation are even more important than we knew they were in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Those very structures become even more important after Genesis 3. I’m talking about marriage. I’m talking about the family. I’m talking about the very structures of human flourishing in human community.

That human community, whether it’s as big as New York City or as small as a rural village, only works when what is pre-political is intact. There’s no way around it. The pre-political includes most importantly marriage and the family. And the most sure predictor of educational achievement for children has everything to do with the educational opportunities that are successfully arranged for them by their parents. There is unquestionably an advantage for a child who has a married mother and father. There’s an unquestionable advantage for a child who is growing up in a thriving family, in a thriving neighborhood, in a thriving community. There is every advantage for a child that has all of those structural assets even before arriving at the school at whatever age.

And that doesn’t mean that there is any blame to be placed upon these children for those structural disadvantages. They are not accountable for those, and yet it is also very clear that no society, no matter how determined, no matter how wealthy, no matter how massively mobilized, can actually replace what is broken at the most fundamental level.

It gets back to the fact that recently we were told that the greatest advantage educationally that comes to a child comes down to the number of words that child hears, especially in the context of the home, in the first several years of the child’s life, especially the first three years of a child’s life.

We’ll be seeing in future additions of The Briefing how there are many, especially on the left — and we understand they see a problem; they want to do something about the problem — but so many on the left are now willing to use coercion, massive social, legal and political coercion in order to eliminate what they see as inequities.

But here’s the bigger pattern: In order to understand how that takes place, the only way to achieve this kind of equity is to, well, here’s the headline: Eliminate the programs of excellence, the gifted programs in the New York City schools. The only way to have this kind of absolute equity is basically to remove any advantages that could come to anyone in a selective program.

In coming days on The Briefing, we’re going to see how that works out even in the economic platform proposals of the major democratic candidates.

Part II

How Can Elite Universities Be Fair in Their Admissions Process? The SAT Student Adversity Score Wasn’t the Answer

But before leaving this entire issue, there’s a second headline. Let’s look at The Wall Street Journal. “SAT Drops Plan to Use Adversity Scores.” The article is by Douglas Belkin. Now, this is a story we referenced months ago and it has been unfolding as the summer has progressed.

Time just about for the end of the last school year, the College Board announced that it was going to be adding this adversity score to the information sent to colleges considering admissions. As Belkin reports now, “The College Board is abandoning its plan to assign an adversity score to every student who takes the SAT college admissions test after facing criticism from educators and parents. Instead,” we are told, “it will try to capture a student’s social and economic background in a broad array of data points. The new tactic is called Landscape and, while it includes much of the same information, it doesn’t combine the metrics into a single score.”

Now the original idea by the College Board was to offer what it called the environmental context dashboard. It would include and combine about 15 socioeconomic metrics from a student’s high school and neighborhood as the Journal says, “To create something college admissions officers called an adversity score.”

Now once again, as Christians look at this kind of headline, we need to step back sympathetically and look at the scale of the problem. Once again, it’s very similar to the problem in the New York City public schools. Elite universities in particular have been very frustrated, as have been so many across the country, in that they have made less progress than they had hoped in diversity of their newly admitted classes. Once again, the big problem is a lack of African American students gaining admission to these elite universities. And so the answer has been we have to step back from a meritocracy. We have to step back from these competitive academic scores and extracurricular activities. We need to step back and figure out the context. That was the origin of this adversity score.

But the problem was that it reduced everything to a number and beyond that it defined adversity only in the sense of impoverished communities with high crime rates and other kinds of pathologies. It ignored the fact that there could be a student from a relatively wealthy school district, who had from all other kinds of economic issues, some advantages in economic terms who might have been an orphan or might have experienced some kind of disaster, who might have overcome some kind of massive disease or trauma. In other words, adversity was reduced to one consideration of adversity.

But there’s something else we need to note when we look at this article and it really hasn’t been mentioned in the mainstream media, and that is the fact that when you look at the problems in the New York City schools, you’re looking at a school system that right now — and this is an entirely different issue we’ll discuss on The Briefing — is seeking to admit students as early as age three. And what we have seen is that already by age three, there are radical disparities that show up. But we’re not talking about age three when you’re talking about college admissions, you’re talking about on average age 18.

Now, there can be no doubt that you can almost quantify the advantages that come, the opportunities that multiply, when a student gains admission to this kind of elite university. It’s now very well documented sometimes even by economists in economic terms right down to the economic advantage and salary and income year by year and decade by decade.

And again, conservatives and Christians looking at this kind of pattern are not satisfied with what we see. The difference is we understand that it is very, very difficult to calculate exactly how anyone might attempt to remedy this issue. And the more you try to orchestrate it at a national level, the more you try to deal with the entire population at once, the more distorted the picture comes.

Some people would say, “Well, this means that government has no responsibility. The communities have no responsibility.” But of course, that’s not true. But what is true is that no government can solve this problem, and no big agencies such as the College Board, and no one including the admissions counselors or the admissions officers of major elite universities, both public and private.

What they have to offer is very, very valuable and they know it. Every single slot that might be occupied by any particular student is incredibly valuable and they are going to have to treat those admission slots as the value they are. And that means they’re going to have to make decisions that in the end will not only be predicated on a situation that lacks total equality, they will certainly produce a situation that lacks total equality.

By the way, we also need to know that those elite institutions are banking their entire brand on inequality. They, after all, are determined to be elite institutions. Well, if you have absolute equity and absolute equality, you don’t have elite universities. Your local community college and Harvard would be considered on exactly the same academic plane, which also gets back to the fact that many of the liberal graduates of those institutions, they mean equity for someone else. They mean this kind of coerced, forced inequity for someone else. They want advantages for the disadvantaged somewhere else.

Part III

The Christian Response to Societal and Cultural Failure: Why Good Things Should Happen in Communities Where Faithful Gospel Churches Are Found

What do Christians do with this? What do we think when we look at this kind of pattern? First of all, as I said, we share the broken heartedness. This is not the way it should be. We also sense the kind of urgency that comes from communities and groups that have had inadequate opportunity. We also look at the brokenness that underlies this. We understand the fact that hopes have been crushed. We also understand that we are living in a world in which often those who do gain access are not the ones who deserve to gain access. Just consider the scandal in the college admissions program that came from so many parents, including the most economically and socially advantaged in Hollywood trying to distort the system for their own wealthy children.

And this is where Christians also understanding that very important principle of subsidiarity, that Christian reasoning, that principle of Christian worldview that tells us that truth and health subside in the most fundamental units. And that means that the greatest truth and the greatest health is going to be found in the way that God created the world and the structures of creation that are most basic, marriage and family, and everything else radiates with decreasing ability, for example, to raise children after that.

The optimal place for children to be raised is in a family that follows the pattern of Scripture. Outside the family and the extended family is the community. And the closer the community, the more able it is to meet the needs. So a neighborhood is better than a city government and a city government is better than a state government and a state government, believe it or not, is better than a national government.

That doesn’t mean that the national government doesn’t have any responsibility. It is to say that the national government does not care for an individual child or an individual single parent struggling to raise that child. That national government doesn’t care for that particular neighborhood, not in personal terms, but the people in the neighborhood do.

But the Christian worldview also raises a completely different category and a different opportunity for hope and Christian witness, and that is the Christian congregation, the Christian church. Christian churches can make a remarkable difference in the lives not only of the children in those churches and others in the church beyond childhood, but also in the neighborhoods around them. This is where we understand that where a thriving gospel church is present, good things should be happening in the community and where our faithful gospel church is found, effects should be spreading out from that church, not only to its immediate neighborhood, but beyond.

This is where Christian congregations can partner even with other congregations in order to try to address some of these issues, to help parents and to help children and to them together in order to open and expand educational and economic opportunity. And this is where we have to understand that if we continue down the road we are as a society, we’re going to be effectively given the directions of the society undermining for virtually everyone the opportunities that lead to success.

And finally, we note that the saddest issue in these headlines is the evidence of societal, cultural, moral despair. We can understand how this happens. Decade after decade of trying this program and then that, hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars poured into answering this question and the question is unanswered. The problem is unsolved. You could understand how there would be this despair. But here’s where Christians operate out of a biblical worldview and cannot give ourselves to despair. When everyone else in society looks and responds with despair, Christians, if alone, must be the last people on earth who know that despair is not an option.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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