Guest Editorial: A letter to journalist Bari Weiss

Thomas Schramm

The following letter was written by a student to journalist Bari Weiss in response to her article “The Miseducation of America’s Elites,” which was published March 9 in City Journal magazine. To learn more, click here.

Hi Ms. Weiss,

My name is Thomas Schramm, and I’m a high school senior at Harvard-Westlake. I’ve been a huge fan of yours over the past few years, especially in your dealings with Jewish issues. I have immense respect for you and for all the work you have done for the Jewish community, and I’ve seen you as an inspiration for my own Jewish activism during my time in high school.

I’m writing to you in regard to the article you just wrote about “Wokeism” at major private institutions within the U.S., and more specifically, the activism Harvard-Westlake has undertaken over the past year. The parents you spoke to have grossly misrepresented the school’s efforts to be more inclusive with their curriculum, and their incendiary assertions have little to no factual basis. I serve as a member of the Prefect Council at HW, our student government, and have been watching the school’s activism from the frontlines. 

The “wokeathw” Instagram account that you cited in your article has harassed and targeted specific teachers and students who have made attempts to make the Harvard-Westlake community more inclusive and welcoming to students of color. They have used intimidation tactics in an attempt to get the school to stop their crucial efforts of diversity, equity and inclusion. I would argue they mirror the “All Lives Matter” movement that was born out of reaction to the BLM movement, as the “wokeathw” account was created after the “blackathw” account had gained traction and exposed racial bias that existed within the school. Every post on their account lacks context and can quickly be disputed by any student who attends the school. I would caution against using them as a source for anything regarding Harvard-Westlake. 

The school has made encouraging dialogue its principal focus, and through its anti-racism speakers such as Wes Moore, they have made “courageous conversations” possible among students. The goal of their revamped curriculum, schoolwide events and anti-racist commitment is not to indoctrinate students; it’s to provide spaces for conversations that would never have been possible a year ago. And we haven’t only hosted speakers dedicated to anti-racism. We just recently hosted political commentators John Avalon and Margaret Hoover, who shared their perspectives on political polarization and the importance of compromise. Earlier in the year, Prefect Council hosted a political debate among students where we had two conservative students and two liberal/progressive students discuss current political issues facing the nation. Nuance and conversation have been the center of every school event this year, and it’s been extremely successful in getting students to actually step out of their comfort zones and share their perspectives on major political issues.

I wanted to address a number of the assertions made in your article, as they were deeply concerning and, frankly, untrue. The assertion that the school is promoting the idea that capitalism is somehow evil is entirely misguided. The photo you cited was a submission in the yearbook, a resource the school administration generally has little to no involvement in, and in no way communicated the position of the school. I would hope you agree that a student submission in a yearbook hardly equates to Harvard-Westlake “teaching students that capitalism is evil.” In fact, the school has a program called HW Venture which is entirely focused on promoting capitalism and entrepreneurship. Students may share their disdain for capitalism but that in no way makes the HW community at large a hostile environment to the ideology. It seems as though the parents you spoke to made a hasty generalization that doesn’t reflect the perspectives of the student body or the school administration. 

The parents you spoke to have also created a false dichotomy, suggesting they have to entirely agree with the ideas put forward by the school or they will be hailed as racists. I can assure you that students have been challenging the ideas brought forward by speakers and by the members of the school administration all year long, and not only have they avoided the title of “racist,” but they have also been praised for their willingness to take part in such difficult conversations. Parents are also encouraged to come forward and take part in dialogue regarding the school’s curriculum and activism, but it seems as though the parents you spoke to lacked the courage to do so.

The other preposterous assertions that the school was somehow suggesting that “America is a bad country” and that white students must “bear collective guilt” hold no water. The school curriculum makes a concerted effort to provide nuanced perspectives when discussing the U.S. (the main example of this is the reading assigned in the AP United States History course, where students are assigned the works of both Zinn and Hofstader to ensure that multiple historical perspectives are included), and though they justly criticize actions taken by the United States, our country should never be immune to criticism. In regard to the collective guilt claim, the school has never suggested that white students bear any responsibility for systemic racism in the U.S., nor has the idea been entertained by any school-wide speaker we have had. What the school has done has allowed students of color to express their lived experiences, which white students (like myself) will never be able to fully comprehend. Just as non-Jewish students struggle to understand what it is like to grow up as a Jew in America, white students will never fully understand the lived experiences of students of color. We can’t just blind ourselves to skin color and all “just be wolverines”—that would undermine the equity the school is striving for.  

I will admit, I was hesitant at first about the school’s devotion to anti-racism. Over the summer, I had multiple altercations online with friends who used “anti-racism” and “wokeism” as a cover for their own anti-Semitism. I was worried that the same issues may arise, and early on they did. Our first anti-racism presentation included a slideshow that celebrated the work of Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour. Immediately after the presentation was over, I sent emails to the Dean of Students along with the organizers of the webinar, and the school made sure to not only issue a public apology to the faculty and students but also had the presenter who praised Ms. Mallory and Ms. Sarsour return to the following anti-racism presentation and explain why their praise was offensive and wrong. They were unaware of the long history of anti-Semitism both of these figures had and were entirely willing to make amends. The school made it clear that mistakes will be made along the way, and they encouraged students to call them out if they were ever in the wrong. The school wants to make sure every single student feels safe and valued at the school, even if they disagree with the anti-racism work being done. 

I’m sure that the parents you spoke with have good intentions and just want what is best for their kids, but they have little understanding about the reality of Harvard-Westlake’s work over the past year. It’s natural for people to fear what they don’t understand, and in such a time of political polarization, it’s easy to make oversimplifications that misrepresent situations. My intent is not to gaslight the concerns of these parents but to merely provide my perspective as a student at the school. The status quo at private schools around the country, where white students once dominated all aspects of life, is changing, and that’s a great thing. I am a white, centrist, capitalist, Jew; I should feel like an outcast, according to the parents you spoke to. Yet not only do I feel valued at the school, I feel as though I have a deeper bond with my fellow classmates because I’m now having conversations that let me understand more about my peers.  

I was disheartened by your lack of student perspective in the article and wanted to share my own experience with “wokeism” and anti-racism on campus. I know Harvard-Westlake has had article after article written about the ‘radicalizing socialists’ who are indoctrinating the ‘elite of LA’ and I wanted to actually dispel the misinformation. I felt comfortable emailing you because you’ve been so instrumental in my development as a young Jew, and I see you as the Queen of Nuance who is always aware that there is another side to every story. 

I would be willing to talk more about the reality of life on campus and even have you speak to other HW students about how the administration’s activism and efforts have impacted the on-campus culture. I can also provide speaker transcripts, emails and photos that back up my claims in this email. 

I want to also make sure that you know that all of my opinions voiced here are my own and have absolutely no connection to the school whatsoever. I wanted to avoid making a comment on your website directly, partly because I didn’t want to make it seem as though I was somehow making a comment on behalf of the school and partly because I have a general rule not to make online comments to protect myself.

Hope you are staying safe and healthy, and thank you again for all of the inspiring work you have done!

Thank you,

Thomas Schramm

Harvard-Westlake ’21