On May 11, the Department of the Interior announced the release of the report by its Federal Indian Boarding Schools Initiative. The headline finding was that “hundreds of Indian children died throughout the Federal Indian boarding school system,” buried at 53 identified sites across the 408 schools included in the study. “Each of those children is a missing family member, a person who was not able to live out their purpose on this Earth because they lost their lives as part of this terrible system,” Secretary Deb Haaland said.
The report was inspired by events in Canada during the summer of 2021. Activists using ground-penetrating radar found disturbed earth beneath the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. These inconclusive radar soundings, combined with local legends about priests burying bodies in the middle of the night, led to headlines alleging the discovery of mass graves of 215 children. To date, not one body has been recovered, and the legends of secret burials do not stand up to scrutiny (as Professor Frances Widdowson has laid out in detail in this magazine). Nevertheless, dozens of churches were vandalized and in some cases burned to the ground. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in response to the arsonists, “I understand the anger that’s out there.” Secretary Haaland commissioned her report soon after the first burnings on June 22, 2021.
There is something contemptible about our government looking at a traumatic episode in Canada, most likely based on false claims, which resulted in a spasm of hatred against Christian churches and the wanton destruction of dozens of places of worship, and thinking, We should have that here. The Interior Department’s report had even less basis in evidence than the Canadian panic. The 53 burial sites it identified were mainly ordinary cemeteries with headstones, in existence for decades, no secret to anyone. Most of the deaths were from diseases like tuberculosis, which felled Indians on and off reservations in large numbers. In its writeup of the report BuzzFeed nevertheless referred to “children whose bodies were dumped in mass graves.”
This attempt to create a national scandal over Indian boarding schools is a thoroughly political scheme contrived by activists to stoke outrage regardless of the facts. No surprise there, because that is what the issue has always been, from the very beginning.
The strange thing about the residential schools outrage is that for decades the issue simply did not exist. In the U.S. and Canada, the transition to day schools occurred in the 1930s, with most off-reservation boarding schools closing soon thereafter. The subsequent decades were full of activism and agitation, Red Power and the American Indian Movement and campaigns over fishing rights, land rights, job programs, gaming, a hundred other things—but not residential schools.
The genealogy of the issue can be traced back to Australia, which invented the playbook with its “Stolen Generations.” Australia is also where the story begins for me.
When I worked at the Centre for Independent Studies, a think tank in Sydney, around the office “Helen” didn’t mean me. It meant Helen Hughes, an eminent development economist and senior fellow at the CIS who died, age 84, a few months before I came on board in 2013. I never met her, but from the way people talked about her I got a sense of her personality: dazzlingly brilliant, personally formidable, even intimidating, and politically fearless with no patience for liberal taboos.
At the end of her life, she was working on the most thankless subject in Australian politics, poverty in remote Aboriginal communities. Her CIS report Lands of Shame was pivotal in justifying and shaping one of Prime Minister John Howard’s signature policies, known as the Northern Territory Intervention of 2007. My colleagues had to explain the Intervention to me, as a clueless foreigner, and they had to repeat themselves because I could hardly believe what they were telling me.
Child sexual abuse was so rampant that Howard sent in the army. That is the one sentence version. There were towns where it was basically impossible for a girl to make it through adolescence without being sexually abused. Across the territory, hundreds of girls between 12 and 15 (out of a total Indigenous population of less than 60,000) were presenting at clinics with venereal diseases every year. Once in a while, a particularly egregious case would make it into the national media, like the 11-year-old boy hog-tied and gang-raped repeatedly for months in Maningrida. Helen’s work demonstrated that these cases occurred against a monotonous backdrop of petrol-sniffing, wife-beating, alcoholism, and joblessness.
I asked the obvious question: Why not get the children out of there? “Politically impossible,” my colleagues explained. “Because of the Stolen Generations.”
The phrase originated in a 1981 pamphlet by Peter Read, then a Ph.D. student in history at Australian National University. He alleged that between 1905 and 1969 authorities carried out a deliberate campaign of genocide against the Aboriginal people by abducting their children and sending them to boarding schools and orphanages, with the ultimate goal of having them intermarry into white society to “breed out the black.” He claimed that 50,000 were affected under this scheme. He originally wanted to call his pamphlet “The Lost Generation” but a friend recommended he make it “Stolen” instead. The phrase stuck.
Almost immediately, surviving officials from the period in question leapt to explain that Read’s allegations were false. Children were not removed simply for being Aboriginal. They were targeted in cases of neglect or abuse. Later analysis has shown that only about 10 percent of Aboriginal children were ever removed from their families, far fewer than Read alleged, which supports the idea that this was not a blanket policy. The most famous victims, such as activists Lowitja O’Donoghue and plaintiffs in the test case Cubillo and Gunner v. Commonwealth (2000), all eventually revealed that their stories involved significant neglect or parental incapacity. Peter Gunner, for example, was found abandoned on an anthill where his mother had left him and would have died if missionaries had not rescued him.
The theme was given Hollywood treatment in the film Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), which depicts three Aboriginal girls who escape from government custody to return to their families. When filming was over, director Philip Noyce realized that his 14-year-old child star Everlyn Sampi would have to go back to the remote town where she had been sexually assaulted at age 8 and was by her own account “drinking and stealing and robbing” from age 9. To save her, he paid for her to attend a boarding school in Perth, where he hoped they would at least teach her to read. She escaped from school and ran home to resume her old life, just like her character. In 2012, she nearly died when her neck was sliced by shards of a glass bowl that broke during a fight with a male friend. “Me and him got into a lot of fights,” she explained to a reporter.
Despite all the evidence casting doubt on whether the Stolen Generations had ever existed, the charge became central to Australian identity. It is hard to explain to a foreigner how central. For years, national politics were roiled by questions about compensation and whether a formal apology would be issued; the apology was a major issue in the 2007 election, which John Howard, who opposed an apology, lost. Scholars such as Robert Manne and Colin Tatz called forcible removals a genocide on par with Stalin or Pol Pot, and far from being laughed out of the room, they were held up as wise experts while skeptical scholars like Keith Windschuttle were compared to Holocaust deniers for questioning the narrative. This national obsession is all the more surprising because it came out of nowhere. My husband is from Sydney, and when he was in school in the early 1990s no one taught about the Stolen Generations. Now students get it every year.
The Stolen Generations concept did not emerge organically from Aboriginals themselves. “In 1983 the Aboriginal communities still had not regained their understanding of child separation as central to their history,” Read himself wrote, tacitly admitting that he had to persuade them to care about it. Throughout the 20th century, most philanthropists had blamed the government for doing too little to uplift Aboriginal children, not for interfering too much. When articulate Aboriginal leaders able to represent their own cause emerged, they focused on things like land rights and wage discrimination. There is nothing about child removals in the Yirrkala bark petitions of 1963 or the list of demands of the Canberra Tent Embassy of 1972.
This deliberate campaign to put child removals at the center of the story coincided with an absolute cratering of quality of life in Aboriginal areas. Under the left-wing Gough Whitlam government, Aboriginals in remote areas were made eligible for welfare benefits, including unemployment, with no job-seeking requirement. Dry laws were abolished as racist. Overnight, employment plummeted and alcohol flooded in. Within decades, multigenerational dysfunction had become entrenched. One community case study in the Northern Territory in 2000 found a grand total of three wage earners in a sample of 102 adults, with the rest dependent on welfare.
This deliberate campaign to put child removals at the center of the story coincided with an absolute cratering of quality of life in Aboriginal areas.
The few brave journalists and scholars who ventured to expose how bad things were—Helen Hughes, Paul Toohey, Rosemary Neill—all told of a code of silence that made it hard to get people to go on the record about Aboriginal conditions. Authorities seemed to feel themselves powerless. Toohey’s book Last Drinks: The Impact of the Northern Territory Intervention tells of a 2001 case where a 49-year-old man assaulted and raped his 15-year-old child bride, whom he had bought from her family with “spears, food, and cash,” and was sentenced to only four months in prison. A similar case in 2004 involving a 14-year-old girl saw the 54-year-old defendant sentenced to one month. The government had encouraged Aboriginal Australians to live according to their own customs, the thinking seemed to go, so it would be wrong to turn around and punish them for it—and if not morally wrong, then certainly pointless.
Most middle-class Australians who live in Sydney and Melbourne never encounter Aboriginals, literally never, going their whole lives without ever meeting one. It is easy for them to go all in on condemning assimilation when they don’t have to look at the consequences. The Stolen Generations accusation amounts to a blood libel, and wanting to defend the honor of one’s ancestors is a sufficiently good reason to set the record straight. But there is an even better reason: to put an end to the government’s self-imposed powerlessness in the face of incredible suffering.
On February 13, 2008, newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of the Labor Party fulfilled a campaign promise and issued a formal national apology on behalf of Australia for the Stolen Generations. Five months later, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made his own formal apology on behalf of Canada for Indian residential schools. As part of that apology, he launched the Indian Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, intended to give every residential school “survivor” the opportunity to share his or her story for the historical record and to allow all Canadians, as Harper put it, “to move forward together” in a spirit of “healing, reconciliation and resolution.” The TRC was supposed to bring closure. In fact, it was only the beginning.
Under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, more than $4.8 billion in individual compensation was paid to 80,000 former students. Far from being a settlement, in the sense of concluding the parties’ financial liabilities, this expenditure led only to more expenditure. After Justin Trudeau became prime minister in 2015, his government pledged $33.8 million to investigate and commemorate student deaths at residential schools. After the summer of church burnings in 2021, his government announced an additional package of $320 million, including $107 million for “mental health, culture, and emotional supports” for those affected by the “intergenerational trauma” of residential schools. Provinces followed suit with multimillion dollar pledges of their own. The issue was turning into a cash cow.
It also began to take on something like the moral significance that slavery holds in the United States as the country’s original sin. Trudeau ordered Canadian flags to be flown at half-mast on May 30, 2021, in honor of the Kamloops discovery, where they remained for almost six months including during the fall federal election campaign. Ryerson University changed its name to Toronto Metropolitan University over its namesake’s connection to residential schools. The statue of 19th century merchant Alexander Wood in Toronto’s gay district, which was unveiled in 2005 as the country’s first monument to an LGBT icon, was torn down in 2022 because of Wood’s connection to a group that raised funds for mission schools. Nova Scotia Community College abolished the term “residence” from its website, to be replaced with “campus housing,” because “the term ‘residence’ does not foster a safe, welcoming, or inclusive environment for Indigenous students.”
None of this did anything to improve conditions in Canada’s Indian reserves. Possibly the saddest book I have ever read, even sadder than Helen Hughes’s Lands of Shame, is A Poison Stronger Than Love by anthropologist Anastasia Shkilnyk, a study of the Grassy Narrows Ojibwe based on field research conducted between 1976 and 1979. During that period, 75 percent of all deaths on the reserve were due to violence or suicide and only 23 percent to age, disease, or accidents. There were no gangs or organized conflict, just drunken violence and hopelessness. Children “mimic their parents by ‘getting drunk and having sex,’ usually with their siblings,” according to local social workers, who estimated that “most of the children on this reserve are very poorly taken care of and over half are really neglected.” They also confessed that “although a tight lip policy is practiced by Medical Services personnel, venereal disease is a serious and widespread problem among young children.” The youngest reserve resident to die by suicide during Shkilnyk’s time there was 12.
Things are not quite as bleak on reserves today, but the basic problems Shkilnyk identified remain. Practically all of what money there is coming into the reserves comes from the government. In Shkilnyk’s book, one of the local teachers explains juvenile delinquency by saying, “At Grassy Narrows, the kids see their parents getting everything for nothing; the government provides welfare money; the government provides jobs; the government gives free houses. There’s no rationale not to get into trouble.” The old ways, based on fur trapping and tribal religion, had vanished, and no new set of values had come in to take its place, so the children ran wild.
But the old ways could no more have survived contact with the modern world than the peasant Catholicism of Europe could have survived the advent of the television. Ojibwe dysfunction could not be blamed on residential schools—which Shkilnyk barely mentions and then only in passing; the moral panic had not yet hit Canada when her book was published in 1985.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a major tactical error on Harper’s part. It invited testimony from survivors and then let that testimony stand unquestioned. That was the bargain struck when the original TRC model was pioneered in South Africa: In order to allow victims of apartheid to speak their truth fully, there would be no cross-examination, no rigorous checking of statements against the historical record, no punishment for perjury—just healing. In the Canadian case, this resulted in a document that was essentially oral history but which was treated upon publication as an unquestionable record of the facts endorsed by the federal government.
Everything about the way the commission gathered its testimony was structured to encourage atrocity tales: witnesses testified in public, with audiences that sometimes booed positive statements; boxes of tissues were placed on seats and attendees told their used tissues would be collected and burned in a “sacred fire”; financial compensation was greater for those who could credibly claim to have suffered abuse, so alleging bad treatment could be the difference between getting $25,000 or $125,000.
Some of the stories printed in the TRC report strain belief. Doris Young claimed to have witnessed a child being murdered at the Anglican Residential School in Elkhorn, Manitoba: “There was all these screams, and there was blood over the walls…. We never really knew who would be next to be murdered.” Young says she reported this event to the RCMP years later but “they came back and told me that they found no evidence of what I was talking about.” The TRC made no attempt to find evidence one way or the other but simply printed Young’s story without qualification.
The same thing happened in Australia. The Bringing Them Home report of 1997 was the product of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. It interviewed over 500 Aboriginal witnesses but not the government officials and school staff still alive who were being accused of genocide and murder. This was deliberate, the logic being that cross-examination would retraumatize the witnesses and also that no skepticism was necessary. “I didn’t stop, as a judge would have stopped, to ask where’s the corroboration,” one commissioner explained. “How could you doubt the authenticity of the story when tears are running down the faces of the storytellers?”
He was too trusting. A check of the archives would have revealed, for example, that Joy Williams of New South Wales was not taken without her mother’s permission on the day she was born simply on the basis of her race, as she claimed, but was made a ward of the state at her teenage unwed mother’s request. Her mother’s permission was sought again four years later when Joy was transferred to a different institution.
The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Australian Bringing Them Home report did not, then, establish a reliable record of historical truth, which was the main thing they were commissioned to do in the first place. But they did establish a template—one the United States is now attempting to follow. One of the Interior report’s recommendations is to “develop a platform for now-adult Federal Indian boarding school attendees and their descendants to formally document their historical accounts and experiences.”
The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report of May 2022 includes no great revelations. The Interior Department uncovered no new atrocities or really any atrocities at all. Its most damning facts are cribbed from earlier government documents, such as the Meriam Report of 1928, which found, for example, that “boarding schools are crowded materially beyond their capacities,” with students at some schools sleeping three to a bed. Bad, but not genocidal. Corporal punishment is cited as proof that Indian schools were abusive, but this was not unusual for the period. Read contemporary accounts of Eton to see how much physical punishment (not to mention systematic sexual abuse) was tolerated by the richest, most powerful country in the world in the education of its own children.
The truth is that conditions at Indian boarding schools were, by the standards of the age, about average. Material conditions were better at flagship schools like Carlisle and Chilocco and worse at marginal schools with fewer students. Budgets at every school were strapped, since their charges did not have money or pay taxes. It was hard to find good staff because the schools paid little and were often in remote locations, but that also meant that many of the teachers who ended up there did so because they genuinely loved Indians and wanted the best for them.
The truth is that conditions at Indian boarding schools were, by the standards of the age, about average.
Richard Henry Pratt, who founded the first Indian boarding school in 1879, might be celebrated today as a liberal hero if his life had gone slightly differently. After distinguished service in the Union Army, he continued his military career as an officer of the 10th Cavalry, the original “Buffalo Soldiers.” He advocated tirelessly for his men against those in the army bureaucracy inclined to shortchange black soldiers. One can get a sense of Pratt’s personality—insistent, moralizing, annoying, but deeply principled—in his memoir Battlefield and Classroom, entrusted to his family after his death and published for the first time by Yale University Press in 1964.
Today Pratt is most notorious for the phrase, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” This phrase sounds worse when removed from its original context, which was a speech given to a philanthropy conference in 1892. The passage begins, “A great general [Philip Sheridan] has said that the only good Indian is a dead one.” Whereas I say, etc. The metaphorical killing was in direct contrast to actual killing. The phrase does not appear in his memoir.
Pratt’s blunt way of speaking was as alienating to his contemporaries as it is to us. He lost his job at Carlisle, the school he founded and headed for 25 years, after newspapers reported a speech at a Baptist church meeting where he said, “I believe nothing better could happen to the Indians than the complete destruction of the Bureau which keeps them so carefully laid away in the dark of its numerous drawers…. Better, far better for the Indians had there never been a Bureau.” He had often before expressed his opposition to those who would preserve Indians in a glass case, treating them as curiosities and not as future American citizens, but never in such forthright terms. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which paid for his school, invited him to apologize. He refused and was fired.
The school system that Pratt built, like the man himself, was not perfect. But if you read letters home from students, memoirs, articles from the school papers—any of the surviving firsthand documents that constitute a by now voluminous literature—the picture is a jumble of good and bad as might be found in any school. One girl is happy to be sleeping in a bed for the first time in her life. Another boy is overwhelmed by a trip to New York where he saw skyscrapers and monkeys at the zoo. There is even humor, for those not too blinkered to see it. In his memoir Pipestone: My Life in an Indian Boarding School, Adam Fortunate Eagle describes the white superintendent beaming as he puts down a plate of wild rice in front of his Chippewa students, knowing it is their traditional food, only to have one of them shove it away saying, “That’s all I get at home, I’m sick of it!”
The Interior Department report is illustrated with dozens of pictures of boarding schools: elementary school girls riding burros in Santa Fe, teenage boys learning to make a wooden cabinet at the Phoenix Industrial School, the Hampton Institute Indian orchestra posing with their instruments. Across the decades represented by these photographs, the children look well fed and presentable. Their clothes are clean. They don’t look starved or beaten down. Everything from the shining white tablecloths in the Carlisle dining room to the Phoenix Industrial School’s well-equipped woodworking shop suggests that the institutions were managed by people who devoted their time and resources to making sure these school years would serve their charges well. The images refute the argument the text is trying to make.
The one charge that the report has left to make is assimilation. That is the reason for calling Indian residential schools a form of genocide, when all the insinuations of bad treatment have proven insufficient. The clunky phrase used in the Interior report is that the schools “deployed systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies.” These included cutting the students’ long hair and giving them names that their teachers could pronounce. As it happens, the hair cutting would have happened one way or the other, due to concerns about lice, but there is no point denying it: The purpose of these schools was assimilation. The question is whether that was a valid purpose.
Contrary to modern allegations, assimilation was not premised on the assumption that Indian culture was worthless. Many schools offered classes in Indian crafts; Carlisle employed the nationally celebrated Winnebago artist Angel De Cora as an art teacher. Francis Leupp, Indian Commissioner from 1905 to 1909, spoke for many when he wrote: “Let us not make the mistake, in the process of absorbing them, of washing out of them whatever is distinctly Indian. Our aboriginal brother brings, as his contribution to the common store of character, a great deal which is admirable.” Preserving that contribution meant equipping Indians to survive in American society. They did not have to be assimilated in the sense of knowing which fork to use, but they should know what a fork is.
The most commonly cited complaint is that students were forbidden from speaking their native languages. Schools varied in how strictly they enforced this—horror stories of kids flogged for talking in their sleep were not typical—but that was the policy. Today it would be called immersion learning. The goal was not to eradicate Indian languages but to equip students to operate in the modern world, including as citizens. Part of being full Americans meant participating in democracy, which meant knowing English. Pratt desired to hasten the day when do-gooding white philanthropists would no longer have to speak on the Indian’s behalf but “each of them [would] be able to stand for their rights as the white man stands for his.”
Apart from language, there is simply a massive mental gulf between industrial and tribal societies, or literate and preliterate societies, that is difficult for modern readers to appreciate. Something as basic as the perception of time is completely different. Well into the 20th century, white employers of Indians complained that they were hard workers but would come and go as they pleased. They failed to see that this was not a sign of disrespect. The Indians just did not think in terms of clock time. Nor were they accustomed to answering to anybody. Tribal society is egalitarian with barely any mechanisms of authority. No commitment a chief might make would in any way bind his braves, as frontier negotiators of the 19th century quickly learned. It took a mental revolution to adapt to the concept, without which modern society cannot function, that there is no indignity in allowing someone to tell you what to do if that person is an employer or a magistrate. Being equipped to operate in the modern world meant learning from scratch many assumptions that we take for granted.
Apart from language, there is simply a massive mental gulf between industrial and tribal societies, or literate and preliterate societies, that is difficult for modern readers to appreciate.
Health is a sensitive subject in the residential schools debate, since it is undeniable that gathering so many children in one place sometimes facilitated the spread of disease. On the other hand, instruction in basic hygiene was one of the primary benefits of assimilation. Back on the reservations, no one had any knowledge of the germ theory of disease. Spitting on the ground was common, which aided the spread of tuberculosis; towels and blankets were shared by the sick and the healthy; doors and windows lacked screens, allowing insects and rodents to go in and out; there was no indoor plumbing for the disposal of human waste. A study of Pima Indians in 1924 found trachoma to be more common among students in day schools than boarding schools, due to these conditions. Trachoma was finally beaten in the 1940s with the discovery of sulfanilamide, something that tribal medicine, for all its virtues, could never have developed.
The Interior Department report lists as one of its findings that the motivation behind Indian boarding schools was “the twin Federal policy of Indian territorial possession and Indian assimilation.” In other words, we pursued assimilation because we wanted their land. No doubt we did want it. But consider Australia, where even today 85 percent of the population lives within 30 miles of the coast. There was no land hunger there. Most of the land the Aboriginals lived on, white men did not want. There was still a conflict. Aborigines were drawn to the edges of towns by the lure of alcohol and packaged food and the prospect of relief from the unceasing effort of hunter-gatherer life. A Stone Age civilization and an industrial one cannot share a continent indefinitely. The only question is whether the former will be helped to adapt or left to make its own way—or die trying.
The situation on American Indian reservations today is not as dismal as it was in the Northern Territory during the Intervention. But it is still pretty bad. Native Americans die by suicide, suffer from diabetes, and overdose on meth at higher rates than any other ethnicity. The Pine Ridge Reservation has a higher school dropout rate than Detroit. As late as the Obama administration, up to 15 percent of reservation homes lacked plumbing, and more than a dozen tribes had unemployment rates over 80 percent. What economic activity there is on reservations is usually from the government, either directly or indirectly in the form of arbitraging their unique regulatory status: selling tax-free cigarettes, operating mail-order pharmacies for prescription drugs, and, of course, casinos.
The Interior report tries to blame boarding schools a century ago for these modern problems. There is a long section on intergenerational trauma alleging that boarding school attendance did long-term damage to students and caused “epigenetic alterations that are then transferred to their children.” The evidence for this multigenerational harm is a study showing that children of attendees were 36 percent more likely to report a chronic health problem in the past year. But this kind of statistical analysis will always turn up correlations that either have an alternative explanation or are meaningless. The same study found “now-adult attendees were more likely to have cancer,” and I don’t think anyone is claiming that boarding schools cause cancer.
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Look again at the metrics we use to measure Native American disadvantage. These are all measures of their assimilation. Participating in the wage economy, building homes with plumbing and electricity, putting their money in banks—these are the kinds of things that boarding schools were intended to equip students to be able to do. One can accuse the assimilationists of genocide for trying to impart the values of the modern capitalist workplace to Indian students, or complain about unemployment rates on the reservations, but not both. If you measure Indian disadvantage this way, then the real intergenerational trauma is not assimilation, but the lack of it.
One can accuse the assimilationists of genocide for trying to impart the values of the modern capitalist workplace to Indian students, or complain about unemployment rates on the reservations, but not both.
The left-wing lurch known as wokeness is clearly the reason why activists have chosen this moment to try running the Australian and Canadian playbook here in the United States. Therein lies a crowning irony. The people who insist on reading genocidal intent into Pratt’s famous dictum are the same people who talk in explicitly genocidal terms about whiteness—whiteness is a disease, whiteness must be eradicated—then turn around and insist that only racist white people would feel threatened by this language. Could there be a better summary of critical race theory than “Kill the white in him, and save the man”? Men like Pratt wanted to remove from Indianness those qualities they considered dysfunctional in order to prepare them for life in the modern world. The question is what kind of world the woke are preparing today’s children for.