Education’s Enduring Love Affair with “Luxury Beliefs”

It’s easy to be blithe about school safety and policing when your child goes to a safe, well-run school.

Photo of a black stretch limousine

The proof of a powerful idea is how well it sticks. Once you hear about it “you start to see it everywhere,” as Bari Weiss puts it. She was describing “luxury beliefs,” a phrase coined by Rob Henderson, an Air Force veteran and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge, who defines luxury beliefs as “ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.” You can afford to believe in defunding the police, for example, if you live in a safe neighborhood that’s unlikely to be negatively affected by diminished police presence. It’s someone else who will suffer the consequence of your fashionable idealism.

Henderson described luxury beliefs on a recent episode of Weiss’s excellent podcast, and she’s right: They’re everywhere. And nowhere is the gulf between upscale ideals and everyday reality wider or more obvious than in education policy and practice. Too few of us know or have personal experience walking in the shoes of the families and students we claim to serve. Instead, we opine about what’s best for other people’s children from the safety of our respective bubbles, indulging our own set of luxury beliefs.

Where to begin? It’s easy to be blithe about school safety and policing when your child goes to a safe, well-run school. Similarly, one can be quick to label disruptive behavior as “a form of communication” and focus entirely on “disparate impact” in student suspension rates when your child’s school is orderly and she faces minimal risk of physical threats or having her education frittered away by endless disruptions. Hand-wringing about overstressed teens groaning under the weight of hours of homework and the pressure of taking too many AP classes to impress college admissions officers flies in the face of data suggesting just the opposite: The average American student is challenged not too much, but too little.

A grating luxury belief of recent vintage is the haughty insistence that “learning loss isn’t real,” and that Covid-induced school shutdowns haven’t had a profoundly negative effect on children—particularly disadvantaged children.

A particularly selfish belief is common to “proud public-school supporters” who oppose school choice measures that would benefit low-income families while failing to recognize that they themselves utilize the most common form of choice: the ability to buy a home in a community with good schools. Corey DeAngelis of American Federation for Children has made a cottage industry of unmasking or calling out elected officials and advocates, from Elizabeth Warren and Terry McAuliffe to Diane Ravitch, who play a particularly obnoxious form of this game touting the virtues of public education while sending their own children to private schools.

Classroom practice is similarly riddled with luxury beliefs. For years, I’ve noted my own “complicated relationship” with testing, which lends political will and moral authority to reform efforts but has also had a deleterious effect on school culture and instruction, particularly in reading. Yet it’s hard to have patience for the anti-testing activism of those who don’t have to worry if their child will ever read on grade level.

The list goes on. I’ve written elsewhere that the demand for “antiracist” pedagogy and practice tends to come mostly from young, “woke” staffers in urban charter schools, not from the parents who swell those schools’ waiting lists. Similarly, one glance at NAEP history and civics scores should suffice to retire tendentious arguments about what is or is not critical race theory’s place in the classroom. When a mere 15 percent of America’s eighth graders are proficient in history, it’s a luxury belief to think U.S. school should “just teach history honestly.” Honestly, just teach history.

My AEI colleague Ian Rowe has made himself something of a lightning rod in recent years by championing the “success sequence” and insisting we have a duty to share it with children. Citing the work of Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, Rowe never tires of reminding educators, philanthropists, and policymakers that if a young person graduates from high school, works full-time in any capacity, and gets married before having a child, that child is statistically almost certain not to grow up in poverty.

It would be grand understatement to say that Rowe has received strenuous pushback to his commonsense argument from educators horrified at the notion that they might be stigmatizing single parents, who are the majority in many low-income neighborhoods. Yet Rowe often observes that those who have pushed back hardest against his advocacy for the success sequence are often those with stable marriages and nuclear families who would surely be upset if their own children didn’t follow those norms. There are few better examples of “ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class” than refusing to preach what we practice to children most in need of adult role models and guidance.

Henderson, the man who coined the term “luxury beliefs,” has a fascinating backstory; it’s no surprise that he saw, described, and named the phenomenon. He was a freshman at Yale in 2015 when the infamous Halloween costume controversy made national news. Angry students accused professor Erika Christakis and her husband of failing to create a “safe space” for resident students when the former wrote an email defending students’ right to be a “a little bit obnoxious, inappropriate, or offensive” in their choice of costumes. After reading the email several times, Henderson guilelessly asked one of his fellow classmates what made it offensive. She responded, “you’re too privileged to understand the pain that this email caused.” Unbeknownst to his peer, Henderson had arrived at Yale a genuine outsider, having spent his childhood far below the poverty line. His father abandoned the family when he was two, and his mother was addicted to drugs, leaving him to be raised in multiple foster homes. Henderson was a poor student, ran with a rough crowd, and eventually fell into alcohol and drug abuse before joining the military and righting himself, ending up at an Ivy League bastion of power and privilege. Few of us can claim a comparable first-hand view of both the seduction of luxury beliefs, and their cost.

Henderson’s story reminds me of Andy Rotherham’s frequent observation that education policy and reform are dominated by people “who not only liked being in and around schools, they excelled at academic work.” That’s fertile ground for our unique set of luxury beliefs to take root and grow. The views of those whom schools served badly are seldom represented; worse, we often assume we simply know better. The failures and conditions of their schools are filtered through the lens of an idealized “normal.” It doesn’t necessarily make us hypocrites, but it does leave us susceptible to narrow and technocratic thinking. At worst, it casts in sharp relief the wide gulf between abstract ideals held by elites—us—and the day-to-day lives of the children and families who pay the price when those ideals are enshrined in policy and practice.

Just look around.

Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College