Last week, a current parent at my alma mater took pains not only to write an extremely angry letter of 1700 words decrying the Brearley School’s anti-racism work — he then mailed it to every single family in the school. That’s hundreds of letters, printed, stuffed into envelopes, stamped, addressed and mailed. Who did this work, I wonder? Was it Andrew Gutmann himself, who self-identifies as an investment banker, though he seems to work for himself? Was it his family — maybe his wife, apparently too modest and self-effacing to sign the letter herself, but happy to contribute some grunt work? Perhaps Gutmann had his sixth-grade daughter, whose treatment at Brearley spurred his outrage, licking the envelopes and sealing them with her little hands?
Nah. It wasn’t any of those people. We all know Andrew Gutmann’s efforts extended solely to the spewing of fury into his laptop. Someone he employs, perhaps his executive assistant or maybe an unpaid intern getting valuable work experience, had to package up these verbal hand-grenades of anti-anti-racist invective and send them into the world. I wonder what that person thought? I wonder if they share his certainty that racism ended in the 1960s, that the real victims these days are privileged white children at largely unaffordable schools in the world’s richest city? I wonder. Of one thing I can be sure: that person’s children don’t go to Brearley, which costs $54,000 a year.
I also wonder what Andrew Gutmann actually wants from this stunt? In his letter, he exhorts like-minded parents to join him in rising up against the school. But rise up against what, exactly? Brearley, of all the generally liberal-minded New York City private schools, has always prided itself on being the most politically liberal. While its curriculum can tend toward the hide-bound, it has historically attracted the most liberal of the private-school set. After all, if you’re a Republican, you can send your daughter to Chapin — it’s right across East End Avenue! My one criticism of Brearley after I graduated in 1989 was how poorly it prepared me to discover that feminism was not, in fact, the default position of Gen X women. So I’m confused: why did Andrew Gutmann send his daughter to Brearley in the first place? And why is he so shocked — shocked, I tell you! — that it’s a school run by liberal-minded people? That’s what it is, and always has been. He must not have paid very close attention when he applied — or rather, the pricey school consultants he employed didn’t bring it to his attention (maybe he should sue them?). In any case, he should have paid equal attention to Brearley’s values as he did its college list, which he certainly pored over.
The individual points of Gutmann’s letter can easily be rebutted, point by point, by anyone with a halfway decent education who consumes news and history from sources other than Fox News, Alex Jones or OANN. As one friend says, “You don’t need a Brearley education for that!” So I won’t waste time here on rebuttal, except to say he lost me when he claimed that systemic racism ended with slavery. Or was it Jim Crow? Well, a long, long time ago, anyway. He’s one of those “reverse racism” guys, so he’s already off on that lunatic ride.
What I did want to point out were two things I’m afraid will be glossed over. First, I’m not surprised this happened, and neither should anyone else be. It’s happening at private schools all over the country, from Brentwood to Dalton, just a few blocks from Brearley, whose headmaster of sixteen years just resigned rather than deal with a similar battle between parents and faculty. At all these schools, generally left-leaning administration and faculty are coming up against a parent body who are willing to applaud lessons about MLK, Jr. and Rosa Parks — i.e. “Look how bad racism used to be” — but are furious that in the wake of 2020, schools have decided to tackle more current issues such as white privilege and systemic racism. This worsening divide between parents and schools is one they’ve brought, in part, upon themselves by failing to account for the increased inequality among families.
When I attended Brearley in the 1970s and ’80s, the parent body was largely affluent but not obscenely rich. My friends’ parents were doctors and lawyers and musicians and artists. Yes, there were a few millionaires like Rupert Murdoch (not a billionaire yet, I think) and old-money WASPS, and the artists were often world-class, like Itzhak Perlman, but most parents were professional people who earned good but not crazy money. No one went to Palm Beach to ride their horse on the weekend. No one “flew private.” No one had a driver bring them to school — not that we knew of, anyway. We all wore uniforms and used bus passes and wanted the same ribbon barrettes, messenger bags from Chocolate Soup and waffle-knit leggings to wear (illegally) under our uniform skirts. Some girls lived in duplexes on Park and some lived in subsidized housing in Harlem; some girls summered in Maine or went to tennis camp and some had summer jobs in the sticky, hot city. Uncomfortable divides existed, but an egregious display of wealth was the exception, not the rule. In the 1980s, an annual fund or capital campaign that raised a few million dollars was a big deal. Within a couple decades of my graduating, the school would raise $75 million in an 18-month fundraising push. The stakes, as well as the tuition, have grown exponentially faster than the rate of inflation, and the entitlement of rich parents has grown apace. For some time now, private schools have had what they privately call a “dumbbell problem”: the student bodies are increasingly polarized between the very wealthy who can afford what is now an exorbitant tuition (imagine the cost of two or three children!) and the scholarship students who fulfill the schools’ mission of bringing an excellent education to students from all walks of life. What’s left out are families in the middle: the non-millionaire, professional class who now, for the most part, send their kids to public schools. They were once the liberal bulwark against the entitlement and arrogance of the top echelon, who want, as they always have, what they believe they’ve paid for: access to Ivy League colleges, not lessons on white privilege. As far as I can tell at Brearley — from my perspective as a former student, not a current parent — that shrinking middle of the dumbbell is largely made up of daughters of alumnae, and these days many of them are on financial aid as well: Brearley raised us to be smart, opinionated women, after all, not self-made millionaires. So when the angry Masters of the Universe start pushing back against Brearley, as they are now, I truly hope there are still enough families in that middle group to shore up its defenses. For Brearley to cave in to its donor class, to abandon the principles of equality and social justice to which it has always aspired — however imperfectly — would be a fundamental and devastating shift. How much better it would be to nourish and reinvigorate the shrinking pool of families who espouse those values themselves, and who don’t believe their funding dollars entitle them to demand changes in Brearley’s moral compass.
The second point I need to make is more emotional. My initial response — and that of many of my fellow alumnae — to Gutmann’s screed was to analyze it, the way Brearley taught us, and to fire off supportive messages to every school administrator whose email we could track down (which we did ourselves, by the way). But a few hours later I had a much sadder realization. Gutmann decided to send that letter to every single family at Brearley: what was it like to receive that letter as the parent of a student with black or brown skin, the parent of a Asian child who has had to reckon with a wave of hate crimes since the pandemic, a parent who has perhaps already been emotionally devastated by the events of the past…year? Two years? Five years? What would it be like to unsuspectingly open this letter that came to your name, to your home, and discover that every day, when you send your child, perhaps with some trepidation, into this incredibly rarefied environment, you are sending your child into a place where views like Andrew Gutmann’s percolate? Maybe you aren’t surprised. Perhaps this is exactly what you deal with, or worse, every day of your life. Surely you recognize the irony of this behavior, decrying and denying the existence of systemic racism and white privilege while exemplifying and personifying exactly those qualities. But even if this merely confirms what you already know all too well, it still has to hurt — if only because this is a place where you are not, where your child is on her own, where you cannot provide the protection she may need. And sadly, I doubt that Andrew Gutmann, who seized the right not simply to share his opinions but to bring them into your home — to bring them uninvited into your home — is the only Brearley parent who believes these terrible and ignorant things. He may be only one arrogant or reckless enough to risk his daughter’s admission to an Ivy League college by declaring them publicly, but he’s not alone. And this, ultimately, is what breaks my heart the most. To know that families already faced with the racism inherent in any elite institution had to face such poison in their own homes truly breaks my heart. And Gutmann knew what he was doing. Did he truly believe he would convert families of color to his opinion that there is no longer such a thing as systemic racism? He did not. He either didn’t care what these families would think, or worse: he meant to send them this clear message that he is on the warpath, and that they should watch their backs. He intended to intimidate and harass, and he used his access to the school directory to do just that. That, even aside from the wrongness of his views, is truly appalling behavior from a grown man — but that’s exactly what men like him are, bullies and blowhards.
Brearley’s Head of School responded quickly with a brief and firm letter rebutting Gutmann’s (how ironic that his name should mean “good man”), no doubt hoping to avoid giving his views more airtime. Yet within 24 hours, he was published by Bari Weiss on Substack and covered by Fox News and multiple outlets, including the Daily Mail. And where will the responses to Gutmann be published? I know they are multiple and heartfelt, and there will be more people who disagree with him than agree, at Brearley, at least — in that I still have faith — but his views will receive more amplification and oxygen than any of the rebuttals, because that’s how media works these days. And there’s another small tragedy, that this story will forever be “Father pulls daughter out of exclusive school over ‘cancerous’ antiracism policies” or “Father battles woke culture,” and never “Racist letter sent to students’ homes” or “Entitled white man hates that liberal school he chose for daughter turns out to be liberal.” How I wish we could right that wrong, as well.