When a friend first sent me this column I thought it was a satire on liberal thought, a parody of the left's insistent demand that other people behave in ways that are unreasonably altruistic for the sake of some pie-in-the-sky greater good. Having read it a couple of times I've concluded that it is indeed a parody, but the parody is inadvertent and the subject is, in fact, precisely people who think like Ms Benedikt.
A quick summary: Ms Benedikt argues that the remedy for the dismal condition of many of our public schools is for parents who send their kids to private schools to be shamed into keeping their children in their dysfunctional public schools. She all but recommends a scarlet letter be affixed to the clothing of any parent who has so little concern for others that they would choose to send their child to a school where the youngster might receive an education.
Here's her lede:
You are a bad person if you send your children to private school. Not bad like murderer bad—but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad.The judgmental Ms Benedikt (isn't being judgmental a sin in the liberal catechism?) is just getting warmed up. Meanwhile, we might ask why parents are flocking to private schools in the first place. Is it not largely because they've grown frustrated with their inability to effect change in their child's inadequate public schools? Why think that if they returned their children to those schools that things would change?
I am not an education policy wonk: I’m just judgmental. But it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good.
So, how would this work exactly? It’s simple! Everyone needs to be invested in our public schools in order for them to get better. Not just lip-service investment, or property tax investment, but real flesh-and-blood-offspring investment. Your local school stinks but you don’t send your child there? Then its badness is just something you deplore in the abstract. Your local school stinks and you do send your child there? I bet you are going to do everything within your power to make it better.Unfortunately for her thesis, the reasons public schools struggle has little to do with parental involvement in the school and everything to do with parental involvement with their children at home. Moreover, many of the problems schools face are impervious to parental involvement - burdensome mandates issued by state and federal bureaucracies, disciplinary chaos, and powerful unions which make firing bad teachers nearly impossible, to mention just a few.
And parents have a lot of power. In many underresourced schools, it’s the aggressive PTAs that raise the money for enrichment programs and willful parents who get in the administration’s face when a teacher is falling down on the job. Everyone, all in. (By the way: Banning private schools isn’t the answer. We need a moral adjustment, not a legislative one.)
There are a lot of reasons why bad people send their kids to private school. Yes, some do it for prestige or out of loyalty to a long-standing family tradition or because they want their children to eventually work at Slate. But many others go private for religious reasons, or because their kids have behavioral or learning issues, or simply because the public school in their district is not so hot. None of these are compelling reasons. Or, rather, the compelling ones (behavioral or learning issues, wanting a not-subpar school for your child) are exactly why we should all opt in, not out.Why will she be fine? Is Ms Benedikt saying that smart kids really don't need good schools? Is she arguing that it's more important that the mass of kids at the bottom experience a marginal improvement in their standardized test scores rather than that the really bright kids excel? She seems so afraid that the country is going to be stratified into a pyramid of achievers at the top and a vast class of uneducated, unemployables at the bottom that we need to lop off the top of the pyramid or smoosh it down so that the educational achievement chart is shaped less like a pyramid and more like a football with everyone clustered in the middle.
And you're a bad person if you avail yourself of the opportunities a private school might offer your child. Instead, you should be a "good liberal" and send your kids to the public school (There are, of course, some very good public schools. Many of you attended one, and I taught in one for 35 years. Some, however, are execrable.) where they might waste twelve years of their life, as Ms Benedikt all but boasts that she did, so that other kids seventy years from now might benefit from your involvement in your child's school.
I believe in public education, but my district school really isn’t good! you might say. I understand. You want the best for your child, but your child doesn’t need it. If you can afford private school (even if affording means scrimping and saving, or taking out loans), chances are that your spawn will be perfectly fine at a crappy public school. She will have support at home (that’s you!) and all the advantages that go along with being a person whose family can pay for and cares about superior education — the exact kind of family that can help your crappy public school become less crappy. She may not learn as much or be as challenged, but take a deep breath and live with that. Oh, but she’s gifted? Well, then, she’ll really be fine.
I went K–12 to a terrible public school. My high school didn’t offer AP classes, and in four years, I only had to read one book. There wasn’t even soccer. This is not a humblebrag! I left home woefully unprepared for college, and without that preparation, I left college without having learned much there either. You know all those important novels that everyone’s read? I haven’t. I know nothing about poetry, very little about art, and please don’t quiz me on the dates of the Civil War. I’m not proud of my ignorance. But guess what the horrible result is? I’m doing fine. I’m not saying it’s a good thing that I got a lame education. I’m saying that I survived it, and so will your child, who must endure having no AP calculus so that in 25 years there will be AP calculus for all.This is astonishing. It amounts to a plea for parents to just be satisfied with a diploma for their child regardless how much real learning the diploma represents. But the goal of education isn't to merely "survive," it's to prepare the ground for future success.
Ms Benedikt addresses any concern parents might have about their child's academic preparation by dismissing the importance of academics. What's important, she informs us, is learning how to get along in a diverse world:
Also remember that there’s more to education than what’s taught. As rotten as my school’s English, history, science, social studies, math, art, music, and language programs were, going to school with poor kids and rich kids, black kids and brown kids, smart kids and not-so-smart ones, kids with superconservative Christian parents and other upper-middle-class Jews like me was its own education and life preparation. Reading Walt Whitman in ninth grade changed the way you see the world? Well, getting drunk before basketball games with kids who lived at the trailer park near my house did the same for me. In fact it’s part of the reason I feel so strongly about public schools.What a sterling message Ms Benedikt brings us. The best part of an education is getting drunk together. It teaches you how to be part of the universal brotherhood of man. Ms Benedikt's disdain for quality education seems rather analogous to Miley Cyrus' attitude toward modesty.
Many of my (morally bankrupt) colleagues send their children to private schools. I asked them to tell me why. Here is the response that most stuck with me: “In our upper-middle-class world, it is hard not to pay for something if you can and you think it will be good for your kid.” I get it: You want an exceptional arts program and computer animation and maybe even Mandarin. You want a cohesive educational philosophy. You want creativity, not teaching to the test. You want great outdoor space and small classrooms and personal attention. You know who else wants those things? Everyone.Well, not everyone, but lots of people do to be sure. Nevertheless, just because not everyone can have what they want doesn't mean that no one should. Lots of people would like to have a house at the beach and a European vacation every year. Doubtless Ms Benedikt, Slate's Nurse Ratchet, would upbraid those who can enjoy these things on the grounds that since not everyone can enjoy such amenities neither should they.
Whatever you think your children need — deserve — from their school experience, assume that the parents at the nearby public housing complex want the same. No, don’t just assume it. Do something about it. Send your kids to school with their kids. Use the energy you have otherwise directed at fighting to get your daughter a slot at the competitive private school to fight for more computers at the public school. Use your connections to power and money and innovation to make your local school—the one you are now sending your child to—better. Don’t just acknowledge your liberal guilt—listen to it.Yes, if you really love your child you'll send her to a school where she'll walk the halls in fear, where she'll be pressured into taking drugs, having sex, getting drunk with Ms Benedikt's kids before basketball games, where she may be taught to despise her country and her religion and where she'll emerge after 12th grade without having learned much of anything except what a fine thing diversity is.
Instead of shaming parents into sending their kids to inferior schools a better approach might be to shame her liberal friends into supporting school choice so that every parent who wanted a good education for his or her children could get it for them. This approach, however, would never occur to progressives like Ms Benedikt or, for that matter, Mr. Obama. Indeed, one of the first steps taken by President Obama, after enrolling his own daughters in the finest private school in town, was to shut down the voucher program in D.C. that enabled thousands of minority kids to escape the woeful D.C. public schools. Progressives make the rules that everyone else lives by while they exempt themselves.
Anyway, in the eyes of the left if everyone can't experience excellent schools then no one should. Progressives want footballs, not pyramids. If you think that excellence is what made this country great, if you think the government should facilitate people rising toward the top rather than squashing everybody into mediocrity, if you send your kid to the best school you can afford, then you're morally bankrupt. Just ask Ms Benedikt.
Perhaps if she had attended a private school instead of her "crappy" public school she would've learned how to avoid making such silly arguments.