I'm a bad person, at least according to Alison Benedikt of Slate.
No, it's not for any of the excellent reasons you're thinking about right now. It's because I'm sending two of my three kids to private school.
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.
Benedikt styles her Slate piece "a manifesto." It takes a certain level of self-seriousness to call an eleven-paragraph essay on Slate a manifesto, but Benedikt makes it work. Her thesis is this: we've all got a duty to do what's best for society, not best for our kids, and bad schools really aren't so bad, and our kids will be fine.
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.
Benedikt explains that your reasons for determining your kid's education are bad and you are bad:
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.
Note the sneering disdain for "religious reasons." I'd think that was a rather on-the-nose parody of Slate, but if it is, Matthew Yglesias is in on the joke:
Yes! Outside NYC isn’t it mostly about people wanting to indoctrinate their children in obscurantist religious doctrines?
My private school upbringing is insufficient to draft a more perfectly Matthew Yglesiasy tweet than that.
Benedikt elaborates on why bad schools really don't matter, in the long run:
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.
In other words, Benedikt thinks her education did her no harm. I leave the response to that as an exercise for the reader. I will note that some elementary logic classes might have helped her: if bad education is not so bad, why is it terrible that it persists, and why does its persistence act as a moral imperative for people to eschew the best interests of their children?
Benedikt imagines private schools as a pearly-white strawman, contrasting with the salubrious diversity of public schools:
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.
In point of fact my middle daughter's public school was almost exclusively white and Asian, and her private school is diversely white, Asian, Latino, and African-American, with much more emphasis on learning about other cultures. That may be a function of the neighborhood where I live; I would not be surprised to see a subsequent essay in which Benedikt explains that I am a bad person for living there, instead of in the places that thoughtful and progressive people like her think I should live for the benefit of society.
Benedikt turns her sort-of-joking-but-actually-antagonistic wit on her coworkers:
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.
Let me tell you a story. Thirty-three years ago my parents decided to send me to private school. I was in fifth grade, in a very good public school district, one of the best in California. Did I suffer because of the quality of the school? No. I suffered because I was a lazy fuckup coasting on no effort to get Bs because I could. My parents decided to send me someplace that would kick my ass — a private school. It worked out. It was right for me.
Did my parents do that because they didn't care about public schools and were indifferent to their success or failure? No. My mother worked in public education her entire 30-year career. She went from teaching to being a vice-principal to running a district's gifted education program to being principal of a working-class mostly English-as-a-second-language junior high, where she set about demonstrating that the school could be excellent by any standards, not just by the standards of a working-class ESL school. But for her kid, she made a decision (and made sacrifices, both financial and career-based) based on the particular needs of her own family, not based on what some earnest columnist with a self-described bad education thinks is best for society as a whole.
Next week my son is starting at that same private school. He's a smart kid with a smart mouth who will cruise to Bs with no effort and without really learning anything if you let him. Go figure. My daughter thrives on small classes and interaction; she tends to retreat in a crowd. She's at a private school that offers a 15-person class size instead of a 36-person class size. My youngest is at a public school in another district because it offers a Mandarin immersion program, the language of her birth culture. Yes, it's public, but (1) it's Mandarin, which Benedikt sneered at as an affectation, and (2) language immersion programs are not available in every public school, which under Benedikt's logic means that I should probably avoid them for the common good of humanity until they are available to everybody.
Look: I know people who send kids their to local challenged schools with an eye to helping make those schools better places. Those people have exercised their freedom to make choices about what is best for their children. I don't second guess them; I rather feel thankful to live in a society where they can make that choice with somewhat limited government interference.
But I will send my kids to the school that (1) is, in my family's evaluation, best suited for their abilities and needs, and (2) we can afford based on our efforts and (significant) sacrifices. My wife, my partner in this, agrees, and has strong views about which school is best for our kids. My wife is a talented clinical child psychologist who wrote her dissertation on predictors of school achievement in children; Alison Benedikt is a person who writes for Slate who is opinionated about how other people should raise their children. Guess which one I take seriously?
I'm not a Democrat or a Republican. I'm not a big-L Libertarian, although I have small-l libertarian leanings. If you asked me to summarize my domestic political outlook, you could do worse than this: I want to minimize the ability of people like Alison Benedikt, who tend to encrust government, to tell me how to raise my family or live my life. I believe in free expression, free worship, free conscience, personal responsibility, the rule of law, strictly limited government (and the strict limitation of people with clipboards and people with guns and badges, thank you very much), and that the best society is one in which free people make free choices, not one in which you allow the Alison Benedikts of the world to make the best interests of your children subservient to the best interests of a collective imagined by a smug self-appointed elite.
If this be bad, make the most of it.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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