Allison Benedikt is confused.
I don’t know the source of her confusion, but the symptoms are evident.
Her recent piece in Slate asserts that “If you send your kid to private school, you are a bad person.” In fact, that’s exactly the title of the piece.
My goal here is to take a representative smattering of sentences, and beat them to pieces with something we call “reasoning.”
“…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.”
Here’s something else that would be good for the eventual common good: we could all agree to live at an arbitrarily-chosen mark (say, $1000) above the federal poverty line, and dedicate all of our excess to a trust fund that would be used to make the world magical in 2250. Yes, your children and grandchildren would suffer, but THINK OF YOUR GREAT GRANDCHILDREN AND THE EVENTUAL COMMON GOOD.
“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.”
You know what else stinks? The projects. Since we’re all agreeing to live at the poverty line, we’ll all agree also to live in the projects. Once we live there, we’ll truly care enough to spruce the place up and offer some arts-and-crafts classes to the homebound. Once our kids live there, we’ll fix the playground. You first, Allison. I also assume you’ll be moving to the worst district within driving distance of your job—because it’s only reasonable that we should start by helping the worst schools first.
“Some [send their kids to private school] simply because the public school in their district is not so hot. None of these are compelling reasons.”
This is simply jaw-droppingly ludicrous. It’s truly mind-boggling in its assertion. It’s a startlingly lucid statement of something liberals think but almost never say out loud, and it’s beautiful that it’s delivered here with no sense of irony whatsoever. You see, a school exists for one purpose—to teach effectively. Miss Benedikt asserts that judging a public school on the basis of its educational performance is a non-compelling reason for seeking an education elsewhere. A question emerges, then: if we are not to judge schools based on the education they provide, upon what should they be judged? Effort? Air quality? Aesthetics? (Actually, that last explains a lot of the architectural excesses in my particular school district.) The assumption here, unstated by Miss Benedikt, appears to be something like: It is not your place to assign a value to the education the government plans to give your children. If I’m mistaken in that translation, I invite her to correct my faulty understanding.
Likewise, the assertion that “we should all opt in, not out” to improve public schools defies all logic of any sort. You hate iPhones? Buy one and they’ll surely improve! Don’t like McDonald’s? If we all ate Big Macs, they would start tasting awesome and be healthier! Hertz screwed up your car rental and stranded you at the airport? RENT TEN MORE WHILE YOU WAIT! You should totally go the WORST hospital you can find when your arteries clog, out of consideration for your grandchildren’s cardiac health. This refusal to recognize the rudimentary principles governing human behavior and economics is heartbreaking. I mean that truly, not condescendingly. It is simply a pipe dream–and a very, very juvenile one–that somehow “nice” organizations like schools get to operate by a different logic than the rest of the world.
“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…”
Miss Benedikt’s teachers must be so proud. This is now the goal we must have for our children? Mere survival, as cogs in an educational machine that obeys only the internal logic of its own sprawling survival? I prefer to aim at something beyond mere survival, if you don’t mind, and I plan to teach my children to do so as well. I do this because I love them.
And, yes, I love them more than I love other people’s children. And here’s the thing: so does Miss Benedikt. She loves her children more than she loves my children. There’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t mean she wouldn’t save my kids from a burning building. It doesn’t mean she wants my kids to starve and die. It just means, each day when she gets done working, she doesn’t send a dime to my kids’ school because my kids aren’t her kids, and she wasn’t going to work all day for my kids. She works to provide for her children. Not mine. It’s called “parenting.”
“Going to school with poor kids and rich kids, black kids and brown kids, smart kids and not-so-smart ones…was its own education and life preparation.”
Pay attention. Note carefully that Miss Benedikt lumps in a racial distinction (black / brown) with two other distinctions (poor / rich and smart / not-so-smart). For millennia, race has been understood to exist OUTSIDE the control of the individual, while intelligence and financial status have been understood to be UNDER the control of the individual. To be sure, there are differences in talent, and some people get a luckier start by virtue of their economic status at birth, but the basic motivation explaining WHY WE GET UP AND GO TO WORK EACH DAY has been that the individual–regardless of his start– can accomplish things, can bring about a change in his status, can alter his life’s trajectory. Miss Benedikt evidently does not believe this, choosing instead to believe that both intellect and finances are something, like race, that are assigned at birth, fixed and immutable. She says as much elsewhere, implying that your kids will be okay based on the fact that they’re your kids, regardless of which school you send them to. Notice, then, the necessary corollary: other kids, of less-engaged, less-genetically-lucky parents, will likewise NOT be okay, regardless of which school they attend.
So our goal, it seems, should not be to ask schools to turn not-so-smart kids into smart kids; our goal is evidently to simply teach others to appreciate and live with them. We shouldn’t teach poor children that they can alter their financial status with hard work. Instead, we should teach the non-poor children to befriend the poor at school. We can’t actually change anything–we can only learn to get along.
As troubling as that may be, the logic (such as it is) starts to unravel in her next paragraph, when she asserts:
“You want [a good education]. You know who else wants those things? Everyone.”
This is a very important point. In Miss Benedikt’s moral construction, if everyone—EVERY SINGLE PERSON—can’t afford something, then you can’t have it either. Or, at least, you’re a terrible person (though not “murderer-bad”) if you do. This is hyperbolically magnificent. I have never seen, in a national publication of Slate’s stature, such an open assertion of this philosophy.
(And this point asks us to ignore the previous assertion that, really, which school a kid attends doesn’t matter anyway, since we’ll all be okay (or not) on the basis of the socioeconomic status of our parents.)
I ask the question, then: how far are you willing to go with this, Miss Benedikt? Will you live in projects? Will you intentionally frequent dirty hospitals with terrible track records? Will you force your children into the free lunch program? Register your car in the county with the worst roads? If your son loves football, force him to play at the high school with the worst, most poorly-coached team?
How far are you willing to go as you intentionally reward mediocrity?