Schools, socialisation, Socrates and circumcision

Another unusual juxtaposition. This one was inspired by a thought-provoking rant by Alison Benedikt at Slate, titled “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person”. It’s a commendably forthright statement of an extreme position in an argument in which all sides usually beat wildly around every possible bush. (It’s not the most extreme possible position, which I take to be the position of the makers of this film. Benedikt specifically opposes even banning private schools.)

I have some sympathy for her argument, which can basically be summarised (I hope I’m doing it justice; the article is definitely worth reading in full) in two major points:

  1. Wealthy and well-educated parents have an obligation to all children, not just to their own. Keeping their children in state schools will induce them to apply their power and learning to improve those schools for everyone.
  2. As regards your own children, they’ll be all right even in a crappy school. You’ll make up for the deficits at home. And the crappy public school will teach them lessons about society and citizenship that they can’t get anywhere else.

I don’t think either of these statements are entirely wrong. But in arguing for point 2, Benedikt writes

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... I left home woefully unprepared for college, and without that preparation, I left college without having learned much there either. 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…

Is the argument here that the economic game (or, at least, journalism) in America is so badly rigged, that a child of middle-class parents doesn’t actually need an education to get a decent job as a journalist. All she needs is a college degree, and there are plenty of institutions who will happy to hand her one, despite the fact that she arrived woefully unprepared, and left having learned almost nothing. Or is she exaggerating? Or is she an exceptional autodidact, whose experience doesn’t necessarily translate well to the vast majority of other children.

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.

Suppose we accept — and I wouldn’t deny it — that there is an important social value in spending time — real social time as equals — with a broad range of ones fellow citizens. Why is that only — or even especially — good for children? (This was an argument the Athenians used against Socrates. It’s all well and good for young men to philosophise. But you have to admit, it’s kind of embarrassing for a man of your advanced years, Socrates. The intellectual equivalent of buying a motorcycle.)

Why is Ms Benedikt working at la-di-da Slate magazine, and (my guess) not living in a trailer park? Why should our children be expected to perfect our world for us, in ways that we are not willing to do ourselves? I think of the parents I see on the playground, insisting to a bawling toddler that he really needs to share his toy with the strange child who just crawled over to bang on it. But will the parents do the same? Suppose another adult came over and grabbed their smart phone, just to look up an address or make a quick call. Suppose a stranger asked to borrow your car for a few minutes. Sharing is not a value we actually expect of adults, but it is often enforced upon children. And neither is spending 6 hours a day on unproductive activities, for the sake of broadening our social experience.

I am reminded of the circumcision debate, or rather, non-debate, among many liberal or secular Jews. There are plenty of Jewish parents who, even if they may attend a Passover seder and light some Chanuka candles, eschew any ritual constraint on their lives — whether it is not driving on Saturdays or skipping the bacon — as archaic, and yet do not hesitate to cut off a piece of their baby son’s body for ritual reasons, as a link to tradition. And I wonder, why is that? I’m not fanatically opposed to circumcision; for people who have a strong belief in the ritual, the value could reasonably be thought to outweigh the physical harm. But surely, if you were crossing barbaric practices off your list, slicing off an infant’s foreskin would be struck off before prayer or fasting or the ban on Saturday shopping. Which leads me to suspect that the real distinction is between sacrifices made by oneself (bad) and sacrifices imposed upon ones children (good).

Benedikt is demanding a kind of Boddhisattva vow: I vow not to become educated until all citizens may become educated. Except, it’s not me, because I’m already educated. Rather, I demand that my children do 6 hours a day of penance for the sins of the world.

This raises another question: What advantages are the affluent (or non-impoverished) morally permitted to purchase with their money? Is there anything that is not morally suspect? Suppose I were to observe that there are many families in my neighbourhood who eat in soup kitchens, or get their food from food banks. And so, I decide that my children will also go to the soup kitchen, and if they don’t get enough to eat there, I’ll complain to the management and write letters to politicians, and anyway, a little hunger never hurt anyone. Meanwhile, I’ll keep eating good meals. Should I make my children live in a trailer?

If it is acceptable for wealthy parents to use their money to buy better food for their children, why is it not acceptable for them to buy better education? Or is it acceptable to buy better education only after ordinary school hours? (That seems to be what Benedikt is implying when she reassures educated parents in lousy school districts “your spawn… 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”. But if my children are getting their real education after school and on weekends, doesn’t that just make the public school seem ridiculous, and put even less pressure to improve it? And what do I tell my child when she asks why we’re forcing her to spend so many hours in a school that’s not teaching her anything. “It’s about getting to know a cross-section of our society.” “You mean the kids who steal my lunch money?” “Maybe you should try getting drunk with them before basketball games.”

I can’t see why this argument that spending money on private education is immoral doesn’t equally apply to private housing, private automobiles, private vacations, or anything. And just as I spend money to procure educational opportunities for myself, I am happy to have the money to spend it on my children for their education. I would be happy to live in a far more socialist society, that took away significantly more of my income in tax, to redistribute it in the form of better health care, better schools, better universities, better parks, better public transit. But if the schools are not being run well, I don’t feel obliged to spend my surplus income on diamonds, or whatever Alison Benedikt thinks would be a sufficiently non-essential use for it. In the same way, those who think public transit isn’t sufficiently convenient are entitled to use their income to buy cars; I would not say they are terrible people because they are not forcing themselves to fight for better public transit.

I’m also happy to have my children in state schools that I feel reasonably good about. But that could change, and I definitely don’t feel smug about it.


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