Russell and Duenes

Public School Advocates Descend Into Parody

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If it wasn’t in Slate, I’d have thought I was reading The Onion. Allison Benedikt’s quip that, “if you send your kids to a private school, you are a bad person,” (read her piece here) makes a stronger case for abandoning the public schools than I ever could. It’s hard to dignify her article with a serious response.

Benedikt imagines that if everyone were forced to put their kids in public schools, these places would turn into veritable bastions of excellence. Everyone would suddenly get a warm tingling feeling about “the common good,” and after a couple of decades of suffering through crappy schools, everyone would be clamoring for AP Calculus. If we’re all thrown into the tank together, then, by gum, we’ll do everything in our power to make the schools great, and all of the inequalities will vanish. Kind of reminds me of how those forced to live in public housing tended to make it such a great place. Once everyone in the Soviet Union was “all in” on collective farms, they really started to hum. Once people have collective skin in the game, the end product always shines.

And if you’d like your kid to go to a private school for “religious reasons,” well, put that thought out of your head. It can’t be all that important. We all know, without even saying so, that “religion” can be handled on the weekends. School is about bigger and better things. You can fix all the other stuff at home. Seems like I’ve heard this before, from the “religious” side of the fence.

Speaking of “taking care of it at home,” Benedikt goes on. Even if your public school sucks, who cares? If your kid is smart, she can easily handle going to a sucky school and still come out “fine.” After all, you’ll make up for any lack at home. But doesn’t this cut against her entire argument? Even if I’m forced to go “all in” on the local piece of crap public school, I won’t be motivated to “make it great,” because my kid will turn out just fine without the school getting any better. I’ll essentially engage in a de facto homeschooling arrangement with my kid while he endures the local dump of a public school. So what if the school stinks; “take a deep breath and live with that,” says Benedikt. Looks like Benedikt didn’t pay attention very well in her logic class. But hey, she gets to write an article for Slate, so it’s all good.

Indeed, Benedikt has no ill will toward her lack of education. She explains that in four years of high school, she only had to read one book. She had no AP courses, hasn’t read any “important novels,” she “know[s] nothing about poetry, very little about art, and please don’t quiz me on the dates of the Civil War.” Not that she’s boasting about her ignorance, oh no; but it certainly hasn’t hurt her at all. She survived her “lame education, and so will your child.” Despite her horrid education, she’s “doing fine.” Based on her article, this is a highly suspect claim. Yet how can one find fault? Even if Benedikt had gone to a superb public school, they wouldn’t have taught her about questions like, “What is ultimate reality?” “What is the good life?” “What does it mean to be human?” “What is a good person?” “How does one become a good person?” And no one’s the poorer for never having had to grapple with such questions. As long as you can get yourself hired by Google, no worries.

The great benefit of going “all in” on the public schools is that you get thrown in 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.” And as we know, all this mixing provides a real education. We get ourselves all exposed to “diverse” ideas, wouldn’t you know it. And thus, it really matters little if one remains highly ignorant about geography, culture, history, math, economics, English, literature, biology, and the like. The melting pot is “its own education and life preparation.” Walt Whitman? Who needs him. One learns more important lessons through “getting drunk before basketball games with kids who lived at the trailer park near my house.” They have as much to teach us as reading T.S. Eliot does. I was thinking the same thing. I mean, there are a lot of crack addicts out there, so I thought that if my boys went and toked up a bit before classes, that would help “change the way they see the world,” to use Benedikt’s words. Maybe I’ll go buy them the 12-pack myself, so they can get drunk in the safety of our own home, and I’ll throw a few back with them, and take them out for a drive, so they can learn that drunk driving really is possible, sometimes even a hoot. That’s gotta be just as important as them learning to speak Spanish at school.

In the end, Benedikt argues that if we all just realize that everyone wants a great education for their children, we can band together and make the public schools great. There’s simply no alternative. Massive, ubiquitous investment in the public schools is all we’ve got. All those families in D.C. living in poverty, clamoring for private education, are just bad people. They don’t know what’s good for themselves. Considering any alternatives to public education is whack, nutso, unrealistic, and just plain evil. Banish any foolish, wacko talk about privatization or allowing people freedom in their educational choices. Public schools are the “one of our nation’s most essential institutions,” and are the last best hope we’ve got.

Yes, Benedikt’s arguments are ludicrous, and indeed cross over into parody. What’s unfortunate is that many well-meaning people subscribe to them in a more sophisticated way. They think of public schools as a kind of sacred cow, not to be seriously questioned or weakened. No creative thinking about alternatives is needed. Indeed, to engage in such thinking probably makes one a crank, or worse. I can only assume that large swaths of God’s Church think similarly, based on our acquiescence to the public school status quo.


Written by Michael Duenes

August 31, 2013 at 8:16 am

Posted in Duenes, Education

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