Interviews October 2006

Stop the Insanity!

Sandra Tsing-Loh describes the elite, utopian island of urban private education—and explains why she opted to steer clear of it

Sandra Tsing Loh is no shrinking violet. During the 1980s, as an L.A.-based musician and performance artist, she made a name for herself with outrageous piano “spectacles,” playing concerts on the back of a flatbed truck at rush hour or showering a raucous audience with autographed $1 bills. When she serenaded spawning fish on a Malibu beach at midnight, nearly a thousand spectators showed up to watch and listen. But last year, Loh found herself huddled alone in the driver’s seat of her white Toyota minivan, crying in a deserted parking lot in the rain. Her four-year-old daughter, Madeline, had just been denied entry to a private school, and Loh lacked the courage to face the world.

Madeline had been turned away after failing an exam that asked her to identify her favorite ice cream (mango) and list a few animals (lion, tiger, hippopotamus). Her answers had displeased the school administrators, who determined that the little girl was not developmentally ready for kindergarten. At that moment, Loh wrote in the June 2005 Atlantic, “I saw the error of my relaxed, irreverent ways…. If her mother had been paying any attention, I thought, my daughter would not be sitting alone come September with no kindergarten to go to, One Child Left Behind.”

Today, Madeline is happily settled into a public magnet school, and Loh has become a vocal advocate for public education. In her new incarnation as a “big-barreled Mother Jones-like figure,” she welcomes the chance to review four new books about parental mania for the October 2006 Atlantic. Given the choice, she admits, she would prefer to hurl the books at the heads of hysterical parents while a therapist hollers, “Stop the insanity!” Instead, in "The Drama of the Gifted Parent," she lets loose a stream of jocose words, having fun at the expense of litigious lawyer fathers, “leafy/Waldorf School” mothers, and Harvard graduates who make their living polishing high school essays for $299.95 a pop.

As a veteran of the kindergarten admissions frenzy, Loh is candid about the lure of private education. The problem, as she sees it, is twofold. First, she highlights the absurdity of “academic parent-child hit squads,” teams of overachieving adults and their offspring who will stop at nothing in their high-speed pursuit of the Ivy League. “I worry,” writes Loh, “that unless they join some sort of MTV-sponsored witness-protection program, such children have no hope of ever getting laid.”

When it comes to progressive parents, those who favor eucalyptus-scented campuses where their children can study Nordic mythology and African percussion, Loh fears that the taste for alternative education is widening the canyon between rich and poor. It all begins innocently enough, she writes. A sweet, well-meaning European devises a new theory of early childhood development, and an exclusive school springs up around it:

In Los Angeles, this woodland gnome is typically a sweet and fragile eighty-something educator (think wonderfully old-fashioned cardigan, white hair perhaps growing out of the ears) who in Austria in the 1950s invented some sort of benevolent alternative-learning theory whence gently flowers the school’s educational philosophy. If [the school] now allows in, by breakneck competition, only the most affluent and privileged (with the occasional Savion Glover–brilliant inner-city child, for color; or perhaps an heir of Denzel Washington)… it’s not the helpless and unworldly little gnome’s fault—it’s just something that happened along the way. Hey—you wouldn’t blame John Dewey!

In Loh’s eyes, America is ripe for a new cultural revolution. This time, she envisions young people burning not bras and draft cards but copies of U.S. News & World Report. College dropouts such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have paved the way, proving that success doesn’t hinge on a prestigious college education, let alone kindergarten aptitude. In the end, she says, the “yellow brick road” that leads to a six-figure income at Goldman Sachs is a mirage. “Many of us, unsure of how we got where we are in the first place, are just as unsure of what education will best prepare our children for an unknowable future.”  

Loh lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Mike, and their daughters, six-year-old Madeline and four-year-old Susannah. She is the author of three books, most recently A Year in Van Nuys (2002), and is a noted National Public Radio personality. We spoke by telephone on August 16.

Jennie Rothenberg

Presented by

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

Jennie Rothenberg is associate editor of The Atlantic Online.

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