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

A number of your articles for The Atlantic are about progressive, left-leaning women who want to save the world but can’t suppress their lust for Manolo Blahnik shoes and $1,500 teak chairs. Is the craze over exclusive private schools part of that same phenomenon?

I think it is. In the olden days, your mother would point to the door and say, “There’s the junior high school. Good luck!” Now parents in urban settings often feel that they have to look at twenty schools and choose the best one for their four-year-olds—even though, at four years old, we don’t know who our kids are yet. I was talking to one friend of mine for whom money is no object. She lived in a great part of town and had the best public school options, but she still chose a progressive private school. It was almost like it felt better to spend that money. It felt like she was doing something for her kids.

One of my first pieces for The Atlantic was about Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book The Commercialization of Intimate Life. Arlie wrote about the way that post-feminist families have moved from being citizens to consumers. Women’s magazines certainly drive a lot of the discourse, because they’re well funded and glossy and have such a hold on the imagination. I like to call it the Condé Nast-ization of feminism. It really centers on two things. The first is, “How am I feeling at this very moment?” And the second is, “What should I buy?” It may be a thirty-dollar aromatherapy candle to calm ourselves down because we’ve been working so hard. It’s eternally driving more cycles of spending. 

School has become something similar, a Rorschach test of how we’re feeling. My generation of forty-something women tend to be more educated than women in the generation before us. We’re older mothers. And whether or not we’re affluent, we tend to have more money of our own. Plus, we have this post-feminist sense that we’re supposed to be constantly improving ourselves. So when it comes time to educate our children, we tend to want to relive our lives or redo our own education.

In “The Drama of the Gifted Parent,” you describe the wistful feeling of waiting for your daughter’s public school bus and watching private school parents whiz by in their fancy cars: “the writers, the composers, the actors, the thinkers … so intelligent, so creative, so sensitive, so incensed about global warming, so angry about Bush.” Am I right that this passage is more than a bit facetious?

When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, I thought the artists were supposed to be the bold innovators, the change-makers. But here in Los Angeles, the artists have become these lactose-intolerant, conflict-resolution parents. Divorce has made families so fragile that they’re retreating inside their bubbles of food allergies and a certain strain of Democratic pessimism: “We’re just going to have to go to France because Bush has made everything so vulgar.” I’m a Democrat myself, but I think we could be doing something bolder and more positive.

But as a wild performance artist who is married to a musician, do you ever worry that the public school system will make your children too conventional?

It’s true that my husband and I are creative people. But we’re the old fashioned kind of creative people who really don’t know from one year to the next what our income is going to be. We’re not like the bohemians you see on TV commercials: “Here I am! I’m an artist! And it’s another spin of the iPod!” We’re more along the lines of Van Gogh, who lived in a garret in Auvers. For us to have enough income to send our kids to private school, we’d both have to go into real estate, geriatric surgery, or periodontal medicine. We can do fine on what we have. We just can’t spend above our means.

You mentioned your friend who was eager to send her daughter to private school just for the sake of spending money. But there are plenty of parents who truly believe that something important is missing from the public school system. What do you think that "something" is?

One of the major problems with public schools is that customer service is awful to non-existent. In L.A., a couple might try to call their corner public school and say, “We live here and we’d like a tour.” “A what?” “A tour.” “No one’s ever asked for a tour!” Front office people at public schools can be quite unhelpful. It’s understaffing, and it’s that sense of, “We’ve already got enough kids. Why do we need to make it easy for parents to send their children here?”

On my Web site, I’ve just posted what I call my “Scandalously Informal Guide to Los Angeles Schools.” I liken the public school system to Costco: horrible lighting, impossible parking lots, fifty-foot high towers of Bounty paper towels. But if you look closely—what’s Yo-Yo Ma doing there? And wait—there’s a case of Glenlivet Scotch! It looks frightening from the outside, but you can find bargains inside.

I found that once we actually got to public school, everything I’d been told about it was wrong. That’s because we’ve gotten to the point now where in my social class—the media class in big cities—not one person I know professionally sends his or her kids to public school. So nobody actually knows what it’s like anymore. So they’re telling each other about a land, like the North Pole, which no one has set foot in. I was able to find a magnet school where the kids get lots of crunchy granola and mask work and theater. I was stunned by how much they have there and how passionate the teachers were. But no one I knew could have told me about it.

Presented by

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

Jennie Rothenberg is associate editor of The Atlantic Online.

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