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

Was it difficult to get your daughter into that school?

Actually, we were able to get in based just on the poverty of our zip code. With “No Child Left Behind,” if your school is overcrowded, you get magnet points. We just applied, along with all of the poor kids in our neighborhood whose parents were motivated enough to fill out a form. My daughter is the only blond kid in a class of twenty-two. We have a mix of Hispanic and Armenian immigrants, also Filipinos and Bangladeshis. In L.A. County, I think just one kid in five is white now. So she is totally in the minority, but she doesn’t seem aware of it.

In an earlier Atlantic article, you wrote about how you tried, and failed, to get your daughter into an exclusive Lutheran school. It may too be early to tell, but do you think she’s turning out differently in her diverse classroom than she would have if she’d passed the Lutherans’ snobby kindergarten entrance exam?

I think kids pretty much do fine wherever they are. The one problem with the school frenzy in the cities is the split between classes. In Los Angeles and New York especially, the middle class is really dropping out. So when people say, “I want better, progressive education,” it turns into, by and large, a whiter education.

I did a show called “Mother on Fire” here in L.A., and afterwards people confessed to me—these long confessionals—that their kids had ridden the London Underground and the Metro in Paris but had never set foot on Los Angeles public transportation. That fear of one’s own city is not a great thing.

In so many cases, though, public schools really are overcrowded, and the teachers are stretched to their limits. Don’t a lot of parents opt for private schools just to make sure their children get enough attention and stimulation?

Absolutely. And that’s why, at a lot of the private schools, you will see that all the teachers are young and beautiful and enthusiastic. They never seem to have a moment of feeling tired. These parents don’t want their children to ever be bored, so the teachers are always on. Of course, that can make it more fun to come to class. Does it lead to better behavior? We don’t know. After all, when you go through life, not everyone you meet is going to be amazingly mesmerizing. So perhaps one of the skills one could learn along the way is how to focus on teachers who are perhaps less than dynamic.

When I think of myself growing up, I had some excellent teachers, some mediocre teachers, some good but boring teachers. In driver’s ed, we had the one who would put his hand on your knee whenever you shifted. So I had a mix of teachers, and I think that was fine. But today, there are people who don’t want their children to tolerate even a moment with a teacher who isn’t absolutely scintillating. You also hear about parents who yank their kids out of school if the teachers seem a little non-empathic. I was talking to a parent recently who complained that her child’s fifth-grade teacher was saying things like, “Oh, you can do better!” She thought that was really hurtful. Of course, I told my husband, and he said, “Well, they can do better!” Should the teacher be telling students, “You can do worse”? It’s a little bit touchy-feely in terms of what people feel is acceptable and what is not.

Some parents choose a private school because they buy into the philosophy of a particular educator. What’s your take on that? Have the Maria Montessoris and Rudolph Steiners of the world brought out anything of real value? Or have you come to the conclusion that it’s all just nonsense?

From the archives:

"Schooling the Imagination" (September 1999)
Waldorf schools, which began in the esoteric mind of the Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, have forged a unique blend of progressive and traditional teaching methods that seem to achieve impressive results—intellectual, social, even moral. By Todd Oppenheimer

"Education for a Classless Society" (May 1940)
"Freedom of the mind, social mobility through education, universal schooling—these, let me repeat, are the three fundamentals of the Jeffersonian tradition." By James Bryant Conant

I don’t think people will ever reach any consensus on that question. I myself always struggle with it. I have friends who wanted to form a progressive charter school that would focus on peaceful conflict resolution. They realized that in order to get Title I funding, they’d have to have more minority students enrolled. But what they found is that a lot of African-American and Latino families really valued things like discipline and homework, and they really weren’t that interested in peaceful conflict resolution. They really, desperately, wanted their kids to be reading and writing by second grade, and it wasn’t as important to them to peacefully resolve conflicts. They were living Martin Luther King’s life. They didn’t need to build a whole school around it. So I think the values are different. And for me, that’s one problem with the crunchy-granola school philosophy.

Also, I think some things in progressive education are really dressed up. When I was looking at private schools for my daughter, I came across a system of music education called the Orff Schulwerk Method. As soon as I heard about it, I thought, “Oh my God! If my kids don’t do the Orff Schulwerk Method…!” Meanwhile, their dad actually is a professional musician who has toured with Bette Midler. It’s amazing how you can get so clouded by these things. You become so frantic that your kid won’t have them and other kids will. Because the classes don’t intermingle, people get shut off from the rest of the world, and they get a bit crazy.

Some people are always after the most exquisite vacation, the most exquisite restaurant, the most exquisite school. And of course, it’s always possible to give an exquisite education to a small, elite group of children whose parents have the power and money and wherewithal to get them into the most exquisite schools. But then you come back to Thomas Jefferson, who believed that the strength of democracy relies in good education for everyone. The idea of a perfect education is a little utopian and elusive. Is it really possible in a system that serves many? Instead, maybe we can at least work together so every kid can have at least a really good, quality education.

In all the research you’ve done and with all the books you’ve read, have you come to the conclusion that school choice makes any substantial difference at all in how a child turns out?

No. Research shows that the SAT scores you get will be linked to how much money your family makes, no matter where you go to school. Parents can certainly make different contacts at different schools. In L.A., there are some schools that are known as the showbiz schools, and the parents there are able to do a lot of networking. You hope people admit that’s what they’re there for, rather than pretending they have educational interests in mind. But really, I think it all comes down to the quality of the parenting. We realized that if we were going to send our kids to a really expensive private school, we’d have to run around and take ten more jobs instead of staying home with our children.

You’re a person who has fingers in so many different pies: you’re a musician, a performance artist, and a radio personality. Has your experience in these different areas influenced the way you write?

Yes, in the sense that what I really enjoy is stylistic writing, so finding my own style was essential. I was in grad school for about six years before I realized it was destroying my writing. With academic papers, you’re rewarded for using complicated terms that are familiar only to scholars in that particular area. I realized my writing was becoming more and more convoluted, unreadable to the layperson. Being on the radio has helped me think in terms of colloquialisms—coming up with anecdotes and coining phrases that tend to stick in people’s heads. All of that definitely comes into play in my writing.

Outside of your usual “crazy women” beat, are there any subjects you’ve been wanting to write about for The Atlantic?

I’m interested in ethnicity and how difficult it is for people to talk about—especially because I’m a person who looks totally Latino and has white children, even though I’m actually Chinese-German. Writing from the underdog point of view is always interesting, and I think that’s the same reason I like to write about women. The wars and the men and the generals are still treated as the most important subjects, while women are on the sidelines. For now, at least, crazy women is definitely a topic that keeps on giving.

Presented by

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

Jennie Rothenberg is associate editor of The Atlantic Online.

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