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

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.

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.