As I’ve mentioned before, I am a strong supporter of public education. In brief, my stance is that the more all of us are dedicated to our public school systems, the better we will collectively make them. Rather than thinking about what is “good for us” as individuals, we owe it to each other to make the collective as good and strong as possible. In this post, I want to bracket the question of whether my position is right or wrong (if you want to debate that question, you can go to the original post where I’ll be more than happy to engage you). Instead, I want to focus here on the ways in which my reaction to my son’s recent decision to attend an “elite” private school for his university education points to the seductiveness of prevailing common sense, even when we are dedicated to resisting it.
A little context to set the stage: as a result of teaching at a fairly elite private university, I find myself surrounded by faculty colleagues who not only often (generally?) graduated with Ivy League Ph.D.s but who also have their children enrolled in one of the many private schools in the Nashville area. While I have an “ideological” position against some of the reasons my friends have placed their children in private schools, I rarely find myself all that concerned or worked up when I’m in conversation with these same friends.
That said, there is generally a moment in every conversation I’ve had with another parent that has been more than just awkward. For 12 years, I have learned to hate this moment. Here’s what happens: we learn that we each have children roughly the same age and the talk turns to a discussion of where we send our kids to school. After the other parent tells me, with a sense of pride, that their child goes to “Traditional, Established Elite Private School,” they ask me where my son goes to school.
It’s an odd moment, if only because they expect the answer to be either the same “Traditional, Established Private School” or another, similar, school. Indeed, I feel as if it’s a moment where we are expected to share a bit of glee over our decisions. When I ultimately announced that my son attends a local public school--even when I add that he’s enrolled in the very good IB program--the conversation always has this odd and unpleasant pause, almost as if I had passed gas right in the middle of a formal conversation. The answer is so unexpected that they say the only proper thing to say in such a circumstance: “Oh, that’s nice.”
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think these are being evil or mean. It’s just that there is such a strong expectation in my community that any parent who is doing the “right thing” for their child would have him or her enrolled at a good private school. Their sympathetic “Oh, that’s nice” response is simply a reaction to their surprise. Upon reflection, I’m sure the response would be more interesting, more engaged with what my son is actually doing. The reason I dread the moment is that it’s unpleasant for all of us in that it exposes to all of us our collective expectations—and how my decisions have come up lacking.
I want to admit that there’s a sense in which I’ve worn this discomfort and embarrassment with pride. I have such an odd identification with public education, and with blue collar ethics that, while such conversations may be uncomfortable, they are simultaneously empowering.
So, what are my feelings now when I talk about where my son is going to college, and what do they mean politically?
My son decided that he wanted to major in film studies, and that he wanted to do so at a somewhat elite northeastern university. While not an Ivy League school, it is one of those traditional northeast “good” schools, one that the same people who are aghast at the idea of sending their kids to a Nashville public school would be proud to say their kids were attending in the fall.
So, now, when people ask me where my kid is going to school, or where he will be going to college, I answer with no hesitation and no fear of their reaction. Even worse, when one of them tells me that their private school child is going to a small state school, I feel . . . well . . . vindicated that my kid’s public school education has served him well.
The problem is, I realize that my reaction is an ugly one. But I have it anyway.
If I’m taking pleasure now in not only having the “public school” issue off my back but also of having the elite private school working for me, then it’s clear that I’m simply reworking, reifying, the same ideology that I’ve found to be problematic. In short, feeling comfort in these pleasures is simply helping to reproduce the same ideology, the same meanings, that I find problematic in a political sense. My pleasure, my relief, is in effect saying that the common sense view was right all along. And if I take pleasure in common sense, then I’m doing very very little to untangle the web of expectations that I find so problematic in the beginning.
I should know better. In this case and in similar cases. If we can not learn to love, if we can not take genuine pleasures in, the achievements fulfilled within the parameters of our own commitments, . . . well . . . , it’s game over at that point. They, whoever they are, win.