Friday, 25 March 2011

Big Mac Falafal, and a Side of Fries

I was today reading the comments of one of my favourite "bloggers," Joanne Jacobs, who writes mostly about education and education issues.  (Jacobs for many years wrote a column for the San Jose Mercury News, which was the newspaper in San Jose, California, where I lived at the time).

As usual, Jacobs's musings provided an interesting potpourri of observations about the state of schools and education more broadly.  I was struck by an article she had found, published initially in the Financial Times by the renowned writer Katie Roiphe.  Roiphe, it seems, is now in the midst of the angst-ridden battle that afflicts people of a certain class on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Whilst the bulk of us perched more precariously on the edge of what the playwright Sam Shephard called "the striving class" concern ourselves with filling out brackets for the annual NCAA tournament (including people who pose as working class heroes, only with expensive, designer clothes, Secret Service protection, and access to a 747 jet at whim), a different sort of "selection" drama unfolds for people in Roiphe's circle.

Namely, the annual "which exclusive private school will my kid get into?"  Oh, and we're not talking about Harvard.  Or Andover.

Nope - this is about PRESCHOOL.

In Roiphe's own words:
When T.S. Eliot wrote about the cruelest month "mixing memory and desire", he might also have had in mind that this is the season of school admissions in New York City. So as the sooty piles of snow melt into gray puddles, parents obsess over the letters they will and won't receive from the school that will or won't confer on their radiant progeny the blessing of its approval.
You see, the ultimate fate of little Aiden or Sasha or Maya (or some other vaguely bohemian-sounding name - John just won't do) hangs in the balance, and will ultimately be determined, by the age of five.

Now, mocking  the foibles of our cultural betters has been around at least since the first time a school boy set down Pride and Prejudice in a fit of boredom and stared out the window, so there's nothing new here.  But what I found funniest was Roiphe's keen insight that the lot of limousine liberals want to impute to themselves a certain hip, diverse, but not-at-all-concerned-with-money-coolness, and the best means by which to do this is by sending the precious family dauphin to just the right school.

It HAS to have diversity, of course.  But for heaven's sake, not TOO much diversity.  Again, to quote Roiphe
These same parents will also very quickly point out that their school is "diverse". The reality is that their school, like all the other schools, is a tiny bit diverse. There are a few kids who will come a very long way every morning, from another neighbourhood, on a scholarship, but the large bulk of the class very much resembles in background the other kids in the class. This is a puzzling word, "diverse", thrown around all the school promotions, into pamphlets and brochures and websites, because if you were truly committed to sending your children somewhere "diverse", would you not be selecting a different school, one that doesn't require almost all of its students to pay tuition that could support several villages in Africa? If the catalogues were being totally honest about what parents are looking for, they advertise soupçon of diversity...
Basically put, the "diversity" in places like the sort Roiphe and others chase after the way an aging debutante in a Tennessee Williams play pursues gentlemen callers of shady means is rather like the side salads places like Wendy's offer to make us feel less guilty when ordering a Triple and a Frosty.

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