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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Of Ethical Parenting and Lines in the Sand

I find this article really confusing. It seems to decry some parents’ lack of operational principles, that is, their failure to adhere to their established values and ethics in the face of  mounting pressures to help their children succeed. In assailing such behavior, the article seems to lump acts such as paying for expensive tutors together with cheating, lying or other "corrupt" acts on behalf of your child.  Maybe I misunderstand the piece, but if this is what the author is claiming, I disagree.

Comparing access to expensive tutors or test preparation with cheating is not only a false analogy but also a claim that misapprehends the full nature of privilege.  If providing educational advantages such as tutors were evidence of corruption, then it would be hard to say where the corruption starts. Where is the line? Does it begin with providing comfortable homes, plentiful, nutritious food and appropriate clothing? Or does it begin with providing access to good schools in safe neighborhoods? Maybe it starts with access to travel, visits to museums and summer camps. I discuss similar issues in my blog article Thief Me.

The parents in the article who seem to speak apologetically about engaging an expensive tutor as if they are making a drug deal should come out of the shadows. They should spend the money proudly, push for the best educational outcome possible for their child, and along the way teach her or him to be the kind of person who critically interrogates the notion of “merit.” They might even encourage their child to be someone who dedicates her or his career to eliminating the inequities of the current system. At a minimum, they could encourage their child to financially support organizations that are trying to make a good education more broadly accessible. Money helps to change things.

The article, however, seems to make a virtue of refusing tutoring or other such assistance, as seen in the example of a student who eschews test preparation:

I know a young man who, on moral grounds, steadfastly refused to enlist the help of an SAT tutor or indeed do any test prep during his overheated senior fall at a private school whose name you know. The college-application system is broken and corrupt, the kid said. “I could sense around me this horrible stress and this defeated feeling,” he told me. “The more prep you take, the more tutoring you do, the better your scores. It seemed like a gross system. I didn’t want what I was doing to be determined by it. I didn’t want to play their game. I wanted to play my game.”
Does this story have a happy ending? The kid didn’t get into any college and lived at home, working, until it was time to apply again. (At which point he still blew off SAT prep, feeling that the test he’d already taken was preparation enough.) But he learned something about himself, which was that he really did want to go to college, and now he’s happily studying classes at a school not in the U.S. News top 50, composing electronic music that would blow your mind.

My first response to this story is “Um, what?” How is choosing not to study for college entrance examinations exemplary of a principled moral or ethical stand or of any broad notion of social justice? How is his choice to study electronic music "at a school not in the U.S. News top 50" any different from any other election made by a privileged youth? I would perhaps be more impressed if the young man in question had chosen to study education in order to help disadvantaged children. Since the young man seems under no immediate pressure to support himself, I would have been even more impressed if he had foregone college altogether in favor of volunteering full time at a soup kitchen or teaching basic skills to those without the advantage of a private school education.  If the young man was really exorcised about the "gross system" all around him, he might even have withdrawn from his private school during senior year in high school, enrolled in a public school, and asked his parents to donate his tuition to a worthy cause. 

The profiled young man doesn’t seem to understand that his possible outcomes are already largely determined by a life full of past and continuing advantages. This young man, in making what the article implies is an ethically principled stand, is like the person who draws a line in the sand that he refuses to cross. Only, the line he draws is not a perpendicular barrier to the line on which he walks. The line he draws doesn’t impede his progress at all: it is a parallel line. His refusal to cross the line makes little difference. He still makes the same journey, only on a slightly different path.