Reflections on Affluent White ‘Progressive’ Parents who Keep Their Kids in Affluent White Bubbles, Part 2

Yes, I think the parents described in the editorial are hypocrites, at least in a general way. I would probably have a more nuanced view if I got to know them.

I have some relatives who could be described as affluent white progressive parents, and I think, for the most part, they are not hypocrites with regards to social justice. But they do not behave like the parents described in the editorial. They do send their kids to race-and-class diverse public schools, some of them used to live with their kids in a neighborhood with plenty of non-affluent African-American neighbors (which, um, gentrification, but that’s different from the issues raised in the editorial) and I’ve seen that their kids’ peer groups is also diverse, and based on listening to their kids talk about social justice issues, I think they’ve done as much to pass on social justice values as is possible for affluent white people.

I believe the parents described in the editorial are sincerely in favor of progressive changes which do not threaten their privilege, but when their is a conflict between preserve their privilege and pursuing social justice, they clearly choose to preserve their privilege. If they actually cared about racial and class diversity, they would send their children to public schools and get involved in school politics to improve those school. As a public school parent, my mother was able to make a few very small improvements to San Francisco’s public school system. If she had been a private school parent she would have been too far outside the public school system to do anything meaningful.

And I do not think that social justice values is the only way they are hypocrites. They claim that they want their children to have the best education possible. Yet, based on what I read between the lines in that editorial, that’s not what they are doing. They are trying to improve their children’s social standing, not their intellectual or personal development.

First of all, I think there is an educational benefit to being around students of diverse backgrounds. That includes, but is not limited to race and class diversity. As a teenager, I attended a summer boarding school which had an admission policy of having student body which represented all of the regions of California, with a slight tilt in favor of students from rural regions which offered fewer summer education options. It was the first time in my life I got spend a lot of time with peers who weren’t from San Francisco. Exposure to that geographical diversity expanded my horizons.

I think the greater benefit of diverse schools is not the passing on social justice values, but the fact that people from different backgrounds tend to have different points of view, and being exposed to many points of view is good for developing independent thinking skills. By not sending their children to diverse schools or putting them in diverse environments, they are denying their children that benefit.

Beyond that, it seems that these parents are choosing their private schools for prestige and exclusivity, not because they have verified that these private schools actually offer better education. It is very difficult to compare the education quality at public and private schools, but the studies with the largest sample sizes find that, when you control for socio-economic background, private schools do not offer better educational outcomes than public schools.

That is not to say that all private schools are primarily for entrenching/advancing elite privilege. There are many kinds of private schools. Yes, I think there are situations where attending a private school may be the better choice for intellectual/personal development, as well as situations where, even if the private school does not provide a better education than public schools, it has some other advantage which justifies the cost.

Though if it is one of those high schools which charge $40,000/yr for tuition – and San Francisco has some of those – I cannot imagine any advantage which justifies that cost; even if it were the best high school in the world AND the only high school in all of San Francisco AND I had that money on hand, at that price I would choose homeschooling, and if I were so wealthy that $40,000/yr was pocket change, I would rather hire a bunch of really good tutors than send my kid to high school. Okay, I can imagine ONE situation where paying more than $40,000/yr for high school tuition would be worth it; my child has special needs due to disability which I absolutely cannot meet with homeschooling and that super-expensive high school is the only way to meet those needs.

However, the real tell for me is this line from the editorial: “One boy said proudly, ‘My school is not for everyone’ — a statement that reflected how thoroughly he’d absorbed his position in the world in relation to others.” Okay, yes, it is impossible for a school to be right for absolutely everyone, therefore no school is for everyone, but clearly that was not the boy’s point. It’s seems that these parents are choosing schools for their exclusivity, to signal that heir children have the means to enter schools which less privileged kids cannot. I cannot find the essay, but I recall reading a piece by Alfie Kohn which argued that, if a private school really wants to prove that they offer superior education, they need to do admissions by lottery, and then produce better education outcomes than other schools. If a private school gets to cherry-pick students, it’s not proving that it provides a better education, it is just proving that it knows how to choose better students.

I think for some private school parents – including the ones described in the editorial, the point is not to actually provide a better education, but to have those schools mark their child as being ‘superior’ by admitting them while rejecting ‘lesser’ children. It is also why some people prefer to attend colleges with lower admission rates – admission rate does not say much about educational quality, but being able to say ‘nyah nyah, I was one of the 5% who was able to get into this famous exclusive college where most of the lower division classes are taught by underpaid graduate students with little teaching experience’ is a much more prestigious social marker than ‘I got into this college with wonderful experienced teachers which has a 100% admission rate’.

(And obviously, private schools select heavily for income/wealth, especially the ones which charge higher tuition and/or offer less financial aid).

You remember that summer boarding school I mentioned? Not only did my parents not help me get in, they were opposed to me attending it, it was harder to convince them to let me go than in was to get admitted to that school, and I had to pay for the tuition myself (as a 15-year-old, when I was not eligible for financial aid because of my family’s income). But in the end, I’m glad that summer school experience was something that I made happen rather than something that my parents handed to me on a platter. My parents almost did me a favor by being an obstacle (though that is not how I interpreted the situation at the time).

If the parents described in the editorial really are doing things like arranging ‘coveted summer internships’ for their children, than means that their children are not learning how to go out on their own and seek their own opportunities. And that disturbs me for than their social justice hypocrisy.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on Affluent White ‘Progressive’ Parents who Keep Their Kids in Affluent White Bubbles, Part 2

  1. Yeah. In Germany, there’s less public schools, but there ist talk about the smaller schools in more suburbian to rural areas being less mixed and thus “better”. By people who usually consider themselves progressive. But then, these are mothers who also tend to prefer to drive theis kids around in a SUV — commonly called house wife panzer for a reason — which, yeah. Progressive is not that. That’s more being flashy about your privilege to choose your living place outside a city and to stink up the environment.

    • Interesting, I did not know that about German society.

      Coincidently, I recently came to appreciate the original purpose of SUVs – they are designed to handle a wide variety of road conditions. SUVs can handle roads which are too rough for ordinary cars, buy they can also be used on highways/freeways, unlike most vehicles designed for rough roads, which means that if one needs to travel on both highways and rough roads, one can just use an SUV instead of transferring between two different types of vehicles.

      But yeah, even though that is the original purpose of SUVs, and some people do use them for their original purpose, most SUV owners choose them for status, not practicality. And I imagine Germany has much less need for rough-road vehicles than the United States (our country has many rural areas where the population density is so low that good road maintenance is not feasible).

      One of my affluent progressive cousins shows off his privilege and progressiveness by owning an electric car and a hybrid. Sure, they are much more fuel efficient than SUVs, but that is still multiple cars for one household, and shows off his wealth. Meanwhile, my household owns zero cars. Zero cars has an infinitely lower environmental impact than electric car + hybrid, but has no value as a symbol of affluence or even as political cred (if the car doesn’t exist, nobody can see it).

      • Yeah. I’m owning a station wagon (all those ace info booths need transport). And Germany definitely does not have as much road, much less rough road, as the US, you’re very correct there. Basically SUVs hereabouts just seem like a statement about the space that people are feeling the right to take up.

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