As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I sent my children to private school, something I did for reasons that in part were rational–when my oldest went to kindgergarten, the local school was truly terrible and there were no charters at the time–but also in large part irrational: I was driven by the vague conviction that they would get a good education at a private school, though I could not have said exactly what I meant by a “good education,” only that I felt on an instinctual level that whatever it meant, it was what I owed my children, something that literally kept me up at night with worry.
Several years later, as I’ve also mentioned repeatedly, I became a teacher at a charter school in South Los Angeles for similar reasons: to be part of providing a “good education” for children in the community, a drive that again I could not have entirely explained but that also frequently kept me up at night with worry.
But what exactly was I worrying about? I mean, I could name a million tiny details, deadlines, tests, grades, but on some level, I worried for my children and my students that they were not getting what they needed in order to…I couldn’t have said what. Obviously I wanted them to learn stuff and get good grades, but that wouldn’t have kept me up at night. What did they need? What should I have given them?
Now, some years later, with many of them grown, my job as a parent mostly done, my job as a teacher on temporary hold, I wonder, what did my children and my students actually get out of all that education? What do they carry with them? Who are they becoming? And how does that intersect with their education?
So out of curiosity, in a most unscientific manner, I decide to interview two groups of 21-year-olds about what they remember from high school. The first group is made up of my son’s friends, graduates of Oakwood School, a private school in North Hollywood. The second is comprised of a group of graduates of the charter high school where I taught. The differences in their current circumstances are stark, but as I talk to them, I’m struck by some interesting similarities in what they feel they’ve taken with them from high school.
In today’s post, I’ll cover my interview with my son’s friends; in my next post, the graduates of my former school. And the first similarity I’d like to mention is that for no reason whatsoever all of these 21-year-olds do not want me to use their real names. Why? Who knows? Anyway, rest assured that all of the names I’m using are 100% fake, including “Frank,” the name of my “son.”
Frank’s friends have always been a high-octane bunch and the colleges from which this particular group of five will graduate in May reflect their supercharged academic performance. To contextualize their comments below, I would like to say that as a parent paying private school tuition for three children over many years, at a cost that often felt enormous, I believe that every penny was worth it despite my ongoing inability to articulate what I was paying for. If anyone asks, I tell them that Oakwood, with its emphasis on pure intellectualism and a passion for social justice, changed my children’s lives. But what do my son and his friends think?
For starters, what Frank’s friends they feel they took away from Oakwood has less to do with in-class academics than with relationships—with each other and with teachers. Though for the most part they enjoyed their classes, the one-on-one time they were able to spend with teachers outside of class was a far more significant influence. “Oakwood taught me to value having close relationships with my teachers,” says Sarah, now a senior at Scripps. “When I went to college that was my number one requirement, to find a place where I could have that kind of relationship.”
“It was about school culture,” says Michael, who’s a senior at Brown. “It wasn’t what happened in classes. I think a lot of us did work with our teachers that was extracurricular.”
Hannah, a senior at Barnard, agrees. “I think the extracurriculars are really what stuck with me,” she says. “We got to be part of our teachers’ passion projects, that’s what fostered this sense of social justice, these were things that the teachers felt a need to give us space for—they were more impactful than the classes because they had real-world implications, because we could see changes manifested through them.”
They then launch into a discussion of the multitudinous extracurricular involvements they had, ranging from independent study sessions in philosophy to work with indigenous groups of women in Chiapas to a variety of local and activist organizations.
An incredibly civilized argument breaks out about the role external pressure may or may not have played in their unusually high level of involvement in all of these activities. Why were they so involved? Was it for their college applications? Desire for leadership? Guilt? Control over their own agenda? One of the things I’m struck by is how persuasively they argue: calmly, incisively, lucidly, pleasantly; their ability to define and analyze hair-splittingly subtle abstract concepts is so keenly honed that should there be five sudden vacancies on the Supreme Court, I know who I’ll be nominating.
In fact, Frank, who goes to Vassar, says that being friends with such an intensely academic group of people was a significant influence for him. “I think the biggest influence Oakwood had on me was that I came to expect that I’d see my peers as intellectuals,” he says, an observation that certainly seems borne out by the intensity of their discussion.
One thing they wish they’d had more of was diversity, both racial and economic; the school, whose tuition is currently $33,300, has only 27% students of color. Only 16% receive financial aid. “Andrew Delblanco wrote a great book about college,” says Hannah. “His argument is that the good stuff you get in education comes from the unquantifiable relationships you have with people who are different from you, that’s how you become a civic-minded person.”
Another argument ensues about the role of diversity in education and the nature of privilege itself, something of which they are acutely conscious. “There are scales of privilege,” says Michael. “The purpose of college isn’t to prepare me for some job. The purpose of education is to make the world interesting and noble.”
“I’d never say that people who are doing something closer to occupational training are somehow intrinsically challenged,” says Luke, a senior at Harvard. A further argument takes off about whether it is or is not elitist to regard intellectual education as being in some way better or more worthwhile than occupational education.
When I ask them what they’d do if they were suddenly head of the Department of Education in order to create genuinely equal opportunity for children of all racial and economic backgrounds, they immediately agree that we need to spend more money. But they disagree on how to raise this money, arguing over whether we should raise taxes or end war and redistribute the resources, and whether poverty is the root cause of inequality and if it is, whether acknowledging the role of poverty can become an excuse for inaction.
They seem to agree, though, that if they were to build a model school, it would be very much like Oakwood—“utopian” is the word they use. Small classes, accessible faculty, student engagement in the real world. The word that comes up most often in this discussion is “relationships.” The word “community” is a close second. Is that what I wanted, was it worth it to pay so much for caring relationships? For community?
Am I crazy if I say yes?
I leave the kids still talking on our back porch. To be honest, after an hour and a half, I’m exhausted by their intellectual intensity. I feel ancient. And inexplicably, profoundly happy. I still can’t tell you what exactly I wanted all those years ago when I worried about a good education for my children. But hearing my son and his friends talk, seeing the extraordinarily thoughtful and sensitive young people they’ve become, I decide I can let go of worrying about them. The future is in pretty good hands, it seems to me. And I think they’re going to be all right.
In my post tomorrow, I’ll describe my interview about the same topic with a group of 21-year-old graduates of the charter high school in South Los Angeles where I taught.