Thursday, December 18, 2008
public for life
So there's this funny new show on HBO called Summer Heights High, about an Australian public high school. One of the characters on the show is Ja'mie, a private school girl on a sort of private/public exchange program. Ja'mie is very privileged, and very sheltered, and is constantly making this kind of cringe-inducing, off-hand insult to public school. It's really funny, and for me, uncomfortably true. I've encountered a lot of private school kids like Ja'mie, and while it's satire, it's actually verrrrry close to reality. You kind of get used to it, but you kind of don't, and for people like me who are not only not ashamed of our public education, but actively proud of and happy with it, it can be unbearable. To put it to you as simply as I can, I am the person I am in large part because I went to a public school. My education is imprinted on who I am, over and over again.
What I was really thinking about, when watching the first few episodes of that show, was bloggers.
It's interesting that people who spend so much time in introspection and thought can be so unthinking sometimes. You often find yourself, when reading blogs, saying "how can a person who wrote post X, which was so smart, write something so dumb?" This is almost a constant complaint in my comments, so it's not like I don't know the other side. I just find, over and over again, that dependably smart, respectful people treat public schools and those of us who are products of them with the most callous, casual degradation you can imagine. It's like the character Ja'mie, a combination of extraordinary lack of tact and respect with an almost sublime lack of self-knowledge. Over and over again, when discussing any kind of educational policy, bloggers make off-hand insults that really sting, without seeming to understand that anyone could take such a thing personally. It's not so much the disagreement about the value of public school, but the inability to understand that there are people who prize their public school educations. I suspect, actually, it's similar to the feeling many religious people have when they feel that their religion is being casually or thoughtlessly disrespected. Added to the insult is the assumption that no one could be insulted.
Because of the vast diversity of opinions and ideologies represented online, we tend to forget that there are certain demographic trends within blogs, particularly among the blogs who have been given the legitimacy and weight of establishment media. Many bloggers, to be blunt, grew up in privilege, and many people who grew up in privilege went to private school. I don't begrudge anyone having gone to private school at all; that would be stupid, particularly considering very few of us get to choose where we go to school. But going to private school, particularly an elite private school, does create the conditions necessary for someone to have the kind of boneheaded conception of public schools that you see a lot online. And I do see it alot, even among bloggers I generally respect. It's pretty simply a matter of the unknown and bad press, and you end up with a cadre of smart people who think every public school has crumbling buildings, shoddy books, legions of gangs and violence and a crack pipe in every classroom. It's ugly.
All of this has policy ramifications. As someone who is an ardent supporter of public education, and a committed opponent of vouchers, one of the most frustrating aspects of the conversation is the amount of work done by completely unfounded and unsupported notions about widespread public school failure. Simply put, a huge difficulty in our discussion on education is really paralyzing lack of reliable data on which schools are succeeding and which are failing. We just don't know, really, how many school districts are reliably good, how many reliably bad, and we really don't know about individual school quality within those districts. But when I argue education policy, again and again I find foes of public education allowing the assumption that any given public school has to be shitty to carry their water for them. This is made especially frustrating by the fact that these are often people who are usually very circumspect in the way that they construct data, and would never countenance an opposing argument that relied on so much assuming and anecdotal evidence. But when it comes to public school, where it benefits them, they can just talk as if it's safe to assume that any given public school is probably no good, and certainly worse than a private alternative. It's a failure of elementary good faith argument and analysis.
Well, you can support any policy position you want, and if you think public education is filled with criminals and failures, you can argue away. But when it comes to more personal dimensions of judgment, let me say to you: if you aren't one of us, you can't understand us, you don't know us and you can't judge us. I'm glad people are happy with their private education and I'll never assume that anyone who went to private school has any particular failings at all. But when people intimate, even without meaning to, that public school kids must be more violent or less intelligent or less achieved, they're just wrong, and I'm here to say so. I think about my public high school-- cheerful, racous, alive, diverse in every sense, smart and capable, and filled with dedicated employees, and I couldn't be happier. So there!