Allison Benedikt says that no matter how bad your local public school is, if you don’t send your kids there, you are a bad person. No, she really does say this (“You are a bad person if you send your kid to private school.” This is one of those things that only a left-wing ideologue can possibly believe. Here’s the best part of the Youngstown, Ohio native’s rather unpersuasive Slate rant:
I went K–12 to a terrible public school. My high school didn’t offer AP classes, and in four years, I only had to read one book. There wasn’t even soccer. This is not a humblebrag! I left home woefully unprepared for college, and without that preparation, I left college without having learned much there either. You know all those important novels that everyone’s read? I haven’t. I know nothing about poetry, very little about art, and please don’t quiz me on the dates of the Civil War. I’m not proud of my ignorance. But guess what the horrible result is? I’m doing fine. I’m not saying it’s a good thing that I got a lame education. I’m saying that I survived it, and so will your child, who must endure having no AP calculus so that in 25 years there will be AP calculus for all.
By the way: My parents didn’t send me to this shoddy school because they believed in public ed. They sent me there because that’s where we lived, and they weren’t too worried about it. (Can you imagine?) Take two things from this on your quest to become a better person: 1) Your child will probably do just fine without “the best,” so don’t freak out too much, but 2) do freak out a little more than my parents did—enough to get involved.
Also remember that there’s more to education than what’s taught. As rotten as my school’s English, history, science, social studies, math, art, music, and language programs were, going to school with poor kids and rich kids, black kids and brown kids, smart kids and not-so-smart ones, kids with superconservative Christian parents and other upper-middle-class Jews like me was its own education and life preparation. Reading Walt Whitman in ninth grade changed the way you see the world? Well, getting drunk before basketball games with kids who lived at the trailer park near my house did the same for me. In fact it’s part of the reason I feel so strongly about public schools.
Where do you even begin with that? Last night, at bedtime, I read to my two youngest kids — one is nine, one is six — a story about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington. It turns out that both kids already knew who Rosa Parks was and why she was important, and they already knew all about the I Have A Dream speech. It amazed me to hear my six-year-old daughter tell me about Rosa Parks! Might they have gotten this knowledge at a young age in public school. They might have. But I know they have it in homeschool. Building on that, I talked to them about civil rights here in their hometown, and things that had happened right here. They learned that MLK was not only relevant in his day and age, but relevant to us right here, right now. They learned that not only was he important to black Americans, but to all Americans.
They got this information because their mother believes it is important to know, and taught it to them. She discerned that they were capable of learning this history, and taught them. This happens all the time.
With my 14-year-old homeschooled son, I’m reading The Iliad now. I have never read The Iliad, nor, until homeschooling last year, had I read The Odyssey. I went through very good, even great public schooling, and I hold a bachelor’s degree from a good public university. But I knew nothing about these foundational texts of Western civilization, and I was, and am, a poorer man for it. From an interview I did this week with the Circe Institute:
2. What has surprised you most about these books? Has your experience with them been what you expected?
Two things: how accessible they are to the modern reader, and how utterly relevant they are to the world we live in today. Again, I expected reading them to be a chore, but it’s not like that at all! And not only is it pleasurable,The Odyssey and The Iliad give me so much insight into the problems and challenges we live with today. Matthew and I are only five books into The Iliad, but I have been knocked flat by Homer’s insight into the the nature of war, and how we, in our fallen humanity, give ourselves over to such destruction. It has made me think about the Iraq War, in which my brother-in-law served, and how I let my own passion for 9/11 vengeance — I was a New Yorker on that day, and stood on the Brooklyn Bridge and watched the south tower fall — draw me into supporting what turns out to have been a foolish and incredibly destructive war. This morning, as I’m talking with you, the White House is considering entering the Syrian conflict. I’m reading expert commentary online, weighing the pros and cons of military action there, but I’m also thinking about Homer and his deep wisdom. I never imagined that the classics could have such intense relevance to my thinking and my work as a journalist. I never imagined that they would give me such insight into my world, and myself.
Reading Homer has had another effect on me. I have recently started reading Dante’s Divine Comedy on my own, not only for the pleasure of it, but in hopes that it will disclose the wisdom I need to help me think through some challenges I’m going through in the middle of my life (I’m 46). And sure enough, the profundity of Dante’s moral and theological vision is dazzling me, and teaching me, and strengthening me through reflection and instruction.
More from that interview:
3. In what ways do you think your life – your career as a journalist and writer in particular – would have been different had you read these books as a student?
I would certainly have been less time-bound in my outlook on life. Today we tend to think that what we see is all there is. I mean, even if we know better, that’s how most of us live. When I was a young man, I looked to the newspapers and magazines to know what was going on in my world, and how I should think about it. There is nothing wrong with this! In fact, I was better informed than most people my age. But there is a difference between knowledge and information, and I didn’t know that back then. Had I encountered the classics as a student, I imagine that I would have grasped the relativism of our own worldview. I mean, I would have been a lot more questioning and skeptical of the worldview we receive from the supposedly wise men and women of our own time and place. We suffer from what I call chronological parochialism — that is, the idea that we, being modern, know better than everybody who came before us. If the past is an undiscovered country, our modern prejudices tell us that we don’t have anything to learn from the people who live there. But Homer knew the human heart better than most contemporaries, and Dante knew the human soul more penetratingly than many of us do. I’m not saying that the Greek epics, and the Divine Comedy are holy writ, but I am saying that if I had encountered them as a student, my perspective on the world and my place in it would likely have been deeper. Even now, as a middle-aged conservative Christian, I find that Dante’s insights on the relationship between the will and the intellect with regard to our struggles against sin challenge my thinking in constructive ways. I think about all the self-help volumes clotting the shelves in bookstores, and I think, Lord have mercy, just read Dante! He’s right!
To be sure, I never went to a public school remotely as bad as the one Benedikt went to. My public school experiences were all good! If for whatever reason homeschooling doesn’t work for my family, or we conclude that any of our children would thrive better in public school, we will put our kids there, because we are blessed to live in a good school district. (In fact, it is my greatest hope to send one or all of my kids to my public-school alma mater for the last two or three years of their high school educations.) We aren’t homeschooling because the local schools are bad; we are homeschooling because we believe in this educational model.
But assuming the worst, as Benedikt does, am I really supposed to believe that the experience of sending my kids along with the herd into ignorance when I something better and higher is available to them, either from private, parochial, or homeschool, is morally preferable? Better that we are all equally ignorant as long as we are all equal. This is what the radical levellers want for us. It is the educational equivalent of Soviet economics. All that matters is that we are united in the state, no matter how stupid, ignorant, and poor it makes us.
About that growing wise getting drunk before the basketball game being just as important as reading poetry. I have friends who took their boys out of public school in their area not because of the quality of the school, but because of the peer culture. Their oldest son’s friends — middle-class kids — were getting heavily into online pornography via their smartphones, which their parents — again, middle-class people — did not monitor. I would love to see Benedikt try to tell my friend N. that she’s a bad person for taking her kids out of public school, because N.’s children would benefit by sneaking an iPhone peek at sadomasochistic orgies under the bleachers before the basketball game. Benedikt would find herself confronted with one pissed-off mama.
When we lived in Philadelphia, we were part of a classical Christian homeschooling co-op that drew families from the city and the suburbs. One of the families was black, and living in inner-city Philly. One of the reasons J. and her husband chose this homeschooling program was that they didn’t want to lose their sons to the peer culture in their neighborhood public school. I would love to watch Benedikt preach to J. about how she is failing her boys by not putting them into the inner-city Philadelphia public schools. That would be fun.
UPDATE: I see that this essay has elicited much commentary. Mollie Hemingway calls Benedikt “the Good Soldier Schweik of feminist blogging.” Ross Douthat picks up on the inherent fascism of Benedikt’s position.