I’m frustrated by the howls of shocked people across this country following Tuesday’s College Admissions scandal. There are so many layers of context, missed, when we focus merely on privilege and its purchases.
This is a scandal that every family of children in America’s cities, at least, feel every single day. It’s not a scandal limited to the wealthy or the elite or the transition from secondary to post-secondary school; it’s a story of pressure and manipulation and usury with victims in all directions of all ages at all stages of life. It’s a story of a country of inequality and the vast, widespread hurt and injustice this exerts up and down the social scale on all its denizens. Mindful of false equivalencies it’s a mistake to consider the alleged perpetrators independent of the system that supports them.
One of my earliest memories from within our American school system was a mother, eyes crazed with emotion, lecturing me with increasing hysteria that my one-year-old needed to have had an application submitted for preschool already. “You have to do this right now; what are you going to do?” she insisted, while I turned and comforted myself silently with the fantasy that ‘what I was going to do was not listen to her’.
The only difference between me and them is that they have more money to do the job we are all exhorted to do, to scrub the path for our children and support them in any way possible.
That joke was always on me because resist as one might against externally instigated and fomented pressure, we are bathed in it day in and day out. Our children raised among it as fish are immersed in water and we in air, absorb the commodification of education as an acquisition of status and certification, not of physical or intellectual development.
I am not surprised at these parents aiding their children in this way. It is their job; it is our job. The only difference between me and them is that they have more money to do the job we are all exhorted to do, to scrub the path for our children and support them in any way possible. This in itself is a time- and age-dependent morality; it was not always so. But it is today, all across this nation. The panic of adequate support: we all feel it every day – poor, rich; old, young. It is the pattern of today’s parenting. It is the pattern of capitalism in America.
It is an externality of turning education into a commodity. This is how the market is ginned up: keep them nervous, wanting, hurting, guilty. That is what gins up the market for selling Education as something that needs purchasing for our kids. It’s just the same as jiggering the hemline on a skirt: making a market.
From the very beginning, two decades back, we have been exerted upon to supply for our kids some thing that must be purchased. Education at every stage of the game. In the exurb where I live, it is perfectly plausible for middle class families to spend $560K+ on tuition and fees for private preschool thru High School. This figure omits daycare costs, summertime activities, camps or tuition, and extracurricular secondary activities, which could be estimated to add another $150K-$200K easily. Topping off these fees and tuition with the expectation for annual charitable giving and regular volunteering adds several more dozens-to hundreds of thousands laid out. In truth a “million dollars” is not an unheard-of sum; it is commonplace.
In obeisance to this reality, some families have been lured to support the privatization of public schools through charters. Believing themselves “mavericks” they unwittingly undermine the public Commons in a blinding quest to obtain the expensive promise of private schools. The price is in the destruction of our Commons with no release of pressure, always to be something else, to discover an “alternative” that bests the old, to acquire more, different, better. And so the market is grown. Always, ever-heating.
Like a proverbial frog in the slowly-warming pot, American urban families have become inured to the expectation of adding value to their child by personally supplementing the cost of their Education. It is an acquisition parked in the driveway, displayed metaphysically and literally on a bumper sticker. Ostentatious or utilitarian, acquisition is part of the expectation of urban life. And the pressure to keep this house of cards standing is also absorbed just like the heat in that pot: inexorable, stupefying, terrifying, bankrupting. The market pressure of what we can, not what we should, do, drains not just wallets but morality and responsibility and citizenship too. It’s a terrible truth that Keeping Up With The Joneses brings us all down.
Always has, and yet here we are.
Privilege of class is not a new phenomenon. These “Standardized Tests” have long been understood to standardize just a certain, narrow socioeconomic slice. Paying for a test-taker is just an end-member along a long path of disenfranchisement that starts with the expectations of a cultural norm, and wends its way through classrooms degraded by curriculum designed to increase market share in pursuit of this expectation, right on through to public library-offered test prep and privately expended test prep.
The scandalous behavior scrutinized this week for unfairness and privilege is just the tip of an iceberg corrupting Education as a basic human right. That’s on all of us, not just those of us acting out indictably.