It’s school admissions season in New York

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

It’s school admissions season in New York. Katie Roiphe describes the scene:

It is interesting that the parents at these schools will be the first to tell you that other private schools are very materialistic, and that the culture of these other schools is truly offputting, that they would never dream of sending their Finn or Ava to the other schools because they would imbibe the wrong values, and they will very happily recount stories of moneyed excess about these other schools, but their school, and by implication, of course, they are not like that.

(I won’t rehash these stories here, but I have recently heard about a fashionable, progressive Brooklyn private school, in which a birthday party of 11-year-old girls was taken to Victoria’s Secret to buy bras and underwear and then they went back to the Soho Grand Hotel to take pictures of themselves and sleep over. This is the kind of story that we are talking about, and they are too numerous and florid to fit here.)

These parents decrying the materialistic culture of this other school, saying, “It’s disgusting, it really is,” might be sitting in their beach house, over a dinner of grilled shrimp and fresh corn, with the live-in, uniformed baby nurse upstairs with the colicky baby. If you, from the outside, are having trouble seeing how their life — with its long summers at the beach, winters in the Caribbean, the sprawling apartment on the Upper East Side, the helpful doorman, the ubiquitous housekeeper, the $1,000 boots from Barneys — is so different in its values and messages from these other, materialistic parents at the other school, we will assume that is a problem with your clarity and understanding.

These same parents will also very quickly point out that their school is “diverse”. The reality is that their school, like all the other schools, is a tiny bit diverse. There are a few kids who will come a very long way every morning, from another neighbourhood, on a scholarship, but the large bulk of the class very much resembles in background the other kids in the class. This is a puzzling word, “diverse”, thrown around all the school promotions, into pamphlets and brochures and websites, because if you were truly committed to sending your children somewhere “diverse”, would you not be selecting a different school, one that doesn’t require almost all of its students to pay tuition that could support several villages in Africa? Or do these parents, to be totally honest, just want a little bit of diversity? If the catalogues were being totally honest about what parents are looking for, would they advertise, say, a soupçon of diversity?

The interesting element of this obsession is that each of these unique and excellent schools seems to be conferring some ineffable quality, not just on its students, but on the parents of these students. In the 10 minutes they spend dropping their children off in its hallowed hallways, they are seeing some flattering image of themselves reflected back: progressive, enlightened, intellectually engaged.

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