If You Don’t At Least Try Your Local School, You May Be Part Of The Problem

Mean Girls

In keeping with its editorial mission of chronicling the struggles of liberals in New York and nationwide, the New York Times’s Ethicist column yesterday addressed a question that causes heartburn in all members of the right-minded, urban bourgeoisie: should we send our child to an underperforming public school?

Do we let our neighborhood kids and our own values down by fleeing to a higher-testing public school in a richer part of the city? Or do we let our son down by sending him to the neighborhood school, which we fear will not put him on solid educational footing? My instinct is that our higher duty is to our son. But I am also painfully aware that this kind of my-kid-comes-first mentality is exactly what created poor urban schools to begin with. We will probably feel lousy no matter what we decide to do. But from a purely ethical standpoint, should our child’s education or our neighborhood and its kids come first?

I should not make so much light, for it is a fair question, one that I have, in fact, mulled over both privately and publicly. Indeed, it is something I have struggled with personally, as my two children live half the time in a desirable, “good” school district (their mother’s town) and half the time in a much poorer and less desirable one (my city). FYI, one of them attends elementary school in his mother’s district and the other is at a magnet middle school in my district. Amicable divorce, like amicable marriage, requires compromise.

On the one hand, as the Ethicist rightly notes, it would be absurd and untenable to feel — and act — as though your obligation to other children is equal to your obligation to your own children. Nor does it make sense to seek a level playing field by depriving your children of any advantage or amenity that any other child doesn’t have. If there is an ethical imperative to think of how your actions affect the wellbeing of others, there is certainly an important and countervailing imperative to attend to the basic needs of the helpless little humans who are your legal obligation. It would be unethical, for example, to malnourish one’s children simply because other children are malnourished, even if the savings realized were donated directly to a relevant charity.

But we should concede, as the parent asking the question does, that one of the reasons public schools are so unequal is because the people with resources use those resources principally to insulate themselves, structurally and geographically, from the people without resources. This leads not only to unequal access to public services of all kinds, but to a stratification of empathy among classes — and races, since race so often tracks class in this country — that perpetuates misunderstanding and inequality across generations. So when we think about whether a middle class family should send their child to a poor school, we must at least consider that to avoid doing so makes their action, fundamentally, Part of the Problem.

The people with resources use those resources to insulate themselves from the people without resources.

Now, the fact that some action is Part of the Problem should not end the inquiry. Capitalism, and especially American capitalism, with its healthy helping of institutional racism, is a nasty business that leaves no one with clean hands. When my child has holes in the soles of his sneakers and I don’t feel like I can wait for the delivery of ethically produced children’s shoes from an online retailer invariably located in Portland, I go to Target and buy sneakers likely made by foreign children in dire circumstances. I am Part of the Problem. It doesn’t make me a bad person. It does mean that, for convenience, I have made a less ethical choice. As our old buddy, the moral philosopher Peter Singer, reminds us:

If that makes living a morally decent life extremely arduous, well, then that is the way things are. If we don’t do it, then we should at least know that we are failing to live a morally decent life — not because it is good to wallow in guilt but because knowing where we should be going is the first step toward heading in that direction.

The Ethicist, unfortunately, sees none of this nuance. In five sentences, he breezily absolves the Oakland couple:

There’s no recognizably human world where parents treat their own children the same as everyone else’s. This doesn’t license lack of concern for those other kids, and you’re right to worry that your dysfunctional neighborhood school is failing those it serves. But you can do something about that — through involvement in local and state politics, for example — without sacrificing your son. And what you owe is not heroic commitment, ‘‘turning the school around’’ by your own efforts. You owe only your fair share of the duties of an engaged local citizen.

Let’s talk about everything that is wrong with that answer:

  1. “Sacrificing your son.” Ugh. This is, perhaps, the most fundamental unexplored misconception of this whole business. The letter-writer says the school’s student body is very poor and that the test scores are very low, but that “otherwise, the school, which we know fairly well through volunteering, seems perfectly fine.” Doesn’t this seem to suggest that maybe, possibly, poverty and its attendant stresses affect student performance, so a school with mostly poor students will have lousy test scores even if the education itself is good? Shouldn’t we at least consider the possibility that the letter-writer’s son will be fine? Shouldn’t a person who purports to be committed to communal betterment at least try the school and see how it goes?
  2. The benefits of sending a middle-class child to school among poor classmates do not accrue solely to the classmates. It may be that no heroic efforts can “turn around” this particular school. But the writer’s own child may well be turned around, in that he grows up understanding that there is no true difference between him and his more indigent contemporaries, and with a more intimate understanding of the challenges of poverty and the commitment and passion that such an understanding engenders. “The growing good of the world,” as George Eliot once wrote, “is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
  3. The whole premise of this question is that individual actions do lead, in the aggregate, to collective results. The writer admits as much. The Ethicist shrugs and says, “Say five Hail-Bernies and move to the suburbs.” The problem with that is that THIS IS THE ETHICIST, NOT THE POLITICAL PRAGMATIST. Even if genteel political action were a reliable way to undo economic segregation in this country — historical spoiler alert: it isn’t — taking certain steps to ameliorate a wrong while simultaneously contributing to that wrong is not the most ethical option.

Ethical behavior is about conforming your actions to your moral code. It tends to be difficult and present interesting questions, which is why there is a long-running, popular column called “The Ethicist,” but no column called “Should I Have Unprotected Sex With Strangers?”

As applied to the question of sending a kid to public school, ethical action involves a lot of variables. What particular needs does the kid have? What advantages or detriments will accrue — fairly or not — to this child because of his parents, his social station, his color? There is no one right answer. But to say, simply, “Don’t worry about it” is the wrong answer, and it is a pernicious wrong answer. It is the answer that tells people with both the resources and (theoretically) the philosophical disposition to fight segregation on a voluntary basis that they needn’t bother.

It’s a cop-out, and if this topic is to be resolved with a cop-out, it deserves a soul-searching, garment-rending, morosely guilty cop-out. For future reference, I would have preferred something along the lines of what Thomas Jefferson wrote to weasel his way out of founding a nation rhetorically predicated on liberty but economically dependent on slavery:

And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.

Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut, but his writing here does not necessarily reflect the views of his employer. He writes Rambling Man, the Billfold’s advice column about trying to make a living a doing the best you can. Questions for Rambling Man? Send them to ester@thebillfold.com.

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