Should we be satisfied with mediocre schools?

Larry Sanger

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the conservative educational thinktank, the Thomas J. Fordham Institute–whose tagline is “Advancing Educational Excellence.” Petrilli argues that it’s totally okay if his children study at a school that is “often mediocre.” This a breath of fresh air in regards to his honesty and candor, at least. What sort of school should he want for his children? “Not a school that is just ‘adequate or average,’ much less mediocre, but one that, by design, helps to prepare kids for ‘life’s endless frustrations.'”

This is the attitude that literally frustrated me to distraction when I was a student in the 1970s and 80s, and which led me to homeschool my two boys. It is refreshing that Petrilli admits that his children’s school is mediocre and that, out of consistency, he wants to make a virtue of not-quite-necessity by saying this is a good thing, because it prepares them for the many frustrations of life. But no, I argue that we should not be satisfied with mediocre schools, and the quality of education is an important enough thing that, barring some sort of educational revolution–not likely–then we should seek other solutions. Homeschooling is ours.

We don’t regret our choice in the least. To give an example of what they’re doing now, my 12-year-old son is about to read the classics of archaic Greece, Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogony, and both the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer. As to my 8-year-old, I read the Odyssey to him when he was five, at his request, and am now halfway through reading the Iliad to him. For his own part, he’s polishing off the Harry Potter series for fun and continues to watch science videos aimed at high school students.

I ask myself: What can account for such a stark difference of opinion between Petrilli, who finds himself arguing that mediocre schools are good enough for his children, and me, when I absolutely insist on giving my children an excellent education?

Part of this, no doubt, is the difference between a conservative and a libertarian. Conservatives are generally inclined to defend the current system, warts and all, even if they are (as in Petrilli’s case) committed to “Advancing Educational Excellence.” The incursions of institutions on liberty and, yes, excellence naturally piss off libertarians.

But let’s look at Petrilli’s actual argument. He says that life is full of mediocrity and boredom; kids should learn to cope with it. I find this argument transparently weak. Have we heard any stories, much less seen hard evidence, that homeschooled kids, who do not have to deal with the bullshit of a regular school, are somehow hampered by their lack of experience with daily mediocrity and boredom? Not at all. If anything, the unremitting mediocrity of most regular schools (both public and private) beats down many kids, turning them off to learning and stifling their ambition, especially in the case of boys in recent decades.

I would argue, to the contrary, that small human beings naturally bristle and rebel at stifling mediocrity, and if this rebellious spirit, which is the same as the desire for excellence, is not beaten out of them, it will serve them very well in adulthood.

So that argument won’t do, and Petrilli acknowledges he might be rationalizing:

To be sure, I might be rationalizing. To find the money to send two boys to private school would require a painful change in our family’s lifestyle; likewise with becoming homeschoolers. But the truth is that we could do it if we wanted it badly enough. So I have a strong self-interest in conflating “mediocre” and “good enough.” Maybe I’m just trying to feel better about the fact that I haven’t figured out how to get my boys into a school that’s excellent.

I don’t know Petrilli, so I can’t say if his refreshing candor here is correct in his case. But it does have the ring of truth to me. I think that many of us ambitious adults do place our own interests before those of our children, and perhaps this is natural for us. But others feel quite differently about the matter.

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