During her first week as a seventh-grade English teacher, Anna Taggert discovers her colleague, Randi Abrahams, at Starbucks writing a paper for one of her students, while the kid sips his peppermint mocha and texts his friends. The most popular English teacher in the school, Abrahams dresses like a fashionista on the $250 an hour she earns moonlighting as a tutor.
When Taggert objects, she is told to keep quiet if she wants to keep her job. Her students are too sleepy from weekends of bar mitzvah hopping to concentrate in class. When her creative assignments inspire her students to work hard, their parents petition her to stop overloading them. A month later, Taggert sells out, learns the ropes and becomes one of the hottest tutors in New York.
Former Dalton School English teacher/tutor Anisha Lakhani explores the corrupt New York prep school scene in her satirical novel, “Schooled” (Hyperion, 2008), which targets parents who pay big bucks for tutors to do their kids’ homework. Despite the caricatures, stereotypes and exaggerations, the book tells some hard and unpleasant truths.
In Andrew Trees’ “Academy X” (Bloomsbury, 2007), another “tell-all” novel by a New York teacher, honest students rarely get into great colleges, while honest teachers rarely tell the truth. “It’s the whole culture,” a bright student explains to the protagonist, an English teacher who almost gets himself fired for accusing a board member’s daughter of plagiarism. “Everyone games the system. You have to admit that it is hard to resist with the Internet putting it all at your fingertips. And don’t think it’s just papers written at home. Students use their cell phones to instant message notes to each other during tests.”
The inevitable consequences of a dysfunctional system — whether it’s an economic system or an educational system — are the same: corruption, infighting and scapegoating. The most disturbing truth exposed by these books is the combative relationship that develops in school communities between parents, teachers and students — frenemies who on the first day of school kiss each other on the cheek only to later stab each other in the back. Moral compromises result in embattled worlds dominated by a survival-of-the-fittest mentality. The frustrated school populations of “Schooled” and “Academy X” point their fingers at one another, not knowing who else to blame. Unable to recognize their common enemy, they perceive each other as the enemy. And it is most often the parents, particularly “pushy Jewish parents,” who get cast as the villains in faculty lounges, just as they do in the pages of exposés by disillusioned teachers. Conversely, it is most often those “lousy teachers” who are scapegoated in homes, tutoring centers or wherever parents congregate to share their troubles.
Parents, teachers, tutors and, yes, even administrators have the same goal: to educate kids. We should be allies, not antagonists; advocates, not adversaries.
Our oppressors are bigger, stronger and tougher than totalitarian dictators. Like all tyrants, they wage war on great books and free minds — for such minds will always resist domination and enslavement. Marketing strategists are clever and skilled at dissuading students from reading great books, distracting them with mind-numbing alternatives, from video games to plot summaries. How many gadgets, products and services can be purchased and consumed in the hours, days, weeks it takes to read, digest, not to mention write a thoughtful essay about a Shakespeare play or a Dickens novel?
Iran’s mullahs were not strong enough to prevent a group of college girls from meeting in secret at their teacher’s house in Tehran to discuss the masterpieces of Western culture. Neither the threat of beating nor beheading could keep Azar Nafisi, author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” (Random House, 2003), from opening the minds of her students to “Pride and Prejudice,” “Madame Bovary,” “Daisy Miller” and “The Dean’s December.” These students got no college credit for reading and the teacher no paycheck for teaching. They had no fancy classrooms, PowerPoint technology, lesson plans or study aids. Yet the rewards were priceless: “When my students came into that room, they took off more than their scarves and robes,” Azar Nafisi explains in her memoir. “Gradually, each one gained an outline and a shape, becoming her own inimitable self.”
The amorphous enemy of American parents, educators and students alike is best described by William Greider in his book, “One World, Ready or Not” (Simon & Schuster, 1998), as our “wondrous new machine, strong and supple, a machine that reaps as it destroys,” with no “skillful hands on board,” and “no one ... at the wheel ... sustained by its own motion, guided mainly by its own appetites.” The goals of consumerism are incompatible with the goals of liberal arts, a term which, in classical antiquity “denoted the education of a free man (Latin, liber for free) unlike the vocational education proper to a slave.” The goal of liberal arts — to form free minds — is incompatible with the goal of mass culture — to form shopaholics. The liberal arts value individuals; market culture values consumers. Liberal arts value tradition; market culture values novelty. Liberal arts inspire thinking; market culture inspires buying. Liberal arts champion originality; market culture inspires conformity. Western humanism celebrates humans; modern consumerism celebrates gadgets. Parents and teachers want to educate children; market culture wants to package products.
The mother who sent her seventh-grader for tutoring at Starbucks with Randi Abrahams in “Schooled” is familiar. She is not as rich as Anna Taggert thinks she is; both she and her husband are killing themselves to pay those school and tutoring bills. And despite it all, their seventh-grader is not as educated as his teacher imagines him to be when she asks him to write a summary of the first act of “Romeo and Juliet.” There is no way Benjamin can figure out how to condense those pages or put the Elizabethan English into his own words — not words ripped off SparkNotes or MonkeyNotes. Smart as he is, he just doesn’t have the writing skills — not to mention the vocabulary and attention span — to get through the first act of a Shakespeare play on his own. But his school, which markets itself as “top college prep,” must pretend its 12-year-olds can do just that. It wouldn’t be surprising if by next year they’ll claim he can read 700-page Victorian novels, and the year after “The Norton Anthology of English Literature.”
Benjamin’s mother sees her son as overwhelmed. She, too, is overwhelmed with everything a parent has to do to package kids for the college market. If you ask her, she’ll tell you that nothing is more important to her and her husband than Benjamin’s education. She learned that from her mother, who learned it from her mother. “We should, I say, put ourselves to great pains for our children, for on this the world is built….” wrote one of those pushy mothers, Glückel of Hamelin, a German Jewish superwoman of the late 17th and early 18th century, who managed to raise 12 children, run a business and write her memoirs for future generations.
The stories, values and messages Glückel transmits to her children are meant to provide them with a shelter in the storm, an armor that will shield them against the destructive forces of their times. Many parents today choose to provide their children with a religious education for the same reason. Glückel’s dominant culture, anti-Semitic as it was, revered her role as parent. It empowered her to see herself as a transmitter of civilized values, rather than as a provider of goods and services. Some Jewish parents today don’t realize that Judaism and the humanities go hand in hand; our children need both in order to humanize an increasingly dehumanizing culture.
The role of Judaic studies teachers is clearly perceived as enriching students’ lives, rather than getting them into college. And the market has not yet come up with SparkNotes for Tanakh.
Parents and educators who resist the pressures of the market champion the same values that have always been upheld by the world’s great writers, thinkers and theologians. They choose substance over surface, mind over matter, quality over quantity. The most meaningful choices always require the most time. And the most valuable commodity mass culture steals away from us is time. The greatest gift parents and educators can give themselves, their students and each other is the gift of time. Reading and writing skills grow over time. It takes time to assimilate an idea; time to formulate a thought; time to express it clearly; time to teach a book thoroughly; time to grade a paper carefully. It takes time to form a cultured mind, an educated mind, a thoughtful mind — the kind of mind that will resist tyranny and keep freedom and democracy alive in the 21st century.
Irina Bragin is an L.A. tutor and writer who teaches English and public speaking at Touro College Los Angeles. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.