It was March 9, a cold and overcast day in the northeast, when the Bari Weiss article, The Miseducation of America’s Elites, appeared on the Internet. Two days later, on March 11, Caitlin Flanagan published a piece that could have been a companion to the Weiss article. Both appealed to an audience that enjoys knowing elite educational bastions of power sometimes have serious cracks, becoming center stage, not for their educational excellence, but for alleged scandal or malfeasance. After reading both articles and supporting materials, I decided to approach our resident expert, Pat Bassett, about a possible conversation on the topic of what happens when private schools confront the intersection of their parent community and a livewire issue such as anti-racism. Pat graciously agreed to speak with me on March 17, and we had an enlightening and inspiring conversation. Many of you know Pat Bassett as a life-long independent school teacher, head of school, and association leader, most recently the retired President of NAIS (2013). His thinking and observations certainly resonated with me, and I hope they will with you as well.
How parents’ view of raising children has evolved
We began by talking about the change in parental child-rearing since we were of school-age. Both of us had considerable independence after school and on weekends. Our lives were not scheduled 24/7 (I had a trumpet lesson and played baseball during one season per year). Pat talked about why parents today have a different view of raising children:
I think the generation of current parents grew up at a time when a greater sense of insecurity emerged. Our country tried to understand why, from Vietnam forward, we became the enemy of the world, if you would. We also accepted hundreds of years of discrimination against minorities on the home front. And suddenly, the social landscape is uprooted when I’m a bigot or a racist if I don’t embrace the new culture, even if it causes me discomfort or angst.
So I see a societal evolution towards a more perfect union, as Lincoln would say, but I also see it as growing insecurity, explaining why some parents send their kids to independent schools. They are like a cocoon, to a great extent. It protects them for the eight hours of the school day, but it doesn’t protect them from social media, being bullied by digital means, and access to pornography and hate materials.
There are also innate insecurities about whether my children are good enough in a highly competitive environment with academically distinguished kids. So the kids are anxious and it makes the parents more anxious. I guess part of the strategy for moving forward has to be how to lower the temperature and reassure students and parents much more frequently.
My suggestion to schools is to allow a lot more parent-to-parent communication, but not the school’s voice of authority type because that makes a parent skeptical: “I knew he was going to say that.” Rather, consider the voice of a senior mother talking to the mother of a prospective student or the mother of a first-year student. That means everything. I actually see it as a lowering of the temperature with credibility that’s not branded by the school’s name.Pat Bassett
Teaching children to be empathetic and develop EQ will enhance IQ
I responded by agreeing about this sense of insecurity and added that some professionals are calling it fear. The fear is that your children will not have as good a life as you had. That’s a reversal of prior generations. Pat both agreed that fear is a factor and indicated it was likely an unfounded perception.
Exactly, and it’s probably not true. The current generation of kids will have a better life. They’ll be more accepting of the diverse community in which we live as they will have been in diverse schools; much more diverse than our schools have historically been. Unfortunately, our public schools are segregated by zip codes, which is so sad. Independent schools are a beacon in that way because they have the ability to intentionally integrate as best they can.
That leads me to the second observation I would make: when you look at all the brain research about intelligence, you find that one of the greatest drivers is emotional intelligence (EQ). There is a specific linkage, however: the greater my empathy for you and your condition and situation, the higher my overall level of IQ. Empathy is the key driver of emotional intelligence, but it also has a spillover into intellectual intelligence.
Educators and those organizations that support them would be providing a great service to students and parents if they could focus on helping schools educate their students and families in the areas of social-emotional learning, equity, and inclusiveness. They might provide answers to questions such as “how do you teach a child to become empathetic?”Pat Bassett
Parents and College Admissions
Following up on the notion of parental insecurity and fear regarding their children, I continued with the anecdote from the Weiss article about parents stalking college counselors at a prestigious school in Washington, DC. My question to Pat, “Why are these parents so fearful and anxious about what they perceive to be a single pathway to their child’s success?”
If you’re an independent school parent in an urban area and you have two or three kids, you’re looking at day schools with tuition of $40,000 per year and boarding schools costing up to $60,000 – $65,000 so you have to be in the top 1% of incomes in our country. Clearly, you’re financially secure, but you wonder whether your kids can ever achieve the lifestyle that they’ve become accustomed to. The tennis clubs, European vacations, and all the rest.
What parents sometimes don’t realize is that they’re driving their kids crazy with the mantra that there are only a handful of schools that open the doorway to success. We just need a lot more work with parents; that’s what it is. Parent testimonials from many fine schools not on any spurious “Top Ten” list that have provided excellent pre-collegiate educations for our children and access to many fine and selective colleges thereafter.
In our generation, my mother said every day of the year, “This, too, will pass.” A lot of parents can’t say that. They themselves have become sick or feel ill when their kids are distressed in any way. I don’t know how we can change the psychology of the current generation of parents, but at least we can point it out to them.
It comes back to that deep insecurity. These parents are already riding the top of the wave, but for some reason, they think they or their children are going to crash and burn. A lot of this is a process of reassuring parents.Pat Bassett
It’s essential to support your faculty
At this point, I made a slight topical shift. Caitlin Flanagan wrote that more schools are catering to the wants and needs of parents. She related that a quarter-century ago when she was teaching at an elite private school, that school had her back when parents came after her. Teachers no longer feel so unilaterally supported. I asked Pat what he thought had transpired in that space?
Here’s what I’d say to school Heads: if you don’t demonstrate on a daily basis that you support your faculty, guess what will happen? Soon you’re going to have a union. And unions, in many ways, ruin independent schools. The sense of entitlement of the faculty and staff goes up; the sense of separation from the leadership of the school increases.Pat Bassett
Then Pat summed up his views on the current state of parents and independent schools:
There are a lot of factors in play here, and it’s not easy to imagine how there’s a single shot of penicillin you can apply. Sharing conversations like this, provoking schools, is a start. Organizations committed to the issues of parents and independent schools could send out missives to the deans and heads of every one of the NAIS Schools asking, “How do we deal with problem parents? What’s the source of their angst?” Collect the responses and share that information. Education from the collective community can produce a very smart constituent of school leaders who can then approach parents.
It’s one thing if the information comes from Michael Thompson or Rob Evans, those folks who are integrated with independent schools. It’s another thing if it comes from parents, current parents that get it. Through that process, they will hopefully see the angst in their kids, and a way for them, with support from their school, to help their kids overcome it. These parents might provide answers to questions such as “How do you teach a child to become empathetic?” and “How do you teach a child that contributing to an equitable school and environment is not a zero-sum game, but an overall net gain.“Pat Bassett
Project-based Learning gives students agency
Pat added a pedagogical approach that would help to address student angst and provide a segue to the issues of equity and inclusiveness.
The project-based schools get it. These values of creative thinking, independence, entrepreneurship, and group work that emerge from PBL are outstanding. I don’t see enough traction for that in our schools. Project-based work also lends itself to portfolios, both the teacher’s work in defining the project and the student’s work that manifests the product and process and their tangible results. The teacher is saying, “Here’s what my kids can create and I’m giving them space to do so. It’s also good for their college admissions process.” The students are creating their own educational narrative: “Here’s what I was able to accomplish with my peers, and now I have the ability to ….”Pat Bassett
Equity and Inclusiveness
We then moved to the issue of equity and inclusiveness for a few minutes. I left diversity out of the equation because I think independent schools have worked hard to become more diverse. The equity and inclusion pieces are a bit more challenging. As both Flanagan and Weiss point out, the broad definition of equity is antithetical to the missions of many independent schools because they were founded on the premise of exclusivity. You have to pay significant tuition and go through a selection process that is based on many factors that sort and rank. They ask: How can you be equitable when that is your fundamental premise? Pat replied:
Although many independent schools take every prospective student that applies (if they can afford the discounted tuition), inequity is still the fundamental premise. The schools Flanagan and Weiss discuss and perhaps we have worked with, the elite of the elite, are facing a narrower funnel, without some control over rising tuitions. For them, the premise of exclusivity could become even more pronounced. All that being said, I think equity and inclusiveness are launched and sustained by high EQ people, and they could be at any independent school. Let’s look at the white leaders of the Civil Rights movement. They all came from Harvard, Stanford, U of Chicago, and other elite schools.
For the moment, I think we have to put aside the fundamental premise of these schools and focus on their school cultures in order to move forward. I don’t think there’s a formulaic way to arrive at the equity outcome we seek, but I do think if we pay as much attention to one’s EQ scores as we pay to IQ scores, as student journey through our schools, I think you might approach the outcome you seek.
My overall theme on the critiques of our efforts to achieve equity and inclusiveness comes from Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for every other form of government.” That’s really the cover response to this. All cultures are flawed or were flawed in some way. All human gatherings are flawed in some way. When we identify our flaws, good cultures make adjustments. We try to learn from them. This is how America has grown from a slave-holding country to a more inclusive country. We’re only part of the way to becoming an inclusive country, and we make some progress every year in trying to be more humane and considerate to everyone.
There is a part of our culture that personifies aggression and the zero-sum game. We want to kill our opponents when we play soccer, football, basketball, or lacrosse. That’s a role for athletics. Your aggressiveness counts, actually. And it counts in competitive chess as well. There’s a place for aggressiveness and there’s a place for acceptance and helping others. The more we create environments for kids to develop their empathy and connectedness to others, the less of a rough edge we’ll have.Pat Bassett
It was inspiring to talk with Pat Bassett about the challenges of today, the flood of emotions that have influenced the behaviors and practices of independent schools, and the equally emotional responses from parents who want nothing more than the best for their children. To summarize Pat’s closing, we’ve made a great deal of progress since the founding of this nation, and we have miles to go until we reach Lincoln’s “more perfect union.”