An article came across my desk recently, a broad examination of the relationship between parents and independent schools. Written by Kevin Kunst, it ran as “New Wave” in the Fall 2022 issue of Independent School. In it, Mr. Kunst lays out a series of challenges and opportunities brought on by the emergence of millennial and Gen Z parents into the school market. In his thinking, these are the first two generations to spend their adult years in an internet-driven information age”. This cohort, my cohort in the interest of full disclosure, has been shaped by the emergence of what we used to call The World Wide Web in the ‘90s; we’re the last humans to experience a time without ubiquitous mini-computers in our pockets and ready access to nearly infinite information. It may have been Kurzweil or another futurist who described our moment as a global experiment in consciousness-melding. Now, while not every family sends kids to independent schools, I thought to explore some of Kunst’s thoughts in this space. And I’d add to the mix a second influence on our current Families of School Age: the COVID pandemic and all its consequent impacts on our kids.
Mr. Kunst early captures a trend among all families, those in public, charter, or independent schools: “When we…view these parents as consumers—and potential members of our independent school community—we can start to understand that they are increasingly looking at the education of their children as a transaction”. This perhaps seems self-evident to many of us–who doesn’t expect to maximize the value of their children’s educational experience? Why would parents simply say Thank You for whatever situations a school or teacher throws their way without expecting an exchange based in mutual betterment? I’m old enough to remember a time when I was told “the teacher’s in charge so you’ll do as she asks, and your parents support her efforts unequivocally”. It seemed to me, even as an 8-year old getting into trouble for putting crayons in the pencil sharpener, that adults were bound together in a–pardon the pun–web of care and concern for kids’ well-being. They all pulled in the same direction. That sense may have been built on a concept I’ve long held up as the animating spirit of education, one that goes all the way back to the birth of the humanities, further even to the peripatetic philosophers cruising around the Parthenon. Education ought to build a person, a human being of depth and curiosity, ready to put his powers to the benefit of his fellows. Education makes citizens and balanced individuals who can experience their own lives through the double-prism of communal service and personal satisfaction.
A consumerist mentality alters the entire game. And while you’ll likely perceive early that I’ve got a dog in the hunt, as it were, it’s worth unpacking the benefits and drawbacks of each approach that would animate what schools do, how parents contribute to same, and what kinds of adults our current children will become in that model. I shared with a friend of mine a phrase that Kunst uses, “concierge programming”, which expresses a market-based approach built on a bespoke educational outlook. You don’t send your kid to So and So Elementary School, you buy a Savile Row gabardine that the teachers and administrators offer in that space. It makes perfect sense; why not couple the method to the exact material? That is, since our kids all require different techniques at different times in their learning, it’s right and savvy to make a garment that fits just so. That’s the exchange that offers most value for money, it assures schools they’re offering precisely the experience that their customers desire, it builds brand satisfaction in parents, and the kids win because they get support and motivation in having their specific profile enhanced. It can, sometimes though, make the endeavor feel a bit soulless. I don’t frequently gain a frisson of excitement knowing that my jacket fits just right. I just put the money down and got a thing I wanted. I don’t care for my daughter in that way, how could I? Yet, that animating spirit has influenced the millennial and Gen Z parents that Kunst examines in his article. It includes the “ready on demand” aspect of searching the ‘net for exactly the thing you want at the exact moment you want it. If the last thirty years has been a steady Amazon-ification of teaching and learning, we’d only be acting in accordance with the circumstances we all have lived through. Maybe it is time to throw aside references to centuries-old philosophical schools and simply join the present. Maybe.
COVID was the epidemiological counterpart to 9/11. It shattered institutions, faith, our very conceptualization of professional work, and the confidence many people have in the continuation of their own good health. Many millions of pages will be devoted to this cultural moment, and so I’ll only make the most superficial of assays in this regard. Living through the onset of lockdowns as a teacher myself, working with my then-1st grade daughter in this odd, off-putting new interaction called online learning (here maybe the millennials and Gen Z’ers helped our country carry on with their special skill-set and attitude toward tech), and finally helping my students apply for and then begin their collegiate careers. These affected me and my family and they have colored my attitude toward education in ways that correspond to parents who wish for Kunst’s “concierge programming”. In some senses, the two cultural experiences–internet consumerism and COVID–reinforce each other. They must. But what occurs to me now is that sensation of loss that takes place in both those experiences, a feeling that something important has been taken from our kids. It was certainly the way I felt when the Twin Towers fell on live television. I get the sense it’s how my daughter and so many children like her felt when their parents couldn’t explain how they were going to stay safe, when it would end, and why was this happening. That web of authority and calm younger people think older people create was rent.
So, what steps make sense for families preparing for this year, the return to in-person schooling, to application for college, for thinking about the purpose and methods of kids’ education? How do we measure learning loss? What’s the lost socialization that’s so crucial for younger students mean for their emotional health? Can we return to a community, rather than isolated nodes of frightened families sitting in front of a Zoom screen? Is it doubling-down on a consumer-based approach to our kids’ education? Is it a return to a deeply humanistic tradition that sets aside market metrics in favor of squishy, effervescent rhetoric about Truth, Beauty, and the like? None of us know, we’re all playing out the most meaningful of human experiments, and it’s likely that the collision of these two cultural moments–COVID and the dawn of the Information Age–have created a unique inflection point in the story of education.
As a parent and educator, it’s always a What Can We Do Next question. How can we respond, adroitly or more slowly and in fits and starts, to the situation our charges inhabit? What do the kids need?
Resilience is both a truth and a bromide in educational circles. When character education was the fashionable trend in independent schools a few years back, students’ reaction to setbacks was identified as a crucial component in their self-betterment. And it was right to think so. But it’s also a kind of easy thinking to say “deal with this bad grade in Calculus and come back with a better one to show me what you’re made of”. That’s because the metric for success always rests in that external reward, the transactional model that places value in the thing and sees kids as parents’ investment vehicles; who doesn’t want steady growth in her portfolio with easily recognizable indicators of such? To the humanists, one might say how does anyone measure reaction to setbacks without clear, objective marks–grades–in favor of lofty teacher-jargon that only educators have the luxury of indulging in?
Nonetheless, it’s resilience that might offer a lodestar for families in this internet/COVID age in their own definition. It’d be a mentality that families could use as fuel to negotiate a brave new world built on technological sophistication and that most basic of human emotions, fear of the unknown. Education at its core is an endeavor of faith–in our offspring, in their teachers, in a partnership between schools and parents, and in the wider world to reward that commitment to an inchoate ideal. So, parents would get to define what value looks like for their transactions with schools. So, teachers would get to negotiate a fair bill of sale that promises their Romantic strivings housed in learning that is useful in the professional world. The quality of resilience and its essential forward-looking nature might make a wise response to the futurism of millennial market forces and the psychic trauma caused by COVID. Let’s not simply assume “it’s all different now, just get with the program” and let’s not turn away from some seminal truths about the purpose of education, of parenting. Kids may or may not benefit from “concierge programming” but they’ll always benefit from strong ideals held in common among the adults. They’ll benefit from calm and continuity, just as they will individualized attention. Children do best when we let them weather the invariable difficulties of schooling, all the while knowing someone older cares for them and has a steady hand to help.
Remember the Time Before and insist on the Time Ahead. Resilience is the knot that binds them tight and is, likewise, the bridge all parents and educators must traverse. It’s good that we’re in the pursuit together, cooperative and self-interested in equal measure.