Thursday, May 7, 2015

No Bedtime Story

Adam Swift, a professor of political theory at the University of Warwick, demonstrates that in order to get an idea that's weapons-grade stupid, you need an extensive education.

Professor Swift was recently interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's The Philosophers' Zone, where he discussed the theory of egalitarian families he is trying to develop with his colleague Harry Brighouse. Among the things that Professor Swift would like to see is the elimination of private schools, which help create advantage gaps that exacerbate inequalities in society. In other words, rich and (sometimes) smart kids who go to private schools have an unfair advantage over poor and smart kids who go to regular public schools. I think a better path than closing down good schools is improving less good ones, but we can live and let live on disagreements about that sort of thing.

The one thing Professor Swift talked about that got some press, though, was noting how parents who read to their kids at night should be aware they are providing their child an unfair advantage over the parents who don't. He magnanimously allows such parents a few nights off of feeling guilty about all of the kids who don't get read to, but still says they should think about that occasionally. Whether or not they should actually do anything that might help out some of those kids and families apparently is a matter for smaller minds than Professor Swift's.

And while we're at it, I don't believe parents are under any effin' obligation to think about this matter in terms of "unfair advantages." Feeling something about kids whose parents' decisions, freely made or otherwise, disadvantage them even before they get to the starting line is a good thing. Wanting to somehow respond to help those so disadvantaged is also a good thing. But the mere existence of my reading parents did not cause someone else's non-reading parents, and pretending otherwise as Professor Swift seems to suggest is just plan silly.

Professor Swift compares the existence of elite private schools to reading parents, and says that while the elimination of the schools wouldn't harm the family bonding process, elimination of reading at bedtime would. It has value beyond its educational benefits. He's a prince, ain't he? It takes someone who gets paid to be listened to by impressionable 18-year-olds about whatever airy fancy flits through his brain to even talk about conditions under which bedtime reading could somehow be reduced or eliminated.

Leave aside practical considerations, such as how such behavior could ever be curtailed outside of a world where clocks strike 13, 2+2=5 and Winston Smith loves Big Brother. Philosophy professors have spent a lot of money -- mostly mom and dad's and the government's -- to get to a place where they can ignore things like the impossibility of surveilling every pre-schooler at bedtime,  and we shouldn't ask them to just waste all of that by reminding them how much of the world gets by without encountering philosophy professors for years at a time.

No, let's just look at the big ol' existential elephant in junior's bedroom, which is that whether or not parents read to kids at bedtime is none of Professor Swift's gorram business. His belief that there's a utility to the activity that makes it acceptable is completely irrelevant. Also, for that matter, is why parents read to their kids or what they think when they do it. My dad did most of the bedtime reading, and I think some of it was because he didn't get to spend as much time with us as mom did since he worked at an office during the day. And sometimes it was because he liked reading and his mom had read to him and he wanted us to like reading too. And sometimes it was because that's what dads did. And sometimes it was because we were wound up and needed the semi-hypnotic effect of a bedtime story to get us ready for sleep.

But even if he was reading excerpts from the Montgomery Burns' Guide to Serf-Crushing with the deliberate intention of helping us to make other kids look dumb and fail at life, it still would have been something about which Professor's Swift's opinions were neither required nor appropriate to offer.

So please, if you have kids, read to them at night and do so free of guilt about what other parents don't do. Read to them to make them smarter, read to them to show them you care, read to them to spend time with them, read to them to help them develop a love of reading and language, read to them whyeverso you want to. And whatever you want to, and do so free of worry about what Professor Swift, I or anyone else thinks about it, because it's none of our business.

Unless you read to them from How Not to Be a Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed Parent, or something like that. Then I'm calling the cops on you.


fillyjonk said...

We're sure Swift's first name isn't Jonathan, and Swift is not making a Modest Proposal?

If Swift is serious, this is SO STUPID. I grew up lacking certain privileges - I am socially awkward, I had some health issues, my parents didn't want to spend on the "signifiers" (designer jeans) that were important when I was in school.

But my parents read to me and disciplined me and I KNEW MY PARENTS LOVED ME. That last bit is what allowed me to survive junior high school, and I'm not being as hyperbolic about that statement as you might think.

Is Swift seriously implying we should level the playing field by having "middle class" parents do less parental care? Yeah, that'll be good for society.

Friar said...

No, I don't think he advocates that, or at least he doesn't say so in the interview.

What showed me that he's off his rocker about this stuff is that he talked like that kind of a move could have been on the table if reading at bedtime did not have other beneficial effects in the process of family bonding. It's sort of an attitude of "No, worries, everyday folks. Your quaint tradition is actually of benefit in ways you didn't realize, so we will say it's OK, even though you may not have realized why."

fillyjonk said...

Okay. Fair enough, he's not calling for leveling the playing field by making parents parent less.

But the whole "eliminate private schools" idea makes me twitch - it was going to a private high school, rather than being in the public high school where it was the same people I hadn't fit in with for the previous 12 years, that helped me to realize I wasn't a total creep and weirdo who doesn't belong here. I am
not sure I would have figured that out in the regular high school, based on what some kids I knew who went there said.

(I do agree improving the existing public schools is a necessary thing, but the weird kids also need a way out of those schools)

Friar said...

It's a bad idea, indeed. When I worked at a college I saw smart kids come out of top public high schools who were torpedoed by the work load of collegiate education.

Not because it was radically hard, but because they hadn't ever been pushed when they were in high school. If they adapted to the pace and the time commitment, they survived. The kids who had less struggled adapting were often those who had been to private school. A high school friend of mine who sent his daughters to private school said it was because private school kids had learned how much they could screw around before getting down to work; I'm not sure about that but it holds the same idea.

And the idea that the best way to close inequalities is to drag down those at the top instead of raising others is just bizarre to me.

fillyjonk said...

"But I was in the top tenth of my graduating class" is something I hear from some students who struggle here. And we're not Harvard difficult. Some schools really do NOT challenge the students like they should.

I remember coasting my freshman year in college (well, except for Calculus...) because I had gone to prep school.