Sunday, June 29th, 2008
The poor quality of urban schools has often been viewed as a key barrier to luring families back to the city. Hence the traditional focus of downtown redevelopment efforts on target demographics such as young singles, gays, and empty nesters. I suppose I had always accepted the conventional wisdom that it would take improvements in schools to bring middle class families back to the city.
But what if it is exactly the opposite? Maybe instead it’s middle class families moving back to the city that drives the school improvements. That’s what an article in the Chicago Tribune today suggests, as they cover the exploding phenomenon of urban families in that city. I can speak from experience that the number of children is rising quickly in other major cities as well. Even New York City has neighborhoods that are experiencing stroller congestion.
Having kids in the city isn’t new. But what is new is the number of people who are electing to stay there after the children reach school age. With private school enrollment capacity constrained and extremely expensive, many of them are electing to send their kids to public school. I personally know several couples who have pledged to do so, though to be truthful, only one who has actually done it to date.
Still, this represents an incredible sea change in attitudes. As middle and upper classes send their kids to school, and get involved with improving local schools, supporting better funding, and putting political pressure on for quality, it seems at least plausible that this would drive improvement. Perhaps this is the best hope for renewing our urban schools that has come by in a long time. I’m more optimistic about the future of our urban schools than I have been in a long, long time.
Yet I’m troubled by this as well, because it represents an incredible shift, possibly a breakdown, in the intergenerational compact. Traditionally, parents have endured significant hardship and sacrificed to make sure their children had the greatest potential for success in life, and to have the chance to live better than they themselves were able to. This idea that each generation should bequeath a better life to its successors is heavily ingrained in the American psyche.
But this urban families movement stands this idea on its head. Rather than the parents sacrificing to give the best opportunities to their children, the parents are sacrificing their own children’s education in order to preserve an urban lifestyle for themselves that they are unwilling to part with. It is totally selfish in motivation. The parents want to continue living it up in the city, and if that means junior has to go to an inferior public school, so be it. Even if the city schools improve dramatically, they’ll lack the quality of top suburban districts. With education so key to the 21st century economy, are these parents putting their children’s future at risk? Only time will tell.
This reminds me of another similar item I saw in the news lately. Indiana University is planning to put a full four year medical school program in Northwest Indiana and other places around the state. The idea is that people from the area will go to school near home instead of the main Indianapolis campus or transferring out of state. The reason to do this is so that they will stay to practice medicine in the area where they grew up. It’s an attack on the so-called “brain drain” problem. One person in a previous article put it something like this: “Once these kids get a taste of Broad Ripple, they’ll never want to go back to the farm.”
Wanting to increase the number of physicians in under served parts of the state is admirable. I might suggest two things, however. One, the lights of Chicago are likely to beckon a young doctor in NWI as much or more than those of Broad Ripple will attract them in Indy. Secondly, this again is a deliberate attempt to circumscribe the future of our next generation for the benefit of someone else. It is particularly saddening to see that a university, an institution traditionally devoted to broadening minds and expanding possibilities, would be complicit in this. In effect, what IU is saying is, let’s do what we can to keep our kids from finding out about the world. If they never discover what’s out there, they won’t be tempted to leave home. This is a terrible attitude. Again, this is a matter of values, but I believe that we should be doing what we can do help young people achieve their hopes, dreams, and ambitions, and part of that is making sure they are exposed to enough of what’s out there to find their proper calling, and that they have the broadest possible spectrum of possibilities to pursue.
For some, practicing medicine in their home town is that calling. If so, they’ll find it on their own. My tiny rural hometown community lacked a doctor for many years. But one local left town to go to medical school, practiced elsewhere for a while, then decided there was no place he’d rather be than where he grew up. Today he has a thriving practice as the area doctor where there was previously none. And it didn’t take trying to limit his possibilities to get there.
That’s not to say that there is no place for sacrificing even the personal interest of our children for the good of society. For a republic to endure, it’s citizens must have the civic virtue to understand the need to do their duty to their society when called. The call to serve the community is a powerful one in the human spirit. We see all the time people who answer it. Yes, even for young people, many of whom throughout our history have even been killed while serving the country in times of war.
But what I see in these cases is not a call to duty. It’s one group of people pursuing its own self-interest at the expense of another. I only know one couple who has said they are sending their kids to Chicago Public Schools because they feel it is their obligation to take a stand in their neighborhood and not take the easy road by leaving those who don’t have the option behind and moving to the suburbs. Everybody else just talks about how much they love the city.
Perhaps I’m sounding a bit too negative. The benefits of reviving our urban schools and ensuring a supply of doctors for all our communities are big. And I feel good about the hopeful signs there. It’s just that I’m a bit troubled at some of the underlying rationales behind both things. When people started packing up and moving to the suburbs, the negative consequences of that weren’t readily foreseen. Perhaps likewise the negatives of the return are yet to manifest themselves in unexpected ways. Having had their own education short changed for the benefit of their parents’ lifestyle, will these children down the road be so willing to sacrifice their own lifestyle to care properly for those parents in old age? We’ll see.