Who ruined childhood?

Schools Are Ruining Our Kids, writes A.A. Gill in Vanity Fair. Gill has raised one set of children and has a second set just starting school.

In the 100 years since we really got serious about education as a universally good idea, we’ve managed to take the 15 years of children’s lives that should be the most carefree, inquisitive, and memorable and fill them with a motley collection of stress and a neurotic fear of failure. Education is a dress-up box of good intentions, swivel-eyed utopianism, cruel competition, guilt, snobbery, wish fulfillment, special pleading, government intervention, bu­reauc­racy, and social engineering.

Gill blames “the byzantine demands of the education-industrial complex,” but it’s really competitive parents who demand preschool put their kiddies on track for the Ivy League.

Over-achieving Hillary Clinton smugly told us that it took a village to bring up a child. Oh my God. If only. If all it took were some happy, thatched, smocked village, we’d all have bought villages, have bought 10 villages—we’d have adopted a village. But no dusty, higgledy-piggledy, clucking, mooing, sleepy-town hamlet is going to get you into the only pre-school that is the feeder for that other school that is the fast track to the only school that is going to give your child half a chance of getting into that university that will lead to a life worth living.

Oh no, we need far more than the village. We need au pairs who speak three languages and musical nannies and special tutors and counselors and professional athletes with knee problems to coach hand-eye coordination.

Outside of the wealthier parts of Manhattan, how many parents can afford to buy villages worth of nannies, tutors, coaches and counselors? Are parents really so obsessed with their children’s “success” that they forget about happiness?

About Joanne


  1. A.A. Gill is the Sunday Times restaurant critic. His piece appeared in Vanity Fair, but I assume he’s not aiming his children at the Ivy League. He lives in London, according to Bloomberg.

    Interesting article about him here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/may/25/recipes.foodanddrink2.

    He’s severely dyslexic, attended a progressive, vegetarian boarding school and an art college. He tried to become an artist before becoming a fantastically successful writer. When he points out that much of education is useless for adult success, he may have a point. He’s speaking from his own experience.

    The parental anxiety he observes may arise from changes in the British education system, not the American. Many features seem universal. The tutor/summer camp/nanny madness is international? Don’t move from Manhattan to London to escape the trap of wealthy parenting?

  2. The article represents a type of humor seen much more often in Britain than here – understated in some ways while over-the-top in others, designed more to elicit wry smiles than laughter.

    You seem to be treating it as if it was written in earnest. Gill’s statements on Clinton are no less overstated and sarcastic than was his description of Methodism – and that’s consistent with the author’s intent.

    As cranberry notes, it’s interesting how easily his sarcastic commentary on British schools translate across the Atlantic. How interchangeable the concepts of “Ivy League” and “Oxbridge” are in our collective dreams for our children.

  3. Schools have no ability to ruin childhood, just as teachers have no ability to destroy a kid’s love of learning. Parents and kids make choices which impact their experience, and they decide how to establish their values. In an era that a majority of high school students claim high school is pretty “easy,” Gill’s comments have no credibility.

  4. If the full-service, batch process, 9-month year, 12 year Math-Science-English-History sequence government school model did not define “education” to most people, parents might feel more comfortable with departures from the path that the majority follows. Why isn’t it “education” to take orders, wait tables, wash dishes, collect payment and cook in your parent’s noodle shop? Why isn’t it “education” to work in a machine shop? Why isn’t it “education” to assist the large animal veterinarian?

  5. greeneyeshade says:

    I’ve wondered for a long time what grade inflation since the 60s might have to do with this. Would the pressure be so high if there were still such a thing as a solid B, never mind a gentleman’s C?

    • For this segment of (UK, US) society, I think it is harder to get into the “right” universities. Standardized tests allow universities to compare students from different backgrounds. A scion from the “right” family background is no longer assured admission.

      Now, it seems the UK system awards the lion’s share of “good” university places to private school graduates. They do this on the basis of “predicted” exam scores. (Which system I admit I don’t understand. It would seem to bias admission to the “reliable” high schools?)

      Personally, I blame dinner parties for parental anxiety. At dinner parties, one hears of the children doing splendidly, the children who had surprising results, and the children who fell apart from stress. A nice kid with good grades who got into a good college, as expected, just doesn’t make for scintillating small talk.