They've become familiar stories: Schools with the demographics of a New England beach club draft "antiracist" screeds. Ivy university coaches accept bribes from movie executives, then admit their anemic offspring as scholarship athletes. Parents surreptitiously record admissions meetings for collateral. Students, who are taught that liberalism is a vestige of "white privilege," walk on eggshells around classmates and their preferred pronouns.
This is what we talk about when we talk about elite private education—the virtue-signaling, the power, and the vainglory. We're overdue for an appraisal and, as such, the timing could not be better for Blythe Grossberg's I Left My Homework in the Hamptons: What I Learned Teaching the Children of the One Percent.
Alas, the book does not lampoon the excesses of a high-priced American education. Instead, it shifts between envy and sympathy for the author's "überrich" students. It vaguely gestures at the entitlement, the snobbish attitudes, the decadence—and shrugs. If elite private education is now "obscene," as the Atlantic‘s Caitlin Flanagan has written, Grossberg says nothing to disabuse readers of the notion. But neither does she further the charges against it.
The memoir follows Grossberg's foray into tutoring as she ingratiates herself with the children of Manhattan's elite. The author imposes her story over F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, likening herself to a trustworthy Nick Carraway and her tutees to a cast of Tom Buchanans, Jordan Bakers, and Jay Gatsbys. She even loosely patterns the narrative after the plot, complete with romance, lavish parties, and a climactic death.
The grandiose allusions flatter no one. The kids resemble more the superficial Park Avenue 20-somethings of Whit Stillman's Metropolitan than Fitzgerald's boozy yet bold Lost Generation. Their parents are wealthy, and they are bored. They turn to drink or drugs or Instagram. They don't have time for schoolwork because they have squash lessons. So postgrads from Columbia write their essays for them. And if they fail, they can always pressure someone to fudge the grade, give them a do-over, diagnose a bogus learning disability for extra time on tests, or else pump them full of performance-enhancing schedule II amphetamines (Adderall). As one of Grossberg's students explains: "There were always tutors. And my school allowed me to hand in papers late. It was kind of like ‘three strikes and you're still not out.'"
Diplomas and acceptance letters are no longer earned. They're bought. The students' enablers—teachers, doctors, administrators, and admissions counselors—all have a price. And the parents are more than willing to pay.
Even for those who play by the rules, the process is dizzying and can lead to burnout. The "meritocracy trap," as it's been termed by Yale Law School professor Daniel Markovits, every year ensnares a burgeoning class of elite students pursuing only a handful of openings at the Ivy League and jobs on Wall Street, in management consulting, and law. The relentless need to achieve for them is counted more of an accomplishment than good character. The pursuit isolates parents from their children and children from their peers, leading to anxiety and depression. Grossberg sympathizes with these "risks of affluence," which she says make it harder to be a rich student than a poor student. "Experts believe that the children of the affluent suffer twice as much depression as the kids in the South Bronx or East New York who are struggling just to get to school safely and help their parents keep a roof over their heads," she writes.
As elite institutions have increasingly become a lucrative commodity that the upper class buys and sells, those institutions have even lobbied for subsidies. In doing so, they have come to resemble the federal government—an ever-expanding administrative entity, perfectly willing to do the bidding of a small group of connected people. Another year, another crop of dull but politically savvy high schoolers, creeping like snails unwillingly toward higher education.
Which is why it is odd to see people like Grossberg dismiss one of the few truly meritocratic devices left in education: standardized tests. She dismisses the SAT as a useless measure of academic performance in college, then a few pages later points out how minority students are only given a leg up by aptitude tests. The cognitive dissonance can be unnerving. "To reconcile being liberal with sending their children to private rather than public school, many parents are extremely generous to the school," Grossberg writes.
The book does not comment on the rise of "woke" education. Nor does it touch on recent efforts to mandate (or outlaw) critical race theory curricula nationwide. But it does, through its description of the lives of truly privileged students, hint at a growing racial divide, one hidden behind glowing statements about the importance of equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Having taught at an inner-city, predominantly black school for a few years, I can say this was maybe the most surprising omission of all. Wealthy, white schools are the fathers of these curricula, often written by wealthy, white educational consultants who are their graduates. The curricula then trickle down to the rest of the nation's schools. And children, regardless of their race or class, learn to distrust the whole inheritance of Western civilization, referring to it largely as a disgruntled group of old, white, dead men.
In Joe Biden's America, "poor kids" are supposed to be seen as "just as bright and just as talented as white kids—wealthy kids." The president's accidental conflation of the two—"white" and "wealthy"—was telling. As elite schools move further away from merit-based assessments, there will be fewer and fewer opportunities for social mobility, and existing inequalities will perpetuate. The stories we hear from the schools of the One Percent may be discouraging, but they at least make one thing clear: Without an education, what's left to people is the language of power—one's race and one's class.
I Left My Homework in the Hamptons: What I Learned Teaching the Children of the One Percent
by Blythe Grossberg
Hanover Square Press, 304 pp., $27.99