Touts at the Schoolhouse Door


At one end of San Francisco’s Broadway in a quiet neighborhood stands the Sacred Heart Convent School for girls, the soul of discretion. Its Wikipedia entry is only a few lines. It knows what it wants to do, as do its students and their parents.

At the other or neon end are (or used to be) the city’s topless and strip clubs. True, you could get gnocchi al pesto at Enrico’s or hear Tom Lehrer or Lenny Bruce at the Hungry i, and you can still buy ‘Howl’ at City Lights Books, where it was notoriously published sixty years ago. But for many people from the 1970s to the 1990s it was the topless joints that made the street famous. People would stroll by the topless clubs, each with its ‘barker’ outside touting the delights to be found within, such as ‘live girls’. (Gary Larson in The Far Side imagined an insect topless joint featuring ‘live females’, but that joke is less understandable today, when people often refer to men and women as males and females, than it was when Larson published it.)

The polarity of Broadway has its analogous polarity in education. At one pole are the schools that simply get along in their completeness, giving information to those who inquire and simply attending to their missions. Those missions are themselves simple and free of gongs and sirens. One school I know of has the mission ‘to provide a liberal education based on Christian principles’. One can hope that such a mission is free of baloney and that people are attracted to the school for all the right reasons.

At the other pole are the schools that ‘market’ themselves like barkers, inviting the young to sample the delights within, delights that usually fall far short of the barkers’ hyperbolic promises.  One such school, absurdly named Quest to Learn, even managed to get The New York Times to do its barking. I was not very hopeful that the children gulled into attending would come out with much to show for their efforts, assuming efforts were required. (This is not a sure thing, especially where ‘failure is not an option’.)

As my summer holiday continues I visited a former colleague who found a teaching job at one of the more ‘prestigious’ (what a word!) schools in the city where she lives. She has just quit, telling me that she is tired of an administration that seems more intent on barking than teaching. Part of the school’s ‘problem’ is that it and other schools ‘compete’ for the same students and try to catch them by pitching ‘the delights within’. It sounds less like admissions than like hunting season. I think the last straw was being commanded to make students take notes on computers only, not by hand, so the school would be 100% computerized. Since there can’t be any reason for 100% computerization that forbids handwriting, it must be to accommodate their pitchmen.

One mark of a potentially good school (there are others) is that it can be found at the right end of Broadway, so to speak, far from the barking crowd.

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