Flanagan argues that the real reason so many decent, thoughtful, upper-middle-class mothers are upset by Chua's book is that they simultaneously believe that their children should be less burdened and overscheduled, more imaginative and more free to follow their own passions--and that their creative intelligence and own-bliss-following should win them a spot at Princeton. They're therefore made frantic by the conflict between their beliefs about progressive parenting and the reality of college admissions. Ivy League schools have so many applicants that they don't have to choose between admitting quirky, creative kids (whose one or two great passions mean their report cards are a little patchy) and admitting overscheduled, super-achieving automatons. Princeton could fill an entire entering class with superachievers who are also quirky and creative and passionate.
Now, I haven't read Chua's book and I don't have children, but Flanagan's analysis rings true with what I hear and see around me in the debate about top-tier colleges and universities: admission to such schools is seen either as a real and significant judgment on an adolescent's intelligence and abilities--or as a process that rewards only the dull and the driven, who spend long hours coloring, furiously, within the lines. In my experience, neither is true--or maybe both are, but to a much more limited degree than either the Ivy League's obsessives or its detractors suppose.
I'm therefore supportive of Flanagan's proposal that those parents who really care about their children's individual passions and intelligence adopt what she calls "The Rutgers Solution" (where "Rutgers" = the flagship state school of your choice):
If you make the decision--and tell your child about it early on--that you totally support her, you're wildly engaged with her intellectual pursuits, but you will not pay for her to attend any college except Rutgers, everything will fall into place. She'll take AP calculus if she's excited by the challenge, max out at trig if not.Now, Flanagan doesn't seem to be serious about this proposal; she's just making the rhetorical point that upper-middle-class parents in certain areas of the country, like the NYC 'burbs, would never seriously encourage their kids to drop AP classes or enforce their bedtimes--thus solving the problem of stress and burnout--because even as they bemoan the academic rat race they would also consider sending their kids to Rutgers a sign of their failure.
But I think parents might benefit from taking her proposal seriously, at least with some caveats: it strikes me as unnecessarily limiting to tell a child that you'd only pay for her to attend a local university--some of us were motivated precisely by the idea that we might go someplace we'd never have to see any of our high school classmates again--and it's not the child's ambitions that are really the problem anyway; teenagers drive themselves hard either because they genuinely enjoy the work they're doing (and/or desire its end result), or because they've erroneously been led to believe that they will only be happy and successful in life if they attend one of approximately 15 different colleges.
So rather than saying, "We'll only pay for you to go to college if you go to Rutgers," say, "We expect you to go to college, and if you work hard, you'll get into Rutgers." And then see who your child is, and what she can do, and recalibrate. If the kid has other ambitions, she can bring up other colleges on her own (or not). If the kid is having a hard time, tell her about all the other academic and life options available.
This is more or less what my own parents did. They attended every academic and extra-curricular event I was involved in, and they were hugely affirmative about my accomplishments, but they never suggested that there were better colleges than the local flagship; other options simply weren't on their radar. Once I started looking at fancier schools they got interested and involved--but I still never had the impression that they cared (in any neurotic personal way) where I wound up. They were equally cool with my brother's decision not to go to college right after high school; they were happy about and interested in his high-tech job, and equally happy and interested when, a few years later, he applied and went away to college.
In the end, then, Flanagan's essay is a little incoherent; she takes, as always, too much glee in exposing what she sees as the hypocrisy or limited self-knowledge of "professional class parents," seemingly more interested in flagellating than in reassuring them, even though her essay could provide cause for reassurance. Toward the end of the article she notes that rejection from an Ivy League school is no great tragedy, since there are lots of colleges and universities out there, full of good teachers and smart, interesting students. However, she doesn't conclude on that note, but on this one:
most children today can't have it both ways: they can't have a fun, low-stress childhood and also an Ivy League education. This is what [Amy Chua] understood early on--as the good mothers are about to learn, when the heartbreaking e-mails and letters from the top colleges go out this month--that life is a series of choices, each with its own rewards and consequences. In a sense, that is the most unpalatable message of her book. . . that the world really doesn't lie before us like a land of dreams. At best--at the very best--it can only offer us choices between two good things, and as we grasp at one, we lose the other forever.And all I can say to that is: give me a fucking break. This isn't a real double-bind, or at least not for any parent who is genuinely concerned about her child rather than the values or judgments of her fellow parents.