The Magazine

The Obama Girls' School Days

The joys of private education.

Sep 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 02 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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I am among those who have never fancied Barack Obama as presidential material. But I share with almost everyone the feeling that the nicest things about the Obamas are their daughters--adorable, charming, happy, and well-brought up. So I was delighted to see the Obama family attacked by a liberal in the New York Times, because I can display my disinterested gallantry--and school spirit--in their defense.

The perpetrator is Sandra Tsing Loh of the Times's online "Education Watch." Despite Loh's interest in education and her superb liberal credentials (contributing editor at the Atlantic and a frequent "performer" on public radio shows), a big education factoid about our most liberal senator had until last week escaped her notice. She learned then that the Obama girls attend the private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, of which I am an old boy. Loh's reaction was swift and urgent: "As a rabid public school Democrat, I crumpled in despair at the news." She also announced that, speaking as a Democrat, she is "horrified that Sarah Palin is the one who snagged the deeply profound--and absolutely ignored by professional smart people--emotional real estate of 'P.T.A. mother.' "

Loh's despair is as innocent--and as pure--as her politics. Sarah Palin notwithstanding, Malia and Sasha be damned--Loh really cares only about public schools, and how the Obamas' decision hurts them: "If Mr. and Mrs. Obama--a dynamic, Harvard-educated couple--had chosen public over private school, they could have lifted up not just their one local public school, but a family of schools." Loh has earned her opinion. She not only sends her own child to a Title I public school in Los Angeles but has written a "comic memoir" called Mother on Fire about the process. But does the fact the Obamas disagree with her entitle her to what she calls "huge grief-filled disappointment," which spills over hundreds of words--and drew more than 600 passionate comments in response?

Of course not. You don't have to be a conservative (though it helps) to disapprove of those who would force parents to raise children by political formula. Sending their children to the best school they can afford doesn't make the Obamas, the Bidens, the Clintons, the Gores, or the Tony Blairs selfish. Sending poor Amy Carter to Stevens Elementary in downtown Washington, D.C., didn't make Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter even a bit more saintly. There is no special duty in natural law, Torah, or sharia for parents to "lift up" the public schools, except by paying taxes. And if the private-school parents I mention oppose measures that would extend to others the luxury of school choice for their children, then there is certainly an irony here. It makes their arguments against school choice less persuasive; it ought to (but never does) cost them votes and political support. But irony, however abundant, doesn't turn human politicians into deliberately bad policymakers or wicked parents.

I think that even from Sandra Tsing Loh the Obamas deserve some consideration for their choice of private school. The Lab School and its high school, known as U-High, have a special role in Hyde Park, and a special place in the history of race relations in Chicago. The school has always had snob appeal--during the Depression, my grandmother sacrificed to send my aunt Patricia there (but not my mother, who lacked, Grandmother thought, a certain je ne sais quoi). Yet at the same time the school had a reputation for what would come to be called inclusiveness, but was then thought to be a social disadvantage for its conventionally WASP majority. So Ned Rorem ('40), undoubtedly U-High's greatest composer, observes repeatedly in his wonderful diaries and memoirs--often with repressed bitterness--that his contemporaries called it "Jew-High."

But most of all, Lab School has always--relatively speaking--welcomed the children of Chicago's black elite. Certainly by the beginning of the 1950s it stood out in this respect from other Chicago private schools (such as Bill Ayers's alma mater Lake Forest Academy). My class of 1967 was 13 percent black--and many of the black children began with me in first grade in 1956. During my extended family's seven decades of attendance, we and our children went to school every day with the offspring of intellectual royalty such as Bruno Bettelheim, Daniel Boorstin, Emily Buss, Joseph Cropsey, Richard Epstein, Gene Fama, John Hope Franklin, Nicholas Katzenbach, Heinz Kohut, Edward Levi, Richard Lewontin, Richard Posner, Janet Rowley, Cass Sunstein, and George Stigler. Also sitting beside us humble Schulmans, Diamonds, and Biedermans were the offspring of dozens of prominent black businessmen, doctors, and professors, of Joe Louis, of great black lawyers like Earl Dickerson (who himself attended Lab in 1907) and Judge Ann Williams, of artists like Ramsey Lewis, Dick Gregory, and Oscar Brown Jr., of the families of Congressman Gus Savage and the Johnsons of Ebony magazine, and many others. For decades, the Lab School has been home to people exactly like the Obamas.

Sandra Tsing Loh, too, had her spiritual antecedents among my parents' generation. Some of them moved to the suburbs "so that our kids won't grow up to be racists," as one father told my parents at a dinner party in the 1960s. Others sent their kids to the public Hyde Park High School, then a 97 percent non-diverse school, where they were, as whites, isolated, frightened, and forced to keep strictly to themselves. My friends who underwent this demonstration of parental conscience tell me that their parents were oblivious to their real--and unnecessary--suffering.

One senses that Senator Obama has had to make many compromises with his better self to get to wherever it is he is today. As Dreiser knew, that's not an uncommon Chicago story. But to the Obamas' credit, these are compromises that they have spared their daughters. Sending his children to a private school that most of those whose votes he needs will never be able to afford may be the finest thing Barack Obama has ever done.

Sam Schulman, a writer in Virginia, is publishing director of The American.