WASHINGTON — Nestled on the Front Range of the Rockies, the city of Crystal was a largely upper-middle-class paradise, chock full of health-conscious and socially conscious — meaning, of course, impeccably progressive — Coloradans. Then in slithered a serpent in the form of a proposal for a new school, to be called “Crystal Academy,” for “accelerated and exceptional learners.” Suddenly it was paradise lost.
This “deliciously repulsive” story (one reviewer’s scrumptious description) with “Big Little Lies” overtones (the same reviewer) is told in Bruce Holsinger’s compulsively readable new novel “The Gifted School.” It is perfect back-to-school reading, especially for parents of students in grades K-12. And it is wonderfully timely, arriving in the aftermath of Operation Varsity Blues — who knew the FBI could be droll? — which was the investigation into a very up-to-date crime wave, the scandalous goings-on among some wealthy parents who were determined to leave no ethical norm unbroken in their conniving to get their children into elite colleges and universities.
In Holsinger’s book, school officials, speaking educationese, promise that as 100,000 children compete for 1,000 spots — the dreaded 1% rears its ugly head — there will be “a visionary, equitable, and inclusive admission process.” Four mothers who have been friends forever, but might not be for long, begin becoming rivals in what they regard as a nearly zero-sum game, as they plot to game a process that looks alarmingly fair. Their children are embarked on a forced march to demonstrate that they are “gifted,” a word “that slashed like a guillotine through other topics”: “Advanced math, Chinese, martial arts, flute lessons with the principal player in the Colorado Symphony: by eighth grade Tessa had become a living, breathing benchmark, a proof of concept for the overinvested parenting they all practiced with varying degrees of obliviousness and guilt.”
This is what Holsinger calls “advantage hoarding” and the “delicate ecology of privilege.” Everything is hypercompetitive, even among Crystal’s 11-year-olds, from History Day at school to the travel soccer teams, which involve “a lot of mileage, a lot of Panera” in an Audi Q7 with a “Feel the Bern” bumper sticker, with “all the Patagonia parents huddled by the pitch, cheering on their spawn in socially appropriate ways.”
When one father takes his toddlers to a playground and other parents ask about his children’s ages, he subtracts a few months to make them seem developmentally remarkable, for the pleasure of seeing “that flicker of worry in the parents’ eyes.” And when rival children do not make the cut for the new school, schadenfreude drapes the Rockies like snowdrifts.
Because Crystal Academy is to be a magnet for students whose transcripts are clotted with AP (advanced placement) courses, it is definitionally elitist, and consequently an awkward fit for good (and affluent, and credentialed) progressives who are determined to lie and cheat in order to maximize the already considerable advantages of their family cultures. Students’ submissions for a school’s science fair become the parents’ projects.
Soon, and inevitably, there is a movement against the new school: “We are a group of concerned parents strongly opposed to the creation of the new public magnet school for allegedly gifted students. We believe that gifted education should be democratic, egalitarian, and nonexclusive.” Holsinger’s “allegedly” is priceless in conjunction with the insistence on gifted education that eschews exclusivity and inequality. It is not easy being an affluent progressive and a scourge of privilege.
The parents in Holsinger’s book insist that their corner-cutting, truth-shading, thumbs-on-the-scale maneuverings and brazen lies are, as people usually say, “all for the children.” All, that is, except for the large dollop that is for the bragging rights of parents who have hitched their status anxieties to their children.
Now teaching English literature at the University of Virginia, Holsinger previously was at the University of Colorado, and he says Crystal is a “reimagined Boulder.” He probably did not have to strain his imagination. He told The Wall Street Journal that you take “over-parented kids, over-invested parents, a cutthroat college selection process, and the rest kind of writes itself.”
He has deftly written a satire that arrives when it is needed most — when it is difficult to distinguish from sociology. As America becomes more cognitively stratified, with rewards increasingly flowing to the well-educated (or expensively credentialed, which is not the same thing), the recent college admission scandal has become, Holsinger says, “one of the great cultural parables of our time.” It is a parable about, in another Holsinger phrase, “privilege-hoarding,” as American life uncomfortably imitates his art.