As a Hong Kong parent, I got a kick out of watching Natalie Portman’s The Other Woman on Netflix recently. One scene rather captures the obsession of rich families in contemporary America with getting their children into the most elite of schools, starting with kindergartens.
The mother, a sought-after gynaecologist, and her ex-husband, a high-powered lawyer, were having a heated argument in front of their primary-school-aged son.
Mother: Will has been so distracted and tense and emotional, I’m sure they sensed that in the interview. He didn’t get in anywhere, not even wait-listed.
Father: It’s not the end of the world.
Mother: It’s not the end of YOUR world. But it’s a disaster for Will… Do you know who took him? West Side Prep.
Father: That’s a great school.
Mother: No, it’s his safety school. Do you know what that is?
They could have been from Hong Kong. Some problems are universal, like education.
In Greenwich, Connecticut, the hedge fund capital of the world, a tutorial lesson may cost up to US$200 an hour. One of the most nerve-wracking rituals in the life of an ambitious American teenager is to apply to top universities. Not only do you have to score top grades, you must prove you are unique leadership material through intense extracurricular activities.
Some elite kindergartens in New York are statistically more difficult to get into than Harvard University.
Your economic circumstances dictate a lot about your expectations as a parent. In this new Gilded Age, the elitism of schools will only get worse, no matter where you live. It’s probably a universal condition – whether in Hong Kong, Greenwich or Mumbai – that if you are a young, well-educated and ambitious parent, you will be deeply frustrated with the state education of your child.
Yet, Hong Kong’s education system is not without its admirers overseas; just look at our PISA scores. Still, legions of local parents are convinced we have the worst education system. Should schools be tough or inspiring; exam-driven or creativity-oriented; focus on results or be relaxed about them? These are eternal debates. There are no definitive answers, only dogma, fashionable opinions and the urge to keep up with the Joneses or the Wongs.
Perhaps the most reassuring thought is that your children will turn out more or less as they do, regardless of your education beliefs.