Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Story Time In Blogville

It is a curious characteristic of our unformed species that we live and model our lives through acts of make-believe. – Joseph Campbell

A story making the rounds this week of social networks, blogs, and traditional news media concerns a New York City mother, Nicole Imprescia, who has removed her child from a preschool in that city and sued to recover $19,000 in pre-paid tuition. The mom claims, in part, that the school failed on its promise to prepare her child for a test that is required to enter the City's very competitive private school system.

The headlines deliver tantalizing summaries of the story:

"Mom sues preschool for not prepping 4-year-old for Ivy League" –

"Manhattan mom sues $19K/yr. preschool for damaging 4-year-old daughter's Ivy League chances" –

"Upper East Side Mom Sues Preschool That Killed Her Kid's Chance at an Ivy League in Just 3 Weeks"
– The Village Voice Blogs

"New York mom sues elite preschool for being 'one big playroom'" –Reuters

There's usually more to these stories than the media reveals—and less. Several news reports claim the child was only in the school for 3 weeks: not true. As the New York Times reported, the girl had attended for a year, happily enough. Then, as her second year started, the school placed her in a class of younger children—contrary to its advertised policy. Mom took the child out of the school after 3 weeks and asked for her tuition money back, saying the school did not deliver on its promises to segregate students by age and to provide age-appropriate learning activities.

When the school refused a refund, Mom sued—claiming misrepresentation and breech of contract. The lawsuit points out that the school did not live up to its claim to group kids by age and prep the toddlers for the standardized ERB test. It claims that such prep has tangible value, which the school did not deliver and that, therefore, Mom is entitled to recompense.

To bolster its claim of lost tangible value, the suit cites studies about the value of early childhood education, including one that suggests a relationship between attendance at "better" grade schools and admission to Ivy League universities. The suit does not claim that the school spoiled the child's chances of Ivy League admission, yet that is what some news outlets have gleefully reported.

We like stories that confirm our preconceptions about such things as pageant moms, desperate helicopter parents, and ridiculous litigation. Such narratives support our mythology and we eagerly lap them up to sustain our beliefs. Consequently, people like this story and pass it around and some bloggers—and even otherwise-respectable news organizations—twist the facts for a better fit.

In reality, it isn't so much a story about a rich, pushy, upper eastside mom; it's a more boring matter of contract law, exaggerated to make it more interesting and emotionally stimulating by inciting public outrage and demonizing and holding Ms. Imprescia up to ridicule.

Put yourself in her position. If a school had promised your four-year-old a placement with children of the same age in an environment of age-appropriate learning activities—but installed her instead with two-year-olds learning the names of shapes and colors—would you not demand that the school live up to its promises? Wouldn't you ask for your money back? Were I the headmaster of the school, I'd have returned her dough on first request; it's the right thing to do when a seller is unable, for whatever reason, to deliver the promised product.

It's curious that we tell ourselves we live in an age of consumer empowerment, in which individuals are better able to stand up against unethical or indifferent corporate behavior and the public can hold businesses to higher standards of customer service. And yet when such an instance as this comes along, reason, truth, honesty and perspective go by the wayside, trumped by a narrative fiction—or at least a flimsy interpretation of the facts—that sustains one or more emotionally appealing myths.

Myths are good things. Joseph Campbell wrote that they are "the supports of their civilizations, the supports of their moral orders, their cohesion, vitality, and creative powers." But they can also be traps that ensnare us in fiction and conceal the truth.

Campbell also wrote: "lies are what the world lives on, and those who can face the challenge of a truth ... are finally not many, but the very few." This is the challenging truth behind the popularity of this story: we hear and believe what we choose to believe—and the facts matter little, if at all.

An even more frightening truth is that journalists are frequently the same, in that respect, as the rest of us.

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