Nurturing, stimulating, enriching, challenging: these are the words used to describe nursery programs for children as young as two years old. It sounds wonderful until you realize that the culture surrounding pre-school programs in Manhattan is also riddled with competition, jealousy, and greed.
Nursery University takes a typical approach to the documentary format, following several families of varying backgrounds as they go about the nursery school application process with their young children. We are introduced to a number of schools with impressive curriculums, and interviews with educators reveal sincere devotion to early childhood education. None of this is out-of-the-ordinary filmmaking, but even without innovation, the film is a strong one where director Marc H. Simon demonstrates a genuine respect for the subjects and refrains from pushing any one conclusion.
The parents themselves are the ones inviting the viewer’s judgment – not because they don’t love their children, but because the application process they participate in reveals a somewhat delusional side. We’re all familiar with the pushy parent who thinks their child should be at the front of the line, the father blind to his son’s flagrant aggression or the mother who believes her child a genius above all geniuses because she can bang on a piano. Maybe it sounds like music to her, but the rest of us are left wondering what it is about parenthood that makes a seemingly aware adult so oblivious to the facts at hand. And money makes it all worse.
“It’s almost as if the children are products and we are the consumers.”
– Dr. Hirsh-Passek, Developmental Psychologist
The underlying issue of entitlement is what gives this moderately light documentary a real purpose. Behind this relentless pursuit is the idea that if a child is in the best pre-kindergarten program, they will make it into the best elementary school, and so on through the Ivy Leagues. The sooner a person enters into the world of privilege and wealth, the more secure their position in it.
I cannot fault a parent for wanting the best for their child, but two important questions arise as you watch Nursery University. What is really best in terms of nursery school education? The schools featured in the film seem impressive, with exceptional education philosophies, caring teachers, and state-of-the-art facilities. But is some of this wasted on a toddler’s nascent intellect? Is some of this just for the parent’s benefit? How could such an elitist endeavor be a good thing? After all, these parents are spending an awful lot of time wrapped up in the application process when they could simply be spending time with their children.
The second question to arise is – how far would you go to secure that ideal for your child? These parents are pulling every string they have in a frantic maneuver to get their kid a spot in pre-K.They get recommendation from celebrities; they donate large sums of money to the schools themselves and coach their young offspring in how to interview properly. All of this would seem laughable if it weren’t so distressing.
“Parents are just so nervous in this process, and in their nervousness they lose sense of boundaries, they lose sense of appropriateness and they certainly lose perspective.”
– Gabriella Rowe, Director, Mandell School
Ultimately, it seems our culture has drastically failed young children. Many parents are occupied with their careers, and though the need for full-day childcare is not fully explored in the film, public preschools are only available once a child is four years old. Parents are left scrambling with their two-year-olds for these precious spots in private nursery schools.The resulting commodification of early childcare education means it is a luxury for the wealthy and a handful of lucky toddlers on scholarship. While there is no easy solution for working parents, I was left wondering why the obvious choice of parents or one-on-one caregivers raising children until school age was not explored. Considering how thoughtful these parents were, why did it not occur to them that they might be the best educator for their own son or daughter?
Nursery University offers a peek into a world where highly educated professionals are clumsily navigating their children’s education in a frantic attempt to secure their prosperous futures, all the while believing that success is something you can purchase. If only it were that simple.
Nursery University, Marc H. Simon 2007, Run time: 90 min., USA