Sunday, July 11, 2010

High School

Americans obsess about High School, which is a huge source of material for books, television, and movies. Some folks either have fond memories of a Happy-Days bobby-soxer sort of high school experience. Many other have nightmarish memories of a Lord of the Flies kind of treatment.

While reading an article about new dystopian literature for youth the other day in the New Yorker, the following quote just jumped off the page at me:
Adults dump teen-agers into the viper pit of high school, spouting a lot of sentimental drivel about what a wonderful stage of life it’s supposed to be. The rules are arbitrary, unfathomable, and subject to sudden change. A brutal social hierarchy prevails, with the rich, the good-looking, and the athletic lording their advantages over everyone else. To survive you have to be totally fake. Adults don’t seem to understand how high the stakes are; your whole life could be over, and they act like it’s just some “phase”! Everyone’s always watching you, scrutinizing your clothes or your friends and obsessing over whether you’re having sex or taking drugs or getting good enough grades, but no one cares who you really are or how you really feel about anything.

Wow, so it isn't just me! What I thought about this quote was not only that is clearly characterized the author's experience (negative, in case you didn't get it) but also something more. It really captured, in a few short sentences, how cruel the experience can be.  How parents "dump" their kids into the "viper pit" that is the adolescent social norms of high school.  nd how Adults smear platitudes such as "these are the best years of your life!" It is a wonder the teen suicide rate isn't higher. If high school truly was "the best years of my life" I would have ended it all long ago.

(Note to teens: No need to fret, life gets waaaay better as you get older. Not only do you get to have all the nice things you wanted as a kid, you get to meet real, honest, and decent people who are not superficial teenage jerks.  And a life-long love is something a teenager cannot feel or understand, and far better than a high school crush.    Oh, and the sex gets way better.  Way better.  Way, way better.  People like to think that teens are having all this hot sex, but in reality, most have less than many adults.  And usually it is awkward and inhibited.)

What made me stop and think (and re-read that paragraph several times) was that for some reason, we allow this sort of upbringing to go on, for decades, unchecked.  It is as if we think we have no choice in the matter.  High School sucks, except for a few popular people, and that's all there is to it.  Worse yet, many people feel this needs to be a metaphor for life - that life sucks and you'll have to deal with jerks all your life.  This is, of course, hardly the case.

Life is great.  And the great thing about being an adult is the ability to tell some jerk off - right to his face - if you want to.  You don't have to tolerate half the bullshit you do in high school.  High school is not a metaphor for life, unless perhaps you are serving a life sentence.

In real life, if someone is a jerk, you don't have to hang out with them.  You have a lot of choices in life and you should make use of them.  You can change careers, change jobs, change your life.  Unlike High School, which assigns you to 3rd period gym class, and that's that, you can choose how to live your life - and if some asshole wants to zing you in dodge ball, you can simply refuse to play.

And in real life, if someone punches you in the face, you call the Police and they go to jail. (As opposed to High School, where if some jock beats you, you get detention for "causing a commotion").  What's more, you get to sue them for damages in real life.  For some reason, we, as adults, who would never tolerate random assaults at work, expect it as the "norm" for adolescents, who are quite strong enough to do serious injury to one another - or even kill each other.

So why do we do this to our kids?  It is an interesting question and perhaps one that is being answered today.   After a number of school bullying incidents (which should not be confused with school shootings, most of which are related more to mental illness than to school bullying) many schools are taking a more proactive approach to bullying and poor treatment.  The school bully should not be the role model anymore.

And many folks are also using home-schooling as an alternative.  Granted, for many this is based on religious objections.  But the home-schooling movement is also based on the idea that you can give your child a better education at home and also instill better social values as well.

And oddly enough, some of the people who had the worst experiences in High School are the first to decry home schooling as somehow evil.  Initially, I was sucked in by this belief, thinking that home schoolers were crackpots.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that an alternative to "The Government School" is not a bad idea.  In fact, it is a great idea.

Sending your kids off to learn low-self-esteem, drug use, and teen sex is not necessarily a good thing. But that is what local schools teach, by placing kids in largely unsupervised social situations and then allowing them to sort it out for themselves.  Kids egg each other on, and usually this results in lowest common denominator behavior becoming the norm.

Schools like to blame parents for the failures of the children they teach. "If only the parents took time to read to their kids!" the say, or "As a school, it is not our job to instill social values - that is the parent's job!"  Both are lame excuses, however.

Schools occupy a large space in a child's life.  In terms of waking hours, school occupies more time than parenting (and is second perhaps only to television).  And schools - intentionally or not - teach poor social skills in their little "Lord of the Flies" experiment that has been running for several decades now.  By refusing to get involved in the socialization of students, they are, in effect, creating social cues.  Deciding not to decide is still making a decision.

Why do schools do this?  Why don't we change it?  To some extent, it is the nature and structure of schools.  Many, if not most, of the teachers are uninspired government workers with little incentive to do anything other than teach to the lesson plan and get through the day.  Order and discipline are hard to maintain, particularly in an era where parents appeal every action and get lawyers involved when Johnny can't read.  The self-enforcement of the adolescent social structure is used by school administrators much as the system of snitches and trustys is used by Prison Wardens to maintain order there.  Why enforce order when you can get the inmates to do it for you?

To those who say that the way High Schools work can't be changed, or argue that somehow this is part of the inherent nature of High School, I say, bunk.  College is an interesting contrast to High School and illustrates how changing the social rules and their enforcement affects how people behave.  In college, students are given more work and more responsibility - and more freedom.  And for the most part, they work harder and spend less time on socializing.  And the key thing is, they don't have to be there - they can fail and in fact are quite likely to do so.

Granted, many colleges are turning into extended high schools, and the bad adolescent behavior of high schoolers is finding its way more and more into college.  But in a college, you are less likely to be forced to socialize with those you don't care for - particularly after the freshman year.  Since you specialize in certain courses as time progresses, you are not forced into social situations not of your own making.   And the cost and difficulty of college make it a much more serious business - at least in most cases.  Again, the creeping effect High School (and our extension of childhood well into the 30's) is probably having a negative effect here.

But college, at least for me, was an entirely different experience than high school.  There was no "social structure" of popular girls and jocks, for example.  At Syracuse University, you never saw the football players, except on the field.  You didn't share the same space or even knew they were there, frankly.  In a school of 20,000 students, it is hard for any one group to be a dominate social force.

So could the lessons of college be applied to High School?  Perhaps.   Perhaps the first thing we learn from this is that High School is too easy.  We send kids off there for four years to basically get maybe 2 years of education.   Students spend only hours a day there (from 8 until 2 these days) and most of those hours are spent in "gym", "study hall", and "lunch".  There is a lot of fluff in the schedule - a lot of free time. And when you mix teenagers and free time, well, bad things happen.

UPDATE:  Many high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools are making up for limited classroom hours by assigning staggering amounts of homework.  To me, this seems like the ultimate abdication of the responsibility of teachers to teach - they are instead sending kids home with a "learn it yourself kit".   A good teacher should be able to teach the subject matter in class, and no rely on homework for the learning experience.

Rather than extend childhood further and further, as we are doing today in our society (most people in this country do not "grow up" until they are 30, if ever) perhaps we need to condense it - or at least offer this as an option.

When I was in high school, I met a friend who told me he was graduating nearly two years earlier than normal.  What a racket!  Intrigued, I asked my guidance counselor (a complete loser, by the way, how do you get to be a high school guidance counselor when you've failed at everything else?  Or perhaps that is the credential) about this, he said, "uh, well, no, that's not for you."

By taking summer courses and increasing his regular course-load, he was able to knock a year and a half off his high school experience and skip graduation altogether . Sounds like a plan to me!  Perhaps they don't want to offer this option to too many people, as they would be afraid too many would take it - and expose how little is actually taught in high school.

And that is the ultimate joke.  If you drop out of high school, you can get a "GED" diploma, simply by taking a few weeks of a study course and then a test.   The GED is not a joke on the people who take it, but a joke on the rest of use who wasted four years getting the regular diploma.

This is not to say the High School experience was not without some merit.  There were a few good courses here and there.   But since the content is stretched out over weeks and weeks, with nearly a 3-month break in the summer) it really dilutes the impact of it all.

Perhaps the naysayers are right - you can't change High School anymore than you can change adolescence.  Both will be awkward and difficult periods in life.

But maybe as adults, we can change our behavior.  We can stop saying stupid things like "These are the best years of your life" - because in most cases, they aren't.

Life does begin at 40.....