Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Culture of High School - Time for a Change?

Here's an interesting article that calls for the American high school to be abolished. As a high school teacher I obviously have some problems with this, but the author makes some observations that I find it hard to argue with. Here's an excerpt:

The result, predictably, is the warped culture that holds sway in the halls of most American high schools. Adolescents are conformist, so the culture demands conformity. Adolescents are vicious, so the culture is cruel beyond belief. Adolescents are insecure and anti-intellectual, so the culture despises academic achievement. And, of course, adolescents (or their parents, more likely) adore athletics, and so the culture treats athletic stars and their paramours as its kings and queens.
When a student finally graduates out of this culture, he has undoubtedly gained a smattering of practical knowledge. But after four years in a shallow, conformist world, he is no closer to being an adult, really, than when he entered high school in the first place. Or if he has matured, than it has been in spite of his "socialization," not because of it.
But it's so important for kids to spend time with their peers, the objectors will bleat. Well, yes, time with one's peers is great--but must it be every day, from eight till five and beyond? Surely this is arrant nonsense. Adolescents are messed-up, confused, insecure human beings, each buckling under an individual, angst-ridden burden. Why on earth would it be good for them to spend all of their time with other angst-ridden, insecure, unhappy types?
In a saner world, they would be forced to live with, and as, adults for large chunks of time--making it more likely that they would actually become adults. Such a world would encourage home-schooling, for instance, by easing the economic burden for parents who choose to stay home and teach. It would offer a more flexible, decentralized system of education, balancing classroom time with, say, vocational training and programs allowing kids to work under and alongside adults in local workplaces. It would be a world where adolescents were integrated into society, not ghettoized in the local high school.


My view of adolescents isn't nearly as bleak. I don't find most of them to be "messed-up, confused, insecure human beings," but the effect of the culture Ross Douthat describes seems fairly accurate to me. The idea of radical reform that many have called for recently to fix high schools might involve removing students from this culture for at least part of the day. Creating a more "flexible, decentralized system of education" is vital, I believe, and I think technology and the work of forward thinking educators could produce this. But it certainly won't happen without the courage to make some very radical changes. But what might these changes look like and how would they benefit teens both socially and intellectually? Could partnership between colleges, community, and business (whether in person or online) be part of the answer? And how do you facilitate this while still keeping kids busy and engaged during the hours their parents are at work?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

The cynicism of the article seems to suggest that adolescent culture shapes our national culture whereas most critics lament a trickle down effect where our larger cultural sensibilities corrupt adolescents. I don't know that I agree with this author’s assessment. The idea of a flexible high school that interacts with the community is not a new idea. John Dewey articulated it with his progressive ideas for the comprehensive high school in the first half of the twentieth century and has recently been renewed through service learning.

Tom McHale said...

I don't agree with the author's assessment entirely either. His portrait of the the American high school culture is a little warped, but not totally off the mark. The reason I found it interesting was that I believe it's another aspect of the high school experience to take into consideration when we, and Bill Gates, and the nation's governors talk about reforming a system that they have termed obsolete. The industrial society that our high schools were built for no longer exists and I believe we need to look for other ways to engage kids both socially and intellectually.

Darrell said...

Iin regard to the authors comments, "Why on earth would it be good for them to spend all of their time with other angst-ridden, insecure, unhappy types?
In a saner world, they would be forced to live with, and as, adults for large chunks of time--making it more likely that they would actually become adults. Such a world would encourage home-schooling, for instance, by easing the economic burden for parents who choose to stay home and teach," I beleive the author fails to take into account the fact that not all parents are good role models. At least in a school setting, adolescents have the chance to be exposed to a wide variety of people, including peers, teachers and administrators. An adolescent will at least have the opportunity to choose who he or she emulates. Granted, high schools, especially large schools, pose many conforming ideas. But, conformity sometimes gets a bad name. To conform to the norms of a society allows one to function in that society. Does thsi mean that high schools should not examine the possibility of change? Of course not. More opportunities for students to be exposed to diverse experiences is a good thing, which is why many high schools do offer internship programs, community service programs, and vocational programs.