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[Easy Chair] | Abolish High School, by Rebecca Solnit | Harper's Magazine
[<strike>placeholder as reminder to track down this article</strike> Update: Got to read this article thanks to Selin.]

"I skipped my last year of traditional junior high school, detouring for ninth and tenth grade into a newly created alternative junior high. (The existing alternative high school only took eleventh and twelfth graders.) The district used this new school as a dumping ground for its most insubordinate kids, so I shared two adjoin- ing classrooms with hard-partying teenage girls who dated adult drug dealers, boys who reeked of pot smoke, and other misfits like me. The wild kids impressed me because, unlike the timorous high achievers I’d often been grouped with at the mainstream school, they seemed fearless and free, skeptical about the systems around them.

There were only a few dozen students, and the adults treated us like colleagues. There was friendship and mild scorn but little cruelty, nothing that pitted us against one another or humiliated us, no violence, no clearly inculcated hierarchy. I didn’t gain much conventional knowledge, but I read voraciously and had good conversations. You can learn a lot that way. Besides, I hadn’t been gaining much in regular school either.

I was ravenous to learn. I’d waited for years for a proper chance at it, and the high school in my town didn’t seem like a place where I was going to get it. I passed the G.E.D. test at fifteen, started community college the following fall, and transferred after two semesters to a four-year college, where I began, at last, to get an education commensurate with my appetite.

What was it, I sometimes wonder, that I was supposed to have learned in the years of high school that I avoided? High school is often considered a definitive American experience, in two senses: an experience that nearly everyone shares, and one that can define who you are, for better or worse, for the rest of your life. I’m grateful I escaped the particular definition that high school would have imposed on me, and I wish everyone else who suffered could have escaped it, too.

For a long time I’ve thought that high school should be abolished. I don’t mean that people in their teens should not be educated at public expense. The question is what they are educated in. An abolitionist proposal should begin by acknowledging all the excellent schools and teachers and educations out there; the people who have a pleasant, useful time in high school; and the changes being wrought in the nature of secondary education today. It should also recognize the tremendous variety of schools, including charter and magnet schools in the public system and the private schools—religious, single-sex, military, and prep—that about 10 percent of American students attend, in which the values and pedagogical systems may be radically different. But despite the caveats and anomalies, the good schools and the students who thrive (or at least survive), high school is hell for too many Americans. If this is so, I wonder why people should be automatically consigned to it."



"…As Catherine A. Lugg, an education scholar specializing in public school issues, later wrote, “The Nabozny case clearly illustrates the public school’s historic power as the enforcer of expected norms regarding gender, heteronormativity,
and homophobia.”

I once heard Helena Norberg-Hodge, an economic analyst and linguist who studies the impact of globalization on nonindustrialized societies, say that generational segregation was one of the worst kinds of segregation in the United States. The remark made a lasting impression: that segregation was what I escaped all those years ago. My first friends were much older than I was, and then a little older; these days they are all ages. We think it’s natural to sort children into single-year age cohorts and then process them like Fords on an assembly line, but that may be a reflection of the industrialization that long ago sent parents to work away from their children for several hours every day.

Since the 1970s, Norberg-Hodge has been visiting the northern Indian region of Ladakh. When she first arrived such age segregation was un- known there. “Now children are split into different age groups at school,” Norberg-Hodge has written. “This sort of leveling has a very destructive effect. By artificially creating social units in which everyone is the same age, the ability of children to help and to learn from each other is greatly reduced.” Such units automatically create the conditions for competition, pressuring children to be as good as their peers. “In a group of ten children of quite different ages,” Norberg-Hodge argues, “there will naturally be much more cooperation than in a group of ten twelve-year-olds.”

When you are a teenager, your peers judge you by exacting and narrow criteria. But those going through the same life experiences at the same time often have little to teach one another about life. Most of us are safer in our youth in mixed-age groups, and the more time we spend outside our age cohort, the broader our sense of self. It’s not just that adults and children are good for adolescents. The reverse is also true. The freshness, inquisitiveness, and fierce idealism of a wide-awake teenager can be exhilarating, just as the stony apathy of a shut-down teenager can be dismal.

A teenager can act very differently outside his or her peer group than inside it. A large majority of hate crimes and gang rapes are committed by groups of boys and young men, and studies suggest that the perpetrators are more concerned with impressing one another and conforming to their group’s codes than with actual hatred toward outsiders. Attempts to address this issue usually focus on changing the social values to which such groups adhere, but dispersing or diluting these groups seems worth consideration, too.

High school in America is too often a place where one learns to conform or take punishment—and conformity is itself a kind of punishment, one that can flatten out your soul or estrange you from it."



"Abolishing high school could mean many things. It could mean compressing the time teenagers have to sort out their hierarchies and pillory outsiders, by turning schools into minimalist places in which people only study and learn. All the elaborate rites of dances and games could take place under other auspices. (Many Europeans and Asians I’ve spoken to went to classes each day and then left school to do other things with other people, forgoing the elaborate excess of extracurricular activities that is found at American schools.) It could mean schools in which age segregation is not so strict, where a twelve-year-old might mentor a seven-year-old and be mentored by a seventeen-year-old; schools in which internships, apprenticeships, and other programs would let older students transition into the adult world before senior year. (Again, there are plenty of precedents from around the world.)

Or it could mean something yet unimagined. I’ve learned from doctors that you don’t have to have a cure before you make a diagnosis. Talk of abolishing high school is just my way of wondering whether so many teen- agers have to suffer so much. How much of that suffering is built into a system that is, however ubiquitous, not inevitable? “Every time I drive past a high school, I can feel the oppression. I can feel all those trapped souls who just want to be outside,” a woman recalling her own experience wrote to me recently. “I always say aloud, ‘You poor souls.’”"
rebeccasolnit  2015  highschool  education  society  toread  adolescence  psychology  behavior  bullying  agesegregation  sexuality  extracurriculars  sports  competition  schooliness  schools  us  helenanorberg-hodge  conformity  apprenticeships  alternative  horizontality  hierarchy  catherlinelugg  homophobia  heteronormativity 
march 2015 by robertogreco

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