School is practically a universal experience in America. It may be the only one. There was a time when nearly all people grew up on or near a farm, but those days ended with the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Similarly, everyone used to go to church. Nowadays, however, church attendance is just over 40%. Americans love to play and watch sports, to be sure. Yet the old standards, baseball in the summer and football in the winter, have been all but lost in the plethora of other competitions: soccer, basketball, girls’ softball, rugby, lacrosse, wrestling, volleyball, not to mention the “extreme sports” of rock-climbing and bungee-jumping. Americans also watch quite a bit of television but no longer the same shows. Even popular movies are not seen by everyone. I am constantly struck when making references to movies in class in order to clarify abstruse matters of history how few of my students have seen even the most recent new releases. Forget the classics. And certainly there is no book that every American has read. In short, America would seem to lack a common “frame of reference.”
But almost everyone goes to school. And schools throughout the country, with the exception of the small percentage of private and charter schools (which too often imitate the local public schools), are remarkably the same. True, each school with its unique mascot and less unique colors claims to have its own source of school “spirit.” A closer examination, however, would reveal that the quality of teachers is largely the same, the classes are the same, the behavior of students is the same, and even the belief that “our school is better than any other” is the same. There are some differences according to whether one lives in a dangerous or a safe neighborhood. Academically, however, the differences are quite minor. So if school is the only universal experience, and if schools throughout the country are largely the same, this nation’s schools, especially its high schools, must have a powerful homogenizing influence on our culture. The question is whether this influence is for good or for ill.
Hollywood’s rendition of what high school is provides some insight into the nature of that influence. Judging from the various movies about high school made over the last decade, high school is about becoming prom queen, trying to make it into the “in” crowd, winning the big game, and losing one’s virginity. According to these movies, young people live and do as they please in adolescent ghettos with little instruction from either parents or teachers. Rarely does a movie embrace some aspect of the original mission of high schools: to prepare young people for the world by teaching them how to think. These movies are perhaps somewhat overblown, as is everything in Hollywood. At the same time, they are a barometer of what we expect, indeed how little we expect, out of our schools. What usually passes for a “real high school” in the public mind is a huge building where adolescents are corralled together for long stretches of the day, are required to do a few worksheets about nothing very difficult, and, as a reward for putting up with this tedium, are allowed to paint themselves up in various colors and yell or chant from time to time. The high school experience is one of utter boredom interrupted occasionally by choreographed idiocy. The ebb and flow of relationships and of going to the right parties constitute the drama of school. The extracurriculum is everything. The curriculum is nothing.
Let us meet a typical high school student and follow her through a day. Molly is an eleventh-grader at City High. She wakes up around 6 a.m., very tired from talking to her friends on the phone until almost midnight. She puts on her low-rise, boot-cut jeans from the Gap and a sparkly, fitted t-shirt with a low V-neck. Her make-up contains an abundance of glitter. She drives to school in her new purple Toyota RAV4, blasting Destiny’s Child’s hit single “Bootylicious” on the CD-player and practicing her moves, insofar as she can while sitting, for the dance tonight. Arriving at school, she seeks out her friends, passing by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other students who do not belong to her circle. Before going to class, the friends gossip for a good fifteen minutes about who is wearing what and who has broken up with whom. After the bell rings a second time, students stroll into class and continue to talk while the teacher takes up yesterday’s homework, a worksheet requiring them to match certain characters from The Scarlet Letter with their actions and to graph the rising action, climax, and falling action of the plot. Most of the students had done the assignment in class the day before by whispering the answers to each other. During the lecture that day, the teacher, Mr. Cliffnote, goes over the answers to the homework and talks some more about plot structure, borrowing copiously from his “Teacher’s Edition” to the text. For the last fifteen minutes of class, the students are allowed to “talk quietly.”
The classes today are shortened because of the pep rally. In history, Coach Sideline has the majority of the class make an outline of the chapter while he and members of the team go over the plays. Molly writes a few notes to the friends she won’t see until lunch. Later in Señora Smith’s Spanish class, while eating nachos, she catches up on why and how Jack broke up with Jill. Molly really likes Jack, so she starts plotting how she can bump into him at the game. Molly is glad the day gets easier after lunch. She manages to get out of Mr. Angle’s geometry class because she has to meet with the school guidance counselor, Mr. Esteem. Molly hates geometry, especially since Mr. Angle is very strict and gives tough tests. She wishes she could have taken geometry next year since rumor has it that Mr. Angle is leaving the school. On the way back from Mr. Esteem’s office, the principal, Mr. Ian Q. Less, passes her in the hall, giving her a high-five and saying “Soar high, Eagles!” as is his custom on game days. All the students think Mr. Less is “way cool,” especially since he doesn’t punish students very often. At the pep rally, the principal rouses the students into a frenzy by spelling out E-A-G-L-E-S with arm and body motions.
Back at home, while eating a quick dinner before leaving for the evening, Molly is asked by her mother whether she has any homework. Molly said she finished it all at school. “Do you have any tests coming up?” “Yeah, I gotta government test Monday, but it’ll be easy: just a bunch of stuff about elections. We can use our notes.” As Molly goes up to her room to get ready for the big night, the mother smiles at her honor roll student.
The American high school has become an institution where one gathers many memories of a questionable sort and little knowledge. If we believe everything that pop culture tells us, teenagers are capable of little else than playing CD’s, shopping at the mall, hanging out, and avoiding their parents’ supervision. Going to class and occasionally doing an assignment of sorts are just the cover charge one pays to get into the hip disco that is the teenage years. Unfortunately, this image, while somewhat overblown, is fairly accurate. Indeed, the image has developed into a self-fulfilling prophecy. For various reasons, schools have deteriorated in quality since the early part of the century. The growth of the teacher-certification monopoly, the exodus of talented women out of teaching and into more lucrative professions, the bureaucratization of the school systems, the advance of progressive pedagogy, and the increasing permissiveness of parents that has not been countered but instead embraced by schools, have all contributed to this general and steep decline. As a result, less is expected of students in school. We think we know what teenagers are nowadays, but in fact we only see the product of a very questionable culture that does not teach or challenge young people and understands their hidden intellects not at all.
If indeed youth are capable of much more, then what ought high school to be? To answer this question we must first understand the capacities of young people between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. The onset of adolescence is marked most visibly by incredible “spurts” of physical growth. Less noticeable, but no less dramatic, are similar spurts in intellectual capacity. Those young people who have been taught to read, write, and cipher well, and who have been introduced to a large variety of scientific and historical facts in their earlier schooling will witness tremendous leaps in their ability to use those skills and marshal those facts in order to express themselves clearly and persuasively. For this reason, classical educators refer to this time of education as the “rhetorical stage.” Teenagers naturally become as articulate as adults, though they still have a lot to learn. The question is what they will want to say. Left untutored and unsupervised, young people express themselves in forms of eccentric dress and a contrived lingo. A proper education, on the other hand, introduces the expressive urge in youth to the capacities of their minds. When I was a student, I used to hear a lot of people complaining while working on a paper, “I know what I want to say, but I don’t know how to say it.” There are two problems here. First, the complaint suggests limited or unclear ideas in the first place. Second, the complainer obviously has not been trained in putting words to paper. High school is the perfect time to teach people how to think clearly about important things and then to write and speak clearly so as to communicate their ideas to others. The more challenging the problems young people are confronted with, be the problems political, literary, scientific, or aesthetic, the more they will have to say and want to say. In other words, the purpose of high school is to confront students with the difficult problems of the moral and natural world; after struggling with them for a time, students should be able to say, “I know what I want to say, and I know how to say it.” Any high school that demands less of its students only consigns our future to the mind-numbing stupidity of the worst teen movie.
Terrence O. Moore, a former Marine and history professor, is principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.