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Abolish High School

Author: Rebecca Solnit for "Easy Chair" in Harper's Magazine

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I didn’t go to high school. This I think of as one of my proudest accomplishments and one of my greatest escapes, because everyone who grows up in the United States goes to high school. It’s such an inevitable experience that people often mishear me and think I dropped out.

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Apr 3
Michele Nokleby (Apr 03 2015 7:13PM) : I didn't attend high school either. After a rough few months at the beginning of the year, I dropped out and began my adult life. As soon as I was able, I got my GED. more

Unlike the author, I am not particularly proud of my inability to function in high school. Generally, I NEVER volunteer this information. I would hate to inadvertently give young people the idea that dropping out of high school is preferable to graduating, (although in my particular case it was). For most people, dropping out will portend a lifetime of low earnings, unhappiness, and even ill-health.

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(Apr 04 2015 8:44AM) : I also began to "escape" when I was in high school, it was never anything like not going, but I started taking control of my learning, deciding which classes I would take and which ones I would drop. [Edited] more Tags: besths

The narrative that I tell about high school is that my life changed when I was a junior. I quit the newspaper/yearbook staff and started publishing an underground newspaper with a few friends. I jumped off an advanced math track, having already completed the minimal requirements for graduation, and took an extra art course. This class, “Advanced Art” was some odd blend of the teachers’ interests and each student’s curiosities. He had us investigate some aspect of the 19th century intellectual history, giving me Herbert Spencer and Thomas Henry Huxley to challenge my upbringing within a conservative Christian creation-believing household. And I studied Marshall McLuhan’s “Medium is the Message” exhaustively, and on my own.

I think what’s interesting here is to consider our own experiences in high school (or the lack thereof for Rebecca Solnit) as we think about our own views of the purpose of high school.

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I was a withdrawn, bookish kid all through elementary school, but the difficulty of being a misfit intensified when I started seventh grade. As I left campus at the end of my first day, people shouted insults that ensured I knew my clothes didn’t cut it. Then there was P.E., where I had to don a horrendous turquoise-striped polyester garment that looked like a baby’s onesie and follow orders to run or jump or play ball—which is hard to do when you’re deeply withdrawn—after which I had to get naked, in all my late-bloomer puniness, and take showers in front of strangers. In science class we were graded on crafting notebooks with many colors of pen; in home economics, which was only for girls—boys had shop—we learned to make a new kind of cake by combining pudding mix with cake mix; even in English class I can remember reading only one book: Dickens’s flattest novel, Hard Times. At least the old history teacher in the plaid mohair sweaters let me doze in the front row, so long as I knew the answers when asked.

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(Apr 05 2015 7:51AM) : There are many embarrassing, even mortifying experiences in middle school, and the teachers and work all around you can be pretty stupid and boring, as these examples from Rebecca Solnit's life make clear. Yet this doesn't seem like the whole story. more

When I think about the moments of middle school that I still remember there are many positive experiences: making things in wood and metal shop classes; project-based history classes where we recorded a news program that required us to be up-to-date on current events; being an “alto” in chorus, memorizing songs, rehearsing them for a big performance, then recording them for an LP record that we all got a copy of; assemblies with magicians and mountain climbers who spoke to the whole school; going to the high school to do an experiment in the “animal house” on mice… And yes, I could find as many horrible experiences as Solnit lists here, but I had just as many positive ones.

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Teacher Dania Diaz (Nov 03 2015 11:36AM) : I think that the school structure is debilitating our creativity, and making us dread what they consider is learning, which it isn't. What we do in school is memorize.
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In junior high, everything became a little more dangerous. Most of my peers seemed to be learning the elaborate dance between the sexes, sometimes literally, at school dances I never dreamed of attending, or in the form of the routines through which girls with pompoms ritually celebrated boys whose own role in that rite consisted of slamming into one another on the field.

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Michele Nokleby (Apr 03 2015 7:17PM) : My school was a k-8 building, which reduced the misery of the junior high experience. Nonetheless, grades 6-7-8 were fairly toxic anyway. [Edited]
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(Apr 05 2015 1:11PM) : Junior High/Middle School. It usually seems like decisions about how many grades to have in a building have more to do with population bubbles and building sizes -- and other external, political concerns -- than they do about what's best for students. more

Some schools in NYC, for example, only accept students out of 5th grade, which naturally selects out students in schools that go K-6.

Still I wonder what we can learn from rural schools where students are known better from the early grades through high school.

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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 adjoining 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.

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Professor MICHAEL SELTZER (Jun 08 2015 11:28AM) : My high school openly categorized its students as: 90% good, 8% indifferent and 2% bad. The bad students were like Solnit's wild kids - ignoring the systems around them mainly because they were already working at blue-collar jobs in the real world. more

After transferring to a newly opened high school, I was warned by its vice-principal that I was on his list of “the lower two per cent”. What distinguished me and my fellows from the other 98 per cent was the fact that we all had jobs. We were called “wrenches” by those students whose petty rivalries and status seeking contests we viewed, like spectators at the zoo, as amusing. When you are working 30 or more hours weekly at jobs you expect to be doing after getting a high school diploma, you gain a cloak of detachment necessary for surviving in the toxic atmosphere created by the complex “games” played out in deadly seriousness by so many students. In retrospect, I now see that their lives were constantly ruled by fears of being viewed as different, fears of failing and fears of falling into one of the many pariah groups defined by the caste system of the American high school.

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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 read voraciously and had good conversations. You can learn a lot that way. Besides, I hadn’t been gaining much in regular school either.

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Michele Nokleby (Apr 03 2015 7:21PM) : Students in my district are fortunate to have an alternative high school as an option. The students and the teachers there are very close and the culture is supportive and accepting. I wish this school had existed when I was a teen!
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(Apr 06 2015 10:08AM) : After 8th grade, Rebecca Solnit went into an alternative junior high/high school that had about 35 students in it, that allowed her to take in the other students' "fearless and free, skeptical" attitudes about school, have "good conversations" and read. [Edited] more

I’ve been a teacher in NYC public schools for 30 years, and in “alternative” schools for half of that time. Currently I’m helping to shape a new alternative 6-12 school that intends to do something different, provide “New Directions” (our school name) for students who have been buffeted by the school system and poverty and tests already before sixth grade.

And when I read about Rebecca Solnit’s version of an alternative school, I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t a story about white privilege. And given Solnit’s powerful analyses of male privilege https://www.guernicamag.com/daily/rebecca-solnit-men-explain-things-to-me/ I feel like she would easliy understand my pont here. Solnit grew up on Novato, California, a predominantly White (even more so in the 70’s) city in the North Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Of course, I don’t want to take anything away from the permission and freedom she was given in the alternative school she attended with “hard-partying teenage girls who dated adult drug dealers, boys who reeked of pot smoke, and other misfits like [her}.”

It just makes me wish there was a hashtag, something like #SchoolingWhileWhite to go alongside of #CrimingWhileWhite http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2014/12/04/3599492/criming-while-white/

Maybe we can at least read about Solnit’s experience with the awareness that “misfits” get treated differently depending on their race and class privilege?

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Michele Nokleby (Apr 10 2015 1:46PM) : White privilege and/or familial expectations and support almost certainly have EVERYTHING to do with whether or not a High School dropout is able to successfully pursue higher ed. more

Ms Soinit and I cannot make the mistake of congratulating ourselves on our tenacity or educational success without an acknowledgement of the advantages we both had.
My parents both had advanced degrees. I knew from the time I could walk that I would too. My ill-fated HS career was just a “hiccup”. I am very, very lucky.

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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.

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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.

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Michele Nokleby (Apr 03 2015 7:36PM) : In my university career, I came to realize that I had some gaps in my educational background, particularly in American government. I was able to quickly and easily remediate myself. Otherwise, I was college-ready in 8th grade. more

My easy transition into post-secondary education doesn’t speak well for compulsory high school attendance. In all fairness, I realize that I had unusually strong literary skills.

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(Apr 06 2015 11:41AM) : Michele, your ability to remediate yourself does indeed depend on "strong literary skills." more

And I wonder if the word you use here, “literary,” is too limited. It seems to be about reading, even an ability to ready literature, but the larger literacies involved in identifying a lack in your background, the confidence and DIY ability to make up for those gaps is enormous.

I often make the argument that the young people I work with who do not test well need to get off of that test-fail-test-fail merry-go-round for enough time — 2 or 3 years — to build their abilities as learners (the kinds of literacies of which you speak). Then they will be able to self-prep for any tests they will have to do well in in the future.

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(Apr 06 2015 11:49AM) : High school is a defining experience for many, and having escaped it Solnit wants others to be able to do that too. more

So… and I guess I feel this way too, mainly… high school isn’t wonderful for many people, but what do we do with the argument that high school with all of the social and academic challenges prepares one for similar battles in life. The arguments are some version of “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Personally, I feel like a lot of who I am started with my striving to have a unique identity in high school and a lot of this had to do with finding my place in the various social environments of both my high school life and my church life.

And what’s so bad about that I wonder. Of course, maybe it’s not that easy for others to find their place and identity in such environments.

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.

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(Apr 06 2015 11:53AM) : Right! There are "about 10 percent of American students attend[ing]" schools that are different than the mainstream high school. more

I appreciate this argument. So often the exceptions to the rule of high school are highlighted and promoted, and it’s easy to forget what the 90% are facing.

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In 2010, Dan Savage began the It Gets Better Project, which has gathered and posted video testimonials from gay and lesbian adults and queer-positive supporters (tens of thousands of them, eventually, including professional sports stars and the president) to address the rash of suicides by young queer people. The testimonials reassure teenagers that there is life after high school, that before long they’ll be able to be who they are without persecution—able to find love, able to live with dignity, and able to get through each day without facing in-tense harassment. It’s a worthy project, but it implicitly accepts that non-straight kids must spend their formative years passing through a homophobic gauntlet before arriving at a less hostile adult world. Why should they have to wait?

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(Apr 06 2015 11:59AM) : "it Gets Better" is not the right message we want to give gay students. It's hard not to agree with Solnit when she asks, "Why should they have to wait?" more

There are plenty of critiques of “It Gets Better”

http://www.thewire.com/national/2010/10/critiquing-it-gets-better-project-for-gay-teens/22739/

I’m a bit nervous about Solnit going from the experience of gay teenagers to all youth in high school, but let’s see how she argues this.

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Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens, responsible for some 4,600 deaths per year. Federal studies report that for every suicide there are at least a hundred attempts—nearly half a million a year. Eight percent of high school students have attempted to kill themselves, and 16 percent have considered trying. That’s a lot of people crying out for something to change.

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(Apr 06 2015 3:00PM) : The numbers of students committing, trying to commit, or considered trying to commit suicide is surprisingly high for teens. more

This causes one to pause and think about what is going on to cause this number of deaths or attempts. Still I want ot know if the problem is getting worse or not. And I’m not so sure that suicide statistics are an argument that “a lot of people are crying out for something to change.” Hmmm. Maybe I’ll follow up beginning here: http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pub/youth_suicide.html

We tend to think that adolescence is inherently ridden with angst, but much of the misery comes from the cruelty of one’s peers. Twenty-eight percent of public school students and 21 percent of private school students report being bullied, and though inner-city kids are routinely portrayed in the press as menaces, the highest levels of bullying are reported among white kids and in nonurban areas. Victims of bullying are, according to a Yale study, somewhere between two and nine times more likely to attempt suicide. Why should children be con-fined to institutions in which these experiences are so common?

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Antibullying programs have proliferated to such an extent that even the Southern Poverty Law Center has gotten involved, as though high school had joined its list of hate groups. An educational video pro-duced by the S.P.L.C. focuses on the case of Jamie Nabozny, who successfully sued the administrators of his small-town Wisconsin school district for doing nothing to stop—and sometimes even blaming him for the years of persecution he had suffered, including an attack that ruptured his spleen. 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.”

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(Apr 07 2015 10:28AM) : This paragraph starts with a wry suggestion that high school is being treated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center that tracks such groups, then ends with a case where a boy was attacked, and his case is presented as what happens in HS. more

There’s no denying — from my experience — that high school is a battlefield of abuse, psychological and sometimes physical. But it is also a place where many times individuals learn how to be upstanders, resisters, protectors, and members of groups that will not stand for such abusive behavior. High School is also the place to learn these things.

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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 indus-trialization 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 unknown 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.”

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(Apr 07 2015 10:39AM) : The counter-intuitive, odd way we group children in schools -- by age -- has long seemed one of the first things that we need to get rid of in schools. I agree. more

The other things have to do with grouping students into classes of subject areas. We need interdisciplinary project-based grouping. And finally we need to rid our schools of rankings and graded promotions, in favor of self-chosen portfolios.

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When you are a teenager, your peers judge you by exacting and nar-row 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.

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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.

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High school, particularly the suburban and small-town varieties, can seem a parade of clichés, so much so that it’s easy to believe that jockocracies (a term used to describe Columbine High School at the time of the 1999 massacre), girls’ rivalries, punitive regimes of conformity and so forth, are anachronistic or unreal, the stuff of bad movies. Then another story reminds us that people are still imprisoned in these clichés. The day I write this, news comes that, yet again, high school football players have been charged with raping a fellow student. This time it’s five boys in Florida. In a 2012 sexual-assault case in Steubenville, Ohio, one of the football players accused of the crime texted a friend that he wasn’t worried about the consequences because his football coach “took care of it.” The victim received death threats for daring to speak up against popular boys, as did a fourteen-year-old in Missouri named Daisy Coleman, who, in the same year, reported being raped by a popular football player named Matt who was three years her senior.

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Coleman, who has attempted suicide multiple times, wrote:

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When I went to a dance competition I saw a girl there who was wearing a T-shirt she made. It read: matt 1, daisy 0. Matt’s family was very powerful in the state of Missouri and he was also a very popular football player in my town, but I still couldn’t believe it when I was told the charges were dropped. Everyone had told us how strong the case was—including a cell phone video of the rape which showed me incoherent. All records have been sealed in the case, and I was told the video wasn’t found. My brother told me it was passed around school.”

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I wonder what pieces we’d have to pull away to demolish the system that worked so hard to destroy Coleman.

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But abolishing high school would not just benefit those who are at the bottom of its hierarchies. Part of the shared legacy of high school is bemused stories about people who were treated as demigods at seventeen and never recovered. A doctor I hang out with tells me that former classmates who were more socially successful in high school than he was seem baffled that he, a quiet youth who made little impression, could be more professionally successful, as though the qualities that made them popular should have effortlessly floated them through life. It’s easy to laugh, but there is a real human cost. What happens to people who are taught to believe in a teenage greatness that is based on achievements unlikely to matter in later life?

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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.)

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Apr 3
Michele Nokleby (Apr 03 2015 7:43PM) : Many of these extra curricular activities are the ONLY things that keep kids in school. For my son, it was band and orchestra that kept him engaged. For other people, drama or athletics may have served a similar role
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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 teenagers 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.’”

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DMU Timestamp: March 20, 2015 16:39

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