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Sunday, May 20, 2012

High Schools should not exist; 50th reunions teach you more than high school ever did

I hated high school. I didn’t see anything good about it.
I still hate high school, but now as a person who has spent the last 30 years trying to understand what is wrong with our education system I understand why.
Here are five good reasons to hate high school.
   


  1. The subjects taught are the subjects that were current in academic circles in 1892 
  2. High school is about college prep these days. The prep that goes on is about AP tests and not about what a college student really needs. College professors can never assume their students learned anything important in high school. There is no reason for high schools to assume that role, except they are intimidated into it by parents.
  3. In high school, the other kids are a student’s biggest concern. KIds intimidate other kids in so many ways that most students can think about little else.  
  4. There is no freedom in high school. You take what courses you are told to take for the most part and must be where they tell you to be. It is a lot like being in prison.
  5. Except for the extra curricula activities, high school just isn’t any fun. Kids should have fun and learning should be fun.
So, it is it in this context that I want to tell a personal story.
The invitation from  the Stuyvesant High School class of 1962 50th reunion arrived via e-mail. I didn’t like Stuyvesant. As a smart kids science high school in New York City it had the so called best and brightest who were, of course, tremendously competitive. I hadn’t done particularly well in high school. I graduated ranked #322 in a class of 678. Notice how I remember that. I had been to my 25th reunion just to see old friends and because I happened to have a place in New York at that time, but none of my old friends showed up.
I had a wedding to attend that weekend. But it was in New York and I again have a place in New York, so I decided to attend one high school reunion event. I am glad I did, and here is why:
I got an email about a month before the event saying that they were thinking about holding a special event and they thought they’d invite the three most successful members of the graduating class to talk about their views of the future. I get invitations to talk all the time, and I wasn’t surprised that I have done better than the other members of the class. (I had attended my 25th after all where I learned that the kids who had graduated #1 and #2 hadn’t done that much later on.)
The shocker for me was whom the invitation came from. The writer opened the letter by saying that he was sure I didn’t remember him but...
Oh, I remembered him. He had affected by entire life in high school and probably still does affect my life. (Remember reason #3 above.)
This kid always wore a jacket and tie to school. Every day. He was in my homeroom, and he was not particularly friendly. He was dead serious. He intended to go to Harvard and he intended to become a doctor and he was going to do everything he could to get there. The jacket and tie was part of the plan.
Meeting him and hearing this plan when I was 13 years old convinced me not to study, not to even try in high school, and to spend my time out of school playing ball. If this was the competition I didn’t want to compete. And I didn’t. (Remember 322?) 
I didn’t compete in college either where I graduated with an even worse class rank and with a C average. And I never wore a tie.
So there was some sweetness in getting this invitation from this particular guy. I had never forgotten him. I did wonder what had happened to him however. He did go to Harvard, but did not become a doctor. He is a PhD in some biological field which is close enough, but he was not one of the famous members of our class.
The event he was planning never came off. (It seems high school politics keep going on 50 years later.) I went to the reunion to meet him.
I was pleasantly surprised. He was certainly the smartest one of the people that I spoke with at the reunion. I told him my story and he admitted that maybe he had been a little up tight in high school and he apologized for intimidating me. Life had made him less arrogant it was easy to see.
There is a lesson in all this of course. The obvious one I have already stated. High school is a bad thing. We should stop having them. High school teaches many bad lessons. The one it taught me was that I wasn’t that smart and I shouldn’t try too hard.
But the good news is that my life taught me otherwise. I learned to trust my own intelligence and to be suspicious of people who are trying hard to be something they may not actually be.
And the reunion taught me that 50 years later real experiences can get you to revise your opinions of things. We are always learning, just not in school.

3 comments:

Peter B. said...

I never attended a US high school, but I should admit that my hight school in Moscow was great and something to remember. Well, we had no class ranking and we never had any tests beyond final exams. We were normal kids, were not pressed to compete, and had a lot of fun. We had several great teachers and I still remember them. So, what are the features of high school that make it good or bad?

Shlomo said...

Quite right!

There is also the fact, of course, that college prep isn't even the right goal for most. I'm less convinced that HS students should have unfettered choice in their studies, even were it feasible - but some attention to figuring out what their aptitudes are, and exposure to a variety of subjects and forms of learning, would go a long way.

Shlomo said...

Quite right!

There is also the fact, of course, that college prep isn't even the right goal for most. I'm less convinced that HS students should have unfettered choice in their studies, even were it feasible, since they have no idea about what's possible or important - but some attention to figuring out what their aptitudes are, and exposure to a variety of subjects and forms of learning, would go a long way.