OBJECTS OF MY SYMPATHY
In my last post, I mentioned the existence of an age-group whose members especially deserve our love and sympathy. They find themselves in a difficult situation. And what makes it painfully difficult is that they know, we know, everyone knows, that their situation is needlessly difficult.
Am I talking about octogenarians? They’re commonly placed in extremely dire straights. Then again, that can be attributed to human biology. Our bodies -- including our brains – often begin to break down during that decade, if not earlier (personally, my body’s been breaking down since I was 18). So yes, it can be extremely painful to watch the trials of widowed, sick 88 year olds, but there’s a limit to what any of us can do about their plight. If only the same could be said for the situation of the modern suburban high school student, poor things.
I have vivid recollections of high school at two other points in history. I attended high school in the mid 70s and taught high school at the end of the 80s. In both cases, the last term I’d use for the experience is pressure packed. Yes, the students were given letter grades in each class. Yes, many of the students hoped that if they succeeded at school, they could attend selective colleges. But they were still kids. They had plenty of free time after school. They weren’t expected to study for standardized tests (at least not in the 70s). And their teachers had plenty of time to teach what they wanted to teach, rather than to focus completely on what the standardized test-makers would require them to teach. The 70s were a very, very different time in which to grow up.
Today’s high schools can opt out of the rat race if they so choose. They can, for example, cut down on extra-curricular activities, like the ones people join because “it looks good” on the college application, rather than because the kids enjoy the heck out of them. They can also avoid all the G&T schools, magnet programs, SAT prep classes, summer math tutors, etc. … and live like kids used to live in the 70s.
But there’s only one problem: in the 70s, you didn’t have any pressure to live differently. You didn’t know what you were missing. Now, you do.
Please don’t misunderstand me -- I’m not saying that the pressures we’ve added in recent years don’t accompany greater opportunities as well. There’s a lot to be gained from increased academic rigor, or from engaging in constructive extra-curricular activities throughout the school year. By contrast, there’s very little to be gained from engaging in some of our favorite after school activities from the 70s, like playing buzz-ketball. That involved buying quarts of beer (yes, it was easy for us to obtain), drinking them quickly, and then dunking baskets at the local elementary school, where the rims were only eight feet high.
Perhaps we high school kids were a bit too cavalier in the 70s about our responsibilities. Perhaps my school did us no favors when it allowed the senior class to vote for the titles of Mr. and Miss Beverage. Then again, I’d say the pendulum has swung a bit too far in the other-direction, wouldn’t you? Let’s assume for the moment that we don’t give a damn about the pleasures to a high school kid of hanging out with our friends or relaxing alone in front of a TV. Let’s assume we don’t give a damn about our high school kids enjoying life at all, and that we’re considering the situation solely from the standpoint of what kind of human beings we want them to become as adults. I’d assume, then, that we’d all agree on this point: we’d want our kids to become educated in the deepest sense of that word. What does it mean? If I may borrow a definition from a Stanford prof, whose name escapes me, an educated person is someone who can entertain ideas, entertain others and entertain himself.
If that’s the standard, are our elite academic programs succeeding? I doubt it. Don’t the “best and the brightest” need as much time as anyone else to sit back and simply collect their thoughts? Isn’t that time crucial for what intellectuals call reflection? Don’t the “best and the brightest” need to appreciate the value of spontaneity? Isn’t that, as much as variety, the spice of life? More to the point, once we’ve turned these kids into grade grubbers, crammers, and status-conscious future Ivy Leaguers, what have we done to their ability to entertain? What have we done to their ability to cultivate enjoyment in the voyage of the mind?
There really is no good choice for today’s adolescents. They can dumb down their schedules and watch their peer group outrace them to the land of opportunity. Or they can scurry about from assignment to assignment, activity to activity, along with the other rats. Neither path is terribly appetizing.
Fortunately, this age group is strong and resilient. Except for the relatively few that battle severe mental illness or drug addiction, they will come out of this stage more or less in one piece. But I still think they will leave a part of their souls in their AP classrooms or, in the case of the kids who opt out of the rat race, perhaps they will leave a part of their egos when they wave their high schools a final goodbye. Once all is said and done, many members of both groups will get to move on college. And there, without so many crippling requirements and constant assessments, they can resume the task of truly living.
Will the former paper chasers ever love learning for its own sake? Perhaps not, but they will learn to love themselves and other people. They might even learn to love their jobs -- which was the whole point anyway, wasn’t it?
And what about the ones who “screwed around,” didn’t worry about all those AP or IB credits, and found their way to the non-honors programs of public universities? Will they learn to love learning for its own sake? I don’t know. I’ve never sampled that trajectory. But sometimes, I think it’s more attractive than the alternative. Coming from an academically-minded workaholic like me, that assessment is truly a sad commentary. And in my next blog-post, I hope to provide a concrete example to support what I've been saying here with abstractions.