Lesson Plan #8 - Article on High School
Note: We recommend that you print this article
and distribute it to your students.
Alma Maters: Two Words Behind
By PETER APPLEBOME May 2, 1999
Reprinted from New York Times Learning Network (http://www.nytimes.com/learning)
If much about the murderous assault by
two students in Littleton, Colo., seemed so alien and bizarre
as to be almost ungraspable, there was at least one part of the
story that seemed as familiar as Big Macs and oldies radio. It
was the world of jocks and nerds, preps and geeks, winners and
losers that defined life at Columbine High School before the
killing of a teacher and 14 students, including the suicides
of the two gunmen. It was something that is burned like a tattoo
into the memory bank of most adults. It was high school.
The incident and other school shootings
in places like Pearl, Miss.; West Paducah, Ky.; Jonesboro, Ark.,
and Springfield, Ore., (Jonesboro was a middle school, the rest
high schools) have been viewed through many prisms -- guns and
violence in the media, values and parenting. Clearly, no single
factor will ever explain any of the incidents. But the fact that
these horrors keep playing out in the nation's high schools tracks
closely longstanding and growing concerns about the kind of
educational and social environments they provide.
Many students, of course, have wonderful
high school experiences. And any view of high school life would
do well to remember the ways it mimics the world outside. But
the most comprehensive recent report on American high schools,
"Breaking Ranks," by the National Association of Secondary
School Principals, concluded in 1996 that "high schools
continue to go about their business in ways that sometimes bear
startling resemblance to the flawed practices of the past."
And, like the high school bloodletting
in films like "Carrie" or "Heathers" or the
savage Darwinian hierarchy portrayed in films like "Jawbreaker,"
"Varsity Blues" or "Cruel Intentions," the
images our culture presents of high school life are so routinely
destructive as to prompt warning flags that go beyond spasms
of horrific violence like Littleton. Of course, strutting jocks
and imperious prom queens lorded over high schools well before
aggrieved teenagers turned corridors into killing fields.
Writing in the Internet magazine Salon,
social critic Camille Paglia described clique formation in high
schools as "a pitiless process that has remained amazingly
consistent for the past 60 years." She then lamented the
way high schools have become anachronisms that warehouse students
in the sterile regimentation of a world of cubical classrooms
and cramped rows of seats. And, though some elements of high
school may seem eternal, increasingly questions are being asked
about an educational model that has remained little changed since
after World War I when high school -- rather than work -- became
the norm for Americans in their mid-teens. The most familiar
professional critique is that despite some attempts at smaller,
more experimental programs, high schools are too big, too impersonal
and too out of touch with the youngsters in them. That perhaps
was tolerable in days of two-parent families and close ties to
churches and social organizations. It is not now.
Peter Scales, a psychologist and senior
fellow with the research organization Search Institute, said
the group's studies of 100,000 students from 6th grade through
12th found that only one in four said they went to a school where
adults and other students cared about them.
The "Breaking Ranks" report,
for example, called for smaller high schools or bigger ones
broken down into "houses" or "teams" of no
more than 600 students to create more intimate environments,
and an adult advocate responsible for each student. Others call
for team teaching arrangements that enable groups of teachers
to monitor individual students and teaching plans that allow
teachers to follow students from year to year. Littleton was
a 1,950-student school. Grades were not broken down into smaller
groupings, and the school was organized along largely traditional
The "Breaking Ranks" recommendations
are more common in middle schools than high schools. "You
hear the principal and the others talking about what a wonderful
school Columbine is," said Frank Smith, a professor of educational
administration at Teachers College of Columbia University. "But
what it means is a wonderful traditional model and a very expensive
physical facility. In many ways, it's a wonderful version of
an outdated school."
Jon Katz, a writer on new technologies,
whose Web site has attracted 4,000 posts in recent days from
self-styled outsiders terrified that the main effect of Littleton
will be an effort to further marginalize the marginalized, said
what has most changed the social dynamic of high school is technology.
Yesterday's high school outcasts, he said,
were truly powerless. But youngsters drawn to the Internet and
to the electronic culture of violent games like Tribe, Doom and
Quake find a life outside high school that is exciting, engaging
and intellectually stimulating, where they have friends, community
and power. Only in school are they back at the mercy of the old
kings and queens and a world of teachers talking at them while
they sit in cramped desks just as students did when the radio
was high-tech. "Outside of school, these kids are empowered
and stimulated," he said. "And school then becomes
a nightmare, dull and claustrophobic and oppressive, where you
have kids constantly dumping on them for being different. These
are not violent kids. You look at the numbers, and it's absurd
to say that. But what's happening is making them very alienated
and very angry."
The solution, he says, is for schools to
recognize and respect the world of the online subculture with,
for example, a gaming club supported the way sports are, and
more use of technology and less traditional and more interactive
teaching styles. Others, most notably Bard College president
Leon Botstein, say the solution is not to make high school better,
but to get rid of it. In his "Jefferson's Children: Education
and the Promise of American Culture" (Doubleday, 1997),
he argued that children grow up physically and mentally so much
faster now that high schools trap adolescents in an unreal, age-limited
world of silly ritual and mediocre education.
"High schools are outdated, obsolete
and devastatingly wrong-headed solutions to the education of
adolescents," he said. "We trap them in a world of
jock values and anti-intellectualism, like trying to cram a large
person into a small childish uniform." Instead, he proposes
that students graduate at the age of 15 or 16 and go to junior
colleges, colleges, new institutions like science or vocational
academies or work.
Of course, the issues are not limited to
high school. Dr. James Comer, a Yale University psychiatrist,
has been saying for years that schools only address the intellectual
needs of children and not their psychological and developmental
ones. The current wave of school reform, with its relentless
reliance on standardized test results, only makes things worse,
he said. And he added that it is hard to single out high schools
for being status obsessed, hierarchical and savagely competitive
when that describes the world outside as well.
"In the culture outside the school,
we like winners and losers," he said. "Look at pro
athletes. We even like it when the winners stick it in the face
of the losers." In that sense high school may be so scarring
because it is students' first intense dose of the world to come.
But Botstein argues that at least in the world outside people
can choose where to eat or what work to do. In high school, he
said, they are all stuck in "an artificial exaggeration
of the worst values of our society."
Of course, most students' reaction to Littleton
was not to criticize the school, but to lament the destruction
of a place they loved. It is clear, though, that for those at
the bottom, the stresses and hurts are worse than ever.
On the electronic message board that the
local school district put up on the Internet in the wake of the
shooting, one 1997 Columbine graduate wrote of the taunting she
faced in school and how much time her mother spent at Columbine
"trying to find someone who cared about me."
She concluded: "I will be very disgusted
if the administrators find that the solution to the problem is
to hire more security guards. Hiring more security guards will
only limit the means by which kids can harm each other."