Saturday, May 21, 2016

Meaningless High School

When I was in high school my life consisted mainly of four things: high school, family, partying, and science-fiction. The first two were close to meaningless, and the last two meant a lot. In fact, they were pretty much the focus of my high school life.

It took me years to figure out what the answer was to that puzzle of why the first two meant so little and the last two so much. I didn't have a bad family life. It was just that, like a lot of kids then and now, family just didn't mean that much (I'm sure I would have realized just how much it meant if I didn't have it). Finally, I realized the answer was pretty simple: it had to do with meaning. The first two had little meaning to me; the last two a great deal. Everything has to have meaning, or it's not really worth doing or having.

For the last few decades there has been a lot of controversy among many people about the break-up of families. They have a point, and it's an important one. But when families are intact, there is something else little noticed but very important. As Ortega y Gassett has written, "People do not live together merely to be together. They live together to do something together."

Because of the way American life has evolved (in large part due to the interference of the State), there was no place for most teenagers when I was growing up, in society or the family. It's no different today. Teenagers have been marginalized for a long time, including in the family, even if it's not purposely done. Lots of teenager's lives don't have much purpose or meaning, even in their families. There is no true sense of community. That, I realized, was one of the main problems.

Several years ago I was in Memphis, sitting in a mall on a Friday night with a woman I know, waiting for a movie to start. I watched the same kids circle the mall, widdershins. That's all they were doing. I especially remember two girls, dressed like Goths, who I saw four times as they circled, before we left for the movie. That was the meaning and purpose of a lot of their life for these teenage girls. Walking in circles around the mall on a Friday night.

Not long after being in Memphis I was in Chicago, in another mall on Saturday morning. I saw the same behavior among teenagers I saw in Memphis.

It wasn't always like what I saw. The only book by Laura Ingalls Wilder I've read is Farmer Boy, her biography of the life of her husband, Almanzo Wilder, when he was ten years old and growing up on a farm. I was surprised by his life, which wasn't all that long ago -- in the 1860's.

Almanzo had a place and a purpose in the family, and an important one. The functioning of the farm was very much dependent on him, and Almanzo didn't mind at all. He enjoyed it a great deal. How many teenagers today can say the same? How many today just live with their families, but don't truly feel part of them? As for school -- ugh.

There was something very interesting about Almanzo's life. He hated school passionately and apparently only attended a few months at the most in his entire life. Yet he grew up intelligent and well-read.

He also remembered nearly everything that happened to him when he was young. I remember little, mostly because I spent most of my time in school, and it was the same meaningless thing day after day. I couldn't tell one day from the other. I have few memories from in-between the ages of seven and 10. I'm not the only one.

So, school, too, is a major part of the problem with teenagers today. Many have little purpose or meaning in their families, and even less in school. Unfortunately, to borrow a phrase from John Taylor Gatto, the purpose of government factory schools is indoctrination. That's why it puzzled me at first why family and school didn't mean that much to me. I especially had no place, or meaning, or purpose, in school. Indoctrination is not education, and it's always boring and never has any meaning.

Almanzo had an important place in the family, but no place in school. That's why he hated it. School meant nothing to him, and it bored him. It isn't any different today.

When I was in high school, we formed our own little communities. The same thing happens today. We called them "cliques" back then. To a degree I found it amusing even at the time. For one thing, in the one I belonged to, we all dressed exactly the same, from head to feet. It was the uniform for our community. More than anything else, what I remember from high school is the group I belonged to, and how we dressed.

The only acceptable shoes were Hush Puppies (I don't even know if they exist these days). Dark socks. White sweat socks? Ack! "Greasers" wore them. I didn't even know what a greaser was. None of us did.

Pants? Blue jeans as long as they were Levi's. They had to have the welt down the outside, and be flares, which were sort of a modified bell-bottom. Shirts? I remember flannel shirts were okay in the winter, as long as they were worn with a blue pea coat. No button-up shirts with short sleeves. Pure Nerdsville. No hats were acceptable, either. Long hair was an imperative. Mine was down in-between my shoulder blades.

Sound silly? Not really. It was the uniform of our community. It was part of the ritual. And without ritual, community, meaning and importance, you'll get not much more than alienation.

As for the purpose and meaning of my group, there was exactly one: partying on the weekends. And I'll tell you what: I had a great time. I belonged to a true community, and all of us had a meaning and purpose. It was nothing that could last for life -- partying never does -- but for those few years, it was wonderful. When I told one of my friends stories of my teenage years he admitted years later he was envious of me, because his high-school years consisted of him and his best friend sitting in the basement eating popcorn and watching TV. While I was on an island with 500 people, partying around a bonfire.

The science-fiction, I knew even at the time, gave me what is commonly called "a sense of wonder." I traveled from one end of the universe to the other, from the beginning of time to the end. It was amazing stuff -- meaningful stuff, to me -- and to this day I still read it. Even in junior high and high school I knew it was a reaction against the boredom of both. I just drifted away in my imagination, which at the time was more vivid than life.

When the Harry Potter books came out and I saw they were so popular that kids dressed like him, I understood why. Harry also had no place in his family. It wasn't even his real family. He was an outsider, an outcast, a scapegoat. I think that's one of the reasons for the popularity of the books, because even many small kids realize they don't have any true place or meaning in their families. It wasn't until Harry went away to Hogwarts that he was given a place in his new family, and a meaning -- in his case, a very important meaning.

Is it any wonder those books are so popular?

I've come to the conclusion there is no hope for the public schools. They bore kids, they destroy their imaginations, they give them no meaning or purpose. I'd shut them down on the spot if I could. How many kids like school? Almost none. Doesn't that tell people something?

I was recently walking somewhere in the morning and encountered an eight-year-old boy walking to school. Do you like it? I asked him. No, I hate it, he told me. We sit in class and then the bell rings and then we sit in another class, he said.

Our school system came from Prussia, of all places, and its original purpose was to create soldiers who wouldn’t run away in battle. Education in the far past was about a bunch of kids sitting in a circle and participating with a mentor. That’s what the ancient Greeks did and they created a lot of educated people.

Why in the world do we need 12 years of schooling anyway? What exactly does it take 12 years to learn? And that doesn't include college and graduate and post-graduate work. Is all of this necessary? It isn't a good thing, of that I am convinced.

I read an article several years ago about a rather eccentric man who lived in a tent with his 12-year-old daughter. He taught her out of a set of old encyclopedias. When the police finally found them, investigators said the daughter was "unusually intelligent and knowledgeable."

She’d be in her early 20s now. I sometimes wonder what she’s doing.

I also recently met a mother who told me her highly intelligent 15-old year daughter was having such a terrible time in school she wanted to drop out and was staying home from school a lot because she was “sick.” She was on the verge of being expelled. I told her both my parents got GEDs and they were easy to get. I’ve never seen her since and I sometimes wonder what happened to the daughter.

I'm certainly not recommending living in a tent with your kid, only pointing out perhaps schools are only not necessary, maybe they are instead a obstacle to true education. Watch Ferris Bueller's Day Off sometime. It reminds me of a nightmare I sometimes have: it is the last day of high school and for some unknown but horrible reason I won't graduate and have to go another year. It is the only nightmare I have repeatedly.

It'd be better if a lot of kids started as apprentices at 12 years old. I've known several people who just simply could not finish high school. All of them later became successful in their field. One friend who lived next door to me when we were in high school dropped out and later became an airline pilot. None of them could find a place, a meaning and a purpose in schools they attended.

As for families, I do know one thing; the State is the cause of most of their problems. Interference by public schools, interference in the economy, destruction of neighborhoods and communities...all of these things are created and exacerbated by the State. Interference by the State takes away the meaning and purpose of people's lives, and tries to replace it with its meaning, which are generally bureaucracy, militarization, war and empire.

The State does a lot of bad things to people. Taking away a true meaning to their lives and replacing it with false one is one of the worst. Or, as Robert Nisbet put it in his The Quest for Community, "The conflict between the central power of the political State, and the whole set of functions and authorities contained in church, family, guild and local community has been, I believe, the main source of those dislocations of social structure and the uprootings of status which lie behind the problem of community in our age."

Oh, yes. Oh, yes, indeed.

8 comments:

Shaun F said...

That was an enjoyable read. I can identify with quite a bit of what is written. I basically had the same high school experience. And the same community experience that you described - there are remenants of that still in my life 32 years later. Which is totally valued. High school was a bit like the Fellowship of the Ring, we journey along, as long as we could, before we have to go our separate ways - sometimes through no fault of our own. It was easier to accept people, when we were young and everyone was drunk or whatever. High school was entertaining, but not educational. The shit we did back then, would in current times, end us up with a community police visit, and the beginnings of a criminal record. Mind you some of the conduct of the teachers would have constituted assault, but we did have it coming.

Anonymous said...


If I could do it over again, I would have just earned a GED, rather than have wasted time in high school. I could have easily studied specific skills on my own, with some kind of apprenticeship and through short courses.

kurt9 said...

Teenagers growing up in stable homes don't appreciate it because it is the default environment they grow up in. They don't know any different. Teenagers are also seeking to create separate identities for themselves separate from their parents. It is only natural that they will generate push-back to the family. The most criminal aspect of the schools (and of society itself) is that it prevents teenagers from being able to develop their independent identities based on real accomplishment, aside from athletics. The schools seem to exist to impede any kind of independent accomplishment.

Days of Broken Arrows said...

Nice post, Bob.

I see what you're saying, but want to add in something. The kids who don't have a place in their families as teens are often the ones whose interests and talents don't fit into a pre-determined mold. They're the ones who are often into reading, the arts, or something of the sort, often to the point of obsession (which is what it takes to become successful in any field).

Teens who don't fir in don't usually sit well with a lot of parents, because people in general value conformity. So these teens come to feel like strangers in their own homes, especially when the parents start laying down rules such as "No more of those weird sci-fi books in the house!" or in my case "No more records!"

Maybe in your house you had freedom to be yourself and pursue what you wanted, but a lot of us didn't -- and were punished, or worse, because we were just being ourselves.

The school systems are to blame only in that their curriculum encompasses the most mainstream of ideas, so that becomes what's accepted. It's inconceivable to a lot of parents, for instance, that their kids might want to do something outside the Math-English-Social Studies-Sports paradigm. So they try to smash square pegs into round holes.

If you'd seen me as a teenager, you'd have wondered why I was tucked away in the library or spending hours in the mall bookstores. It might not have looked good. But I was perusing every book on music I could find. It's because my folks would hector me relentlessly for pursuing what I really loved. There was no path to being a writer -- especially not an "entertainment writer" in the suburban community where we lived.

Just as importantly, no other parents seemed to have kids quite like me, so that was bad. In all, there was no frame of reference for who I was or where I was going. I wonder if those kids you saw wandering in those malls might have been growing up in a similar situation.

To end on a positive note, I'm glad there are still malls at least. They seem to be disappearing.



Anonymous said...


There's also the deliberate dumbing down of education:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDyDtYy2I0M

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErL9zPHdH4A

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m--gsPQ4MUY

sth_txs said...

I went to a fairly small town high school where the graduating class had less than a 100 students in it. I can't say I really felt connected to any of the BS football stuff like pep rallies and Friday night games. I did do speech competition stuff and tried doing tennis one time. I did like doing research and speech did teach me to organize and research material. I lived about 20 miles from town so was not involved in the local social scene.

The most fun I had my senior year was running a teacher's new server system and teaching myself to get the ancient DOS software to work from one install to many. I figured some things out by myself. IBM Netware anyone? WordStar, Lotus 123.... :LOL:

Even then, I resented the fact that society like to complain how irresponsible teenagers were but offered no opportunities to really work or participate in society. I did not care for churchianity Christian crap. You can't drink a beer legally until you are 21 which is just stupid. I worked at a well known international retailer; apparently you can unload a truck and stock shelves but the laws says you are too stupid to run the cardboard compactor.

It is a shame after 8th grade that we can't do something useful relative to our skills and ability and find it for ourselves. Hell, I could not even take a CAD class at that time (late 80's) since that was for the people who would go pump gas.

Avraham said...

High School had an indelible imprint on my life. I think the USA was changing at that time. But as a rule families did stuff on weekends. This I think was practically universal in the USA at the time. I had to go to Hebrew School on Shabat so the only day we could do stuff was Sunday. Summers were different. Either we went back East.[NY, NJ] or to summer camps.
Families were much more fragile than ours but still stable and sturdy as a rule. High School itself was combination of intense frustration and awesome high points. But it was all an integral whole. Family and school and vacations all had an organic connection.

Twarog said...

Until leaving high school, I never realized how much I disliked it. Compared to most students, I didn't seem terribly discontented- got along with most of my teachers, paid attention in class, got good grades and never really made trouble- but you couldn't pay me to go back and do it over again now that I have tasted freedom. At my last high school reunion, I was shocked at feeling almost zero emotional connection to people with whom I was in constant daily contact for 12 years of my life. People I had known since kindergarten were practically strangers. I wasn't the only one- a guy who was my best and closest friend during 6th grade didn't even recognize me.

"Everything has to have meaning, or it's not really worth doing or having... Teenagers have been marginalized for a long time, including in the family, even if it's not purposely done. Lots of teenager's lives don't have much purpose or meaning, even in their families. There is no true sense of community. That, I realized, was one of the main problems."

Maybe that's why I threw myself into religion with such gusto during my sophomore year, and stuck with it. Some of my fondest and most vivid memories of that period are of simple things I did to help out around my parish- raking leaves, picking up trash, moving furniture for the annual picnic, teaching Catechism to the younger kids on Sundays. People at the parish treated me like an adult-under-construction and gave me real jobs to do; in school, even if our teachers genuinely liked us, we were still cattle to be herded from one pen to another. That's why most church "Youth Groups" are totally counterproductive- adolescents want to be given responsibility and challenges, not quarantined in a room with other teenagers for patronizing lectures, dull conversation, and sappy music. Even when I was 15, I avoided them like the plague.