Why the Academics need to get out of High School
Consider for a moment the high school teacher’s background. Where did they come from? What experiences have influenced their practice? On the surface, these are absurd questions to ask unless speaking about a specific teacher. Teachers come from every walk of life, with every possible history. It’s as impossible to collectively summarize teachers by their lived lives as it’s impossible to collectively summarize students by theirs.
But almost every teacher DOES have one shared experience: college. More specifically, the academic aspect of college — classes, assignments, lectures, tests.
Because nearly everyone in the world passes through school on their way to being an adult — and those who succeed generally don’t fail at school — we accept almost unconditionally that the structure and methods of school are the most logical for giving young people the social and intellectual tools required by the adult world. But those structures are actually a very specific set of rules and guidelines designed for a very specific environment, namely, the world of Academia. It is the extremely rare teacher who comes to the field from elsewhere, and even more rare is the teacher who does not use the structures and practices of Academia in her or his classroom.
Allow me, for a moment, to relate an anecdote.
Once, when we taught in Pakistan, we needed an electrical outlet in a room we wanted to use as an office. You’ll find this problem sometimes in old houses and 3rd world countries, where technology and modern needs outpace the past. The school we taught for provided our housing, so they sent over an electrician while we were at work. We knew enough to be specific: which wall, near what door.
We did not specify height.
The outlet, when we came home, was 7 feet high, strung from the closest available power source, the ceiling fan. And aesthetically, the electrician had nailed an extension cord across the ceiling and onto the wall.
This kind of amusingly frustrating (or frustratingly amusing) outcome is frequent if you work in 3rd world countries, and I use the example gently, for it’s not a criticism of incompetence. What we gleaned over dozens of similar events was that one’s background was hard to escape. Most of the workers in Pakistan came from villages outside the city; they grew up in sparse, elementary houses with limited electricity and nearly none of the technology we take for granted.
More fundamentally, because the electrician’s earlier environment was not our own, it sometimes made our demands just slightly senseless. The absence of genuinely understanding the ‘why’ of a job led to a flawed ‘what’ when it was done. The electrician sent to install an outlet had no concept of why we needed it, and no sense that we wanted it for. His idea of a home was very different from ours, and an exposed wire across a ceiling seemed completely normal. He very often ended up an electrician working for the school because early on in his village he showed a comfort or interest in electricity, and from there gleaned how to tap into the electrical lines tangled overhead, or rewire one of the family’s 3 lamps, or wire the family television.
I could go on indefinitely with examples here, just on power. Lampwires jammed directly into sockets and taped in place. Tin electrical boxes nailed to the outside of drywall. The Power Company lineman who arrived on a motorcycle with only a screwdriver and rubber boots to replace the main line coming into the house after a lightning strike. And even though these examples bear all the appearance of gross incompetence, they are more reflective of crossed purposes, insufficient background, and incomplete understanding. You carry your history with you wherever you go.
A similar kind of situation occurs in school, especially high school.
I’ve been teaching high school and college English for going on 20 years, so we’ll use English as the example first. High school English teachers come down from college in a very specific track. We begin early, almost always through a love of reading, and almost always reading that is fiction. Sometimes this reading is birthed in a classroom, but most often not. Though the bibliophile’s reading usually comes from somewhere outside school, it manages to provide success in that part of our world that matters most for the first 20 years of our lives, school. The love of reading feeds success in the class dedicated to reading and writing, and even though many of us initially have no deep or abiding love for the literary essay or discussion, we are good enough at it to see success, and eventually even an interest. We then study Literature in college, and feed our sense of self worth and passion through success.
But then a choice has to be made: To teach or go elsewhere in the world. To leave school or not. Those English majors who don’t teach rarely ever again engage in the kind of behavior they found in school. They don’t take tests, or discuss books, or write essays — at least not for money. Those who remain in English as teachers, who step back into High School, continue doing exactly what they did in college: close readings, essays, discussions, exams. Literary theory and vocabulary. Rhetorical modes: the narrative, informative, and argument essay. Poetry.
But why? Why continue doing the same thing?
Whether we think of ourselves as being so or not, we are all Academics.
We view our subjects — and teach, and assess — through the lens of Academia. Academia has a very narrow and specific view of the subject, but to get a picture it’s easier to consider what a classroom would look like from a different practitioner. Imagine, for a moment, if all English classes were taught by journalists. Students would rarely read fiction, and never write that standard ‘literary essay.’ They might rarely even write a 5 paragraph essay. How they go about their school business would change as well, with greater emphasis on gathering information from live sources (interviewing, in other words), and design. Or instead, if English class was taught by advertisers and marketers, whose principal job is persuasion and whose main tool is poetry. Class would focus on creating experiences and meaning around products, with an emphasis on emotion and attached meaning. Or law. Or movie directors and actors. And so on.
There is, of course, a lot about school that is specifically designed for the purpose of education and learning. The systems we use, the structures and groupings, the methods for transmitting knowledge from one person to another, the ways of measuring how much is learned — these are all practices that have evolved to the particular demands of school. They are the methods one uses to lay a foundation of necessary knowledge or skill in order to move forward into practical use.
But we should not ignore the fact that all these structures emerged from the University systems well over a hundred years ago, for a purpose intent as much on studying a subject as learning a skill. Prior to the establishment of large, all-inclusive, age-grouped schools, young learners worked at home and with siblings and relatives and across multiple ages. Learning the basics — literacy, number sense, history, and so on did not take place in classroom, but rather within the much more varied environment of the working, functioning world. (It’s also worth noting that much of what one still learns also takes place outside the classroom.)
The system of ‘Higher Education’ until very recently only served a small portion of the overall population, and began around the age of 16, and focussed almost exclusively on the idea that the study of a subject leads to expertise and further knowledge. Those of us who leave the University today with our specialized degrees in history or math or biology or English and then take a step back into High School carry with us that underlying principle of the University system, which perpetuates a cycle.
Primary grades have a fairly clear and necessary foundation to lay: basic literacy, number sense, fundamental history and science concepts, time and the calendar and celebrated events. There are skills everyone absolutely needs to function in a modern society built around the spoken and written word and math. But like the bodies in which they are implanted, those skills should be complete by the end of puberty. Education does not end, of course, but it grows increasingly individual and specialized.
Like physical development, education must continue after puberty, but the particulars become increasingly individualized and contextual as a person ages. We mandate that children stay in school for several years past puberty, but in those hazy teen years, from 12 to 20, between the universally necessary material of elementary school and the choice or environment-driven specific content of college and the working world, we flounder. And without a clear sense of what secondary school is for, the teachers and administrators adopt the principles and purposes of college but with the compulsory aspects of primary school. High school educators teach to the purpose of their college choices, but under the directives of primary school.
There is no fundamental need for everyone to master any specific subject that high school demands.
Certainly not the way those subjects are taught and measured. There’s not a single book that demands reading, not a single Universal math concept or historical event or science specific that is essential for everyone’s survival. These skills and concepts are powerful, of course, but it’s specialized. It’s why universities are structured the way they are.
One of the key differences between secondary school and college is choice. High school kids do not have choice, not in the classes they are required to take or the work they have to do for those classes or the skills they must master or whether they even have to be there at all. All well and good, since who wants to give choice to a 13 year old? But because the students cannot leave the classroom, the teacher doesn’t really have to behave as if they might.
The result is that the entire system does not have to question the value or utility of the material. Not in any truly meaningful way. And because that questioning does not occur, the material hews rigidly to the purposes and structures of the Academic University rather than the incredibly varied purposes and demands elsewhere.
Unlike College professors, who tailor their classes to the specific demands of both their academic field and its utility to the environment it serves, secondary teachers do not. If you choose to study English in college, for example, you are entering a highly structured endeavor with narrow purposes — intense scholarship and close analysis of specific texts. This scholarship and analysis applies to every Academic aspect of the University, under a fairly specific rationale: namely, that close scholarship advances the field. A college professor is expected to advance the field; hence the overwhelming emphasis on scholarship and publication for advancement and tenure.
This is obviously not at all the purpose of high school, and yet the structures and systems are almost identical. Those who succeed in high school go on to college. Those who continue to succeed academically in college either exit into the wider world and adapt to its infinite purposes or stay in the University as academics or step into Secondary school as teachers. The problem for high school is that those secondary teachers do not have to adapt their material to the infinite variety of purpose and concern of high school students, because high school students have no say in the matter at all. Instead, they carry back the structures and purposes of their academic university work in a kind of feedback loop.
The effects of this disconnect are widespread and pernicious. You can see it in the types of tests we administer for exit. In the overwhelming emphasis on college over any other post high school decision. In the general unhappiness of so many high school students. In drop out rates and engagement numbers. We can find it in our own experiences of high school, our frequent boredom and misery. In the odd lack of purpose or value many of us felt in classes that we came to understand, when older, matter a great deal.
It’s worth concluding here with the recognition that school is a vast and complicated environment serving a myriad of interests and purposes. This essay reduces much of it to a few easily and neatly wrapped actors when the reality is far more complex and not always so grim. But if we are to bring about effective and meaningful change to our beleaguered secondary schools we must recognize this essential feature of our current system and history. Otherwise, we’ll continue to nail extension cords to the ceiling.