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The entire American school system needs to be reexamined

Comment, March 2001, source unknown

Education has returned to the front pages: In the wake of the most recent school shootings, state legislatures are debating bills outlawing bullying, while the president of the University of California, concerned about low academic performance by minorities, has called for dropping the SAT exam as a criterion for college admission -- as if that would solve the problem instead of merely masking it. Authoritarian intrusion and social engineering seem to be the order of the day.

The entire American school system needs to be stringently reexamined from primary grades through college. If high school has turned into a seething arena of boredom and competitive tension erupting in mayhem, it's partly because modern schools have become dungeons for active young men at their most hormonally driven period of life.

Forcing restless teens of both sexes to sit like robots in regimented rows in crowded classrooms for the better part of each day is a pointless, sadistic exercise except for those with their sights on office jobs.

This school system is not even 200 years old, yet most people treat it as if the burning bush floated it down from Mount Sinai. Too often, school has become a form of mental and physical oppression.

Exactly what is being taught? Certainly not wisdom or perspective on life. Can anyone honestly claim that current high school students know more about history, science, language and the arts than students 40 years ago? As for college students, the shallowness of their training in the humanities has become all too evident as graduates of the elite schools have entered the professions and the media over the past 20 years.

A gigantic, self-perpetuating school system is forcing students along a pre-professional track whether they want it or not. Perhaps as many as half the college students currently enrolled in the elite schools may not really want to be there but have just numbly followed along in the track of their parents' and peers' social expectations. They have no other options. If our pampered students have the best of all possible worlds, why are so many of them binge-drinking, self-mutilation ('cutting') and anesthetizing themselves with brain-wrecking drugs?

As I've argued in the past, there's no way that the daughter of prosperous, successful, white upper-middle-class parents could decide to drop out of an Ivy League school in her sophomore year to get married and be a stay-at-home mom. She would be upbraided and shamed, accused of "wasting" her education and betraying her "real" talents -- and embarrassing her status-conscious parents. Similarly, it's scarcely imaginable that the son of such a family could opt for the career of auto mechanic or trucker instead of physician, lawyer or businessman.

There was a time when most high schools offered shop classes and when technical institutions gave practical preparation in the trades to non-college bound students. As the service sector expanded in the U.S. economy after World War II, such choices became fewer.

The boys who are collecting guns and fantasizing about shooting up their schools need a more constructive outlet for their energy -- which working with their hands in the company of older people would partly satisfy.

As for the misfits who are being "bullied" into homicidal rampages, those who find school life unbearable or useless should be permitted to leave at age 14 (as was legal during the immigrant era) to try to live life on their own. Let them return to school when and if they so desire; the presence in the classroom of adult students would infinitely improve both primary and secondary education, since it's rigid grade segregation by age that perpetuates and aggravates the tyranny of social cliques.

You say the young are far too immature to survive at 14? Well, that's proof positive that they've been infantilized by their parents in this unctuously caretaking yet flagrantly permissive culture that denies middle-class students adulthood until they are in their 20s and even later -- long after their bodies are ready to mate and reproduce. The Western career system is institutionalized neurosis, elevating professional training over spiritual development and forcing the young to put emotional and physical satisfaction on painful hold.

The trades need to be revalorized. Young men and women should be encouraged to consider apprenticed careers outside the effete, word-obsessed, office-bound professions. Construction, plumbing, electrical wiring, forestry, landscaping, horticulture: Such pursuits allow free movement and require a training of the body as well as the mind.


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