In Thomas French’s extraordinarily evocative book South of Heaven, which documents a year the author spent at Largo High School near St. Petersburg, Fla., the students evidence a hollowness, a spooky lack of emotion. With no knowledge of the past and little hope for the future, these teenagers act, if they act at all, on the impulse of the moment. The most alienated exchange Adolph Hitler salutes, talk offhandedly of their impending deaths, and pass hours in a kind of semiconscious daze. The more “normal’’ kids--those who supposedly occupy the mainstream--drink to stupefaction and vomit after meals. High school, French writes, “has become a place where an alarming number of students resist taking part in any assignment that requires them to pay attention for longer than the length of the latest video from Paula Abdul or the Hammer.’'
It is perhaps customary for each generation to reprove the subsequent one, but this current crop of teenagers--the youngest members of what the media has loosely labeled “Generation X’'--has received more than its share of hard knocks. They are, many educators and media observers say, particularly resistant to education, characterized by apathy and willful ignorance. In cartoons such as Doonesbury, these students are lampooned for their inability to locate, say, France on a world map.
Was this, I wondered after reading French’s book, an accurate representation of today’s students--even those students who attend supposedly good public schools? Or was this in truth a misperception on the part of educators who tend to believe that we’re always living in the worst of all possible times?
I decided to find out for myself. After more than a 20-year absence, I returned to my own high school in Whitefish Bay, Wis., a leafy suburb of Milwaukee. I couldn’t imagine that any group of students could be more difficult to teach than my cohort was in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
Whitefish Bay High School had (and has) among the highest test scores in the state. The school was a major reason why “Bay’’ home prices continually escalated, but we students had no particular respect for it. As suburban kids lacking for nothing, we respected little but our own audacity. With our teachers, who generally appeared for class and then disappeared, we had the anonymous relationships one has with village clerks. For most of us, school was a tedious journey, the classrooms having all the allure of rest stops just off the interstate. In our senior year, we skipped school en masse, smoked pot in our parents’ cars, and hid out in our parents’ abandoned houses. A small group of us boys, fashioning ourselves as alienated young intellectuals, talked not of girls and football but of Eastern philosophy, Charlie Parker, and the Beat author Jack Kerouac, exchanging the latter’s books in a kind of suburban samizdat. I remember reading On The Road and imagining myself sailing out west on Interstate 80 through the prairie and the mountains, in search of the ultimate experience.
It was the quest for this ultimate experience, I think, that more than anything fueled our flight from school. As spoiled, happy-to-be-disaffected upper-middle-class kids growing up in a virtually all-white Republican suburb, we were desperate for experience, whatever that meant. The one thing it did not mean was high school. These were the days of Kent State and the My Lai massacre, and against the intensity of those times high school seemed a massive irrelevancy. How small and dusty seemed those classrooms! Conjugating Latin verbs, calculating the area of a rhombus, memorizing the seven causes of the Great Depression--how beside the point this all seemed! And school spirit, during a time when our teachers alternately launched vitriolic temper tantrums or fell into a laconic silence, seemed even more of a hoax. Attendance in school clubs dwindled, schoolsponsored dances became bare cupboards, and the football team was beset with key defections--the new breed of counterculture athlete now turned off by the sport’s totalitarian climate. In those days, you could walk down the hallways of Whitefish Bay High School and see people exchange pills the color of tropical bugs.
Can today’s students really be more difficult than what this picture suggests of us? As I began to study this question, I realized that I also needed to explore if schools like Whitefish Bay had changed along with students. To say, as many do, that students today are less idealistic than they once were is to put an unfair onus on the students, as if they created themselves ex nihilo, when, in fact, schools as well as families have at least some role in forming the students. To claim that students today are less idealistic is fatuous if we don’t explore the school’s possible influence in shaping this kind of student.
I realize that suburban schools like Whitefish Bay High typically think less in terms of change than of preserving high standards. Reform is for troubled, typically urban, schools--not for “our’’ school. But I have always found this point of view somewhat ironic, suspecting that the teaching we received in high school was not all that different from that currently found in the general run of public schools, which experts tell us must be reformed to induce “critical thinking.’' But critical thinking wasn’t--and perhaps isn’t--necessarily more predominant at “successful’’ suburban schools than at “failed’’ urban ones. The difference between the two kinds of schools, I always suspected, may have less to do with the mode of teaching than with the pressure students bear upon themselves to learn. To fail to learn at an inner-city school is, regrettably, all too expected; to fail to learn at a suburban school is, at some level, to reject the values of one’s parents and the community.
Shortly after returning to Whitefish Bay High School, I met with guidance counselor Bob Albrightson, who, as my freshman football coach in 1969, had impressed me as being both fair and circumspect--unlike a later coach who had attempted to make me “nastier’’ by yanking on my face guard. While Albrightson insisted that both the school and students had changed in important ways, he also believed that Whitefish Bay, as far as the academic program was concerned, was still a traditional high school. “Other than a few face lifts here and there,’' Albrightson said, “I think you’ll find yourself in a time warp if you go back into the classrooms. When I bring visitors into the school, they’re amazed at how quiet the hallways are; this, they say, is how a high school should feel. But this high school is an anachronism; I don’t think it reflects what’s going on out there.
“Kids I taught in the early ‘60s [in another Wisconsin community] were ending up in Vietnam. When I came to Bay in ‘67, I couldn’t believe how removed the school and the faculty were. As far as the school community was concerned, the city of Milwaukee, with all of its social problems, may have been Outer Mongolia. We were so isolated from what was going on in the world. But at that time, parents coveted that sort of thing; they wanted to screen their kids from things that were going on.’'
Albrightson said that in the late ‘60s Whitefish Bay students, like students almost everywhere, began to challenge school authority, antagonizing some of the faculty. “Our whole country, I explained to colleagues, was founded on the premise of challenging authority,’' he said. “What went on in the ‘60s and ‘70s--in this school and elsewhere-- was necessary; the country needed to cleanse itself. But kids now have gotten more pragmatic. They’re frightened. They know that when you walk out with a four-year degree, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get employment. They know the economic realities and are more pessimistic.’'
This observation--namely that students today are more pessimistic and pragmatic--was supported not only by other faculty members but also by the students themselves. Worried about college and careers, realizing that one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other, these students would not or could not share the sense we had that things--on a personal level, anyhow--would somehow work themselves out. About our country’s moral, political, and environmental condition, we could be enthusiastically pessimistic. As rather selfrighteous teenagers, we were fond of imagining apocalyptic scenarios, but about our own prospects we had few doubts; we would succeed, as our parents had. For, despite the pride we took in what we thought was our brash unconventionality, we never lost the conventional middle-class belief in the future. As such, we believed that we could afford our vacillating moods of indolence and quick-fire defiance; like skilled high-wire artists, we would always land on our feet.
If we thought ourselves unconventional, most of today’s suburban students appear, at least outwardly, highly conventional. Generally speaking, they’re polite and soft-spoken. For the most part, they speak well of their teachers and school, though many of the AfricanAmerican students (15 percent of the 875 students are now black, the result of a desegregation plan instigated in the mid'70s) say they constantly feel like outsiders. In their classes, the students are well-behaved, if somewhat docile, and almost never contentious. They seem, based on what I observed in more than a dozen classes, to be conscientious about homework and preparing for tests, which are given with an almost oppressive regularity. Well-groomed and tastefully dressed, they look in some classes, one teacher said, “like the kids in the Gap ads.’'
In short, these are “nice’’ kids, though “nice’’ can be less indicative of a moral sensibility than of a lack of fire, as was pointed out to me by longtime English teacher Marye Ellen Ladogiannis, who taught at the school during my years there and was one of those rare teachers whose class many students considered a “must take.’' She was admired, as I recall, not only for her intellectual alertness but also for her ability to arouse in students an empathetic response toward the literature they studied.
A dark-haired, intense woman, Ladogiannis said she was frustrated with today’s students, though she added, “I’m always depressed, frustrated for one reason or another.’'
“What’s most distressing,’' she told me in the English department office, “are kids who are totally apathetic to what’s going on in school, who have no sense of the future, and who, most of all, have no anger. Now, I think anger is a very positive thing, a motivator. It makes you get out and do something. In the early ‘70s, there were a lot of angry kids and energy that these kids don’t have. They’re nice kids, but blandly nice. I can like them, but I can’t respect them as much. Now, don’t get me wrong; we had a lot of misbegotten kids in the ‘70s, too, but at least you could understand their frustration and anger.
“Each weekday, students must turn in an essay in which they’re discussing news issues using new vocabulary. They groan because they have to pay attention to news. They just don’t care about what’s going on. That’s what bothers me; they have no anger at injustice. Their idea of the future is, ‘I’m going to stumble into it’ or very rigid in saying, ‘I’m going to this college, and I’m going to be an engineer, a lawyer.’ They don’t see how close we are to stepping off the edge in this society.
“With the seniors, I walk around the class bumping kids, poking them, to get a reaction; it’s hard to get even a physical reaction out of some of these kids. I have two senior girls in one class who are now hospitalized for emotional problems: stress, school phobia. One problem is that a lot of kids don’t have time for their own private world. Their time is so structured with ‘free time’ activities that you can’t get them to relax. It’s been so ingrained in them that they have to do these things. We’re so end-oriented--the grade, the status of the school you go to. We talk about teaching kids to be creative, independent, but we’re not doing that.’'
I told Ladogiannis that I thought she was being unduly pessimistic. Whitefish Bay, like other middle-class suburbs, was a “bottom-line’’ community, that is, the parents wanted worldly success, measurable results, and it appeared that the high school was succeeding in its mission of getting kids into college and “ahead in the world.’'
“But that percentage is getting to be less and less,’' Ladogiannis said. “There are fewer kids going to four-, five-year programs and getting out successfully. So many kids we’re not getting, like these girls who are now in residential treatment centers. There’s another girl--top in her class this year--who just came back from suffering from anorexia. These kinds of things are telling us we’re not doing something right, and the number of troubled kids is growing. So I don’t think you can call this success.’'
The fact that Whitefish Bay is a results-oriented community and hence imbues its children with a deep-seated pragmatism--a pragmatism that my generation found oppressive and reacted against--is perhaps most evident in students’ near fixation with grades. “Almost everyone knows their GPA,’' one student told me, and this proved to be the case. Many of the students--especially, but not exclusively, those in the top tier-- spoke like corporate accountants of their scholastic performances; they knew their precise class ranking and grade-point averages to the second decimal point. This was particularly true of what I was told was an especially gifted and competitive senior class--interestingly enough, the very senior class Ladogiannis had characterized as apathetic--in which perhaps a dozen students were vying for the top two or three slots.
“Grades are everything,’' a football player and self- described “pretty good student’’ told me. “School’s basically a game you play in order to make it through.’' Did this mean, I asked, that students were more interested in grades than in what they learned? He and the two juniors he was sitting with-- also football players--vigorously nodded their assent. “There’s a lot of pressure to succeed, to get ahead,’' one of the boys said. “Most people are concerned with grades and don’t really care if they learn anything. The grade is the primary thing.’'
These comments were echoed by other students. Reuben Jones, an African-American student from Milwaukee with whom I spent a day attending classes, said: “Most of the education at our school is about regurgitation. We’re put into the mind-set that learning isn’t key, that the key is to move onward, that high school is but another step toward college, which in turn is another step toward life. I don’t want to say the kids here are cutthroat, but they know and play by the rules of the game. So there’s this attitude of, ‘If I go to college and you can’t, so what?’ There are many people who cheat. If it came down to getting hold of a test beforehand, people would do that--even normally honest people. People will do almost anything to get the grade.’'
Of course, such a utilitarian attitude is not new; students from time immemorial have approached school as a game. Furthermore, while this attitude was prevalent, it was far from universal. There were more than a few students, especially those in the academic elite--those taking courses such as physics, fifth-year foreign language, and AP English--who expressed genuine interest in what they were learning. More than coincidentally, these were also students who took courses with teachers--the same half-dozen names were mentioned again and again--they described as particularly interesting and thought-provoking.
Besides, there are understandable reasons for the emphasis on grades. While it has always been difficult to get into highly selective private colleges, it is now increasingly difficult to get into a good state school, such as the University of Wisconsin, without a B average. And one must always remember that students’ values reflect those of the community: Whitefish Bay, like other suburban communities, is a competitive place. Professionals worry about the status of their careers; parents worry about their children’s progress; homeowners worry, to a comical extent, about weeds sprouting up in their thick green lawns. Charles Wedemeyer, a faculty member who 30 years ago was himself a Whitefish Bay student, said the question parents most frequently ask him is why their children don’t have more homework, although many students told me that they put in two to five hours a night--much of which they categorized as “busywork.’'
Still, it is distressing to see students chase grades as commodity brokers chase dollars. The emphasis on ends rather than on means is certain to diminish a student’s intrinsic interest in learning. “Like a lot of people,’' said senior Lindsay Stein, who ranks near the top of her class, “I find myself taking certain courses because colleges look at them. If you sit in a class and demonstrate real interest, you’re looked at as a nerd. There are kids here who do have intense passions, who love writing, for example, but others see them as ‘not normal.’ The typical student here wears jeans, goes to football games, and studies enough to get by. Those who don’t reflect the mainstream are real outsiders.’'
Even more distressing, though hardly surprising, is the way in which the school implicitly encourages students to pursue good grades at all costs. The routine of quiz and test is deeply ingrained into everyday school life; to ensure that their students will pay careful attention to their lessons, teachers frequently remind students that what they are about to hear will be on an upcoming examination.
Furthermore, English teacher Ladogiannis is clearly more of the exception than the rule in wishing that her students were more assertive. In their talks with me, a number of teachers emphasized the importance of “control,’' both in the hallways and in the classrooms, and felt that a recent disciplinary crackdown--for example, students in study hall must now ask permission to visit the bathroom--had improved the academic climate. Most teachers, then, were not troubled by, and indeed welcomed, a degree of student passivity.
The problem is that it’s hard to foster values such as compassion and empathy--things public schools are supposedly trying to encourage through such ventures as cooperative learning-- in a system where there must be winners and losers. Listening to students, both white and black, discuss racial divisions within the school-- divisions that are apparent to anyone strolling through the self-segregated hallways and lunchroom--one cannot help but wonder if certain tensions, racial and otherwise, are not, in part, due to an educational system that emphasizes competition over everything else.
“Empathy? It’s not valued here,’' a teacher said, asking not to be identified. “We’re only preparing kids for college, focusing on their academic life, unaware of the fact that they have a life beyond their courses, their tests. The majority of teachers very vociferously say that worrying about things like compassion and tolerance is not our job. Our job is math and English, not these other things. I’ve heard that for many years, put in many different ways.
“Race issues aren’t really about race; they’re about basic human compassion issues. Our students aren’t open to the whole idea of nurturing. I’m amazed that black students in this school are as docile and content as they are. I think they should be angrier because they don’t really have a voice here. But then again, white students don’t either.’'
I asked Stephen Seyfer, the school’s principal, what were the values the school sought to teach. “Work ethic, self-discipline, and knowing how to apply one’s education,’' he said. Summarizing the teacher’s criticisms, I asked him if these values were enough in an age when everyone from political leaders to company presidents was talking about the need for a new cooperative model. “That’s a legitimate point,’' he said. “We must guard against a narrow focus where kids are driven to perform for performance’s sake. It’s important that we don’t lose the broader picture, that we remember that kids are kids. After all, the world outside isn’t as neat and purposeful.’'
Still, Seyfer added that in an age when general academic performance has been in a long decline, the test scores and general performance at Whitefish Bay High School have remained at or near the top. “We must,’' he said, “never lose the picture as to why we’re so successful.’'
In J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, prep-school flunk-out Holden Caulfield tells of a speech class in which students were told to yell “digression’’ at speakers who swerved from their main points. The problem, Holden says, was that the digression was often the most intriguing aspect of any given speech, as the speaker was but following the trajectory of his own passions. Holden sadly recalls the case of a classmate who was cruelly shouted down as he digressed from his main topic of a family farm to a heartfelt account of his uncle’s illness.
Holden Caulfield would not have cared for the Whitefish Bay High School I attended. It was no place for dreamers. I myself was a bit of a dreamer, unable to always stay on task, and, as I fell in my class ranking below the median, the kindly guidance counselor, Mr. Gother, assured me that while I was unlikely ever to make it as a “professional,’' my academic and personality profiles indicated that I could become, say, a successful salesman.
We were almost always kept on task, bound to our textbooks and class notes--the one almost invariably reiterating the other--like so many workers turning out piecework at their lathes. The pace was inexorable; the teacher cutting swathes through vast acres of subject. Pity the students who actually became captivated by something--a poem, a concept--with which they couldn’t let go. They were the laborers who refused to fill their quota. The “big test,’' for which we were always preparing, was just around the corner. We were always being drilled, or being quizzed, or being given long lists of terms to be memorized. Terms, in particular, had a lofty status. Poetry was about “iambs’’ and “metonymy’'; biology about “mitosis’’ and “photosynthesis’'; and history about the Tweed Scandal and the inventor of the steam engine.
The teaching at Whitefish Bay, like most teaching calibrated to tests and grades, was geared to what could be easily measured. We may have been privileged kids, but, like American students everywhere, we filled in the blanks, bubbled in the answers, and drew lines matching up terms with their definitions. Even in classes that allowed some freedom of expression, such as composition, occasional grammatical infelicities or digressions from the theses assured that we would never rise above a C. In short, we were missing in our education what is now fashionably called “ownership’'-- the sense that we could forge some sort of intellectual or emotional connection with what we were learning.
John Angelos, my junior English teacher, was an exception. Disliked by many, he could be vain and petty. Yet he inspired me with his passion for poetry. One day, for no apparent reason--his lesson plans often seemed to be but a series of digressions--he presented a poem by a poet named Sylvia Plath, with whom, he said, he was very angry for having committed suicide. “Tulips,’' which Plath wrote in the hospital while recovering from an emotional collapse, had about it a haunting, deathlike calm that I associated with the all-too-tranquil suburb in which I was raised. I do not remember what Angelos said about the poem, but, after the lesson that day, I went to a bookstore seeking Plath’s Ariel, the first book of poetry I ever bought.
Albrightson had told me that I would likely find myself in a “time warp’’ upon returning to the classrooms, and--but for some notable exceptions--he was right. The teaching was “traditional,’' though this should not be confused with mediocre. Indeed, it was hard not to be impressed with the efforts of these teachers, who worked about as hard as any group of teachers I have witnessed. In class after class, teachers made use of virtually the entire 50 minutes, the students leaning over their notebooks and assiduously taking notes. The presentations were well-organized, and the discourse was at a consistently high level.
Still, the discourse belonged to the teachers, not to the students. This was, one teacher said, particularly evident in the English department. “English is a very controversial place as far as the students are concerned,’' the teacher explained, “because some of our best teachers have reputations for being very strict about the interpretation of literature. I hear kids say they’re sure this poem means something other than the ‘standard’ interpretation. There’s a tone of resentment because they’re force-fed what they could discover for themselves in a different kind of way. But that takes time, and we’re still in this mind-set that there’s this body of information to be dispensed, and that’s that.’'
For the most part, the teachers talked and the students listened, or perhaps even a more common scenario, the teachers asked questions to which the students struggled to provide the “right’’ answers--that is, what the teacher had apparently predetermined was correct.
A case in point was an English class on the Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of the Arthurian legends. The teacher began by reminding students of an upcoming quiz and then proceeded with a class discussion that was itself a sort of quiz. The questioning was highly competitive. Students were called upon in an impromptu fashion: “What is the objective of a joust?’' “What is the adjective that applies to Gawain?’' Finding themselves on “the hot seat,’' the students typically answered with a “hit’’ or “miss.’' Sometimes this had a comical effect, as when the teacher, talking of the Green Knight, asked what “ghastly’’ meant.
Student: “I associate evil with ghastly.’'
Teacher: “I think of it as more of a physical manifestation.’'
Student: “Unsightly? Gross? Stinky-poo?’'
The teacher wanted to explore the work as an allegory and toward this end asked what the Green Knight represented with his deep green. When the students were unable to respond in any depth, the teacher, in a few well-chosen paragraphs, summarized the allegorical implications. The Green Knight, the green and gold of summer, represented the fallen world, the world of experience. He was not a satanic figure but rather aware of good and evil, which in fact constituted the real English world. Allegorically, then, the knight represented the fallen world, whereas Arthur was the unfallen Adam and Sir Gawain the flawed man.
Dutifully, the students jotted all this down in their notebooks.
Occasionally, a teacher tried to reach students on a more affective level. In a history class that was studying the Vietnam War, the teacher asked the students to read an article titled “A Soldier’s View.’' The piece, written by a soldier during the height of the conflict, raised profound questions about America’s participation in the war and the ensuing loss of life on both sides. But the students, I was sorry to see, had absolutely no response to the article, though the teacher tried his hardest to get a reaction.
“What do you feel as you read this?’' he kept asking the students, but they simply didn’t get it. What could feelings possibly have to do with history class? After a protracted silence, students awkwardly responded with statements such as “the soldiers are angry.’'
“No,’' the teacher said, “I want to know about your personal feelings.’'
A girl, almost indignant, said, “What do you mean ‘personal feelings’? I mean, I agree.’'
Disheartened, the teacher gave up the struggle. The students were absolutely plugged into what they had to know, as was apparent when the teacher clicked on the overhead projector and told the students to take notes. He proceeded to outline the events that occurred in Cambodia and Laos. The students wrote everything down. “I hope you’re all prepared for the test on Monday,’' the teacher concluded.
This is not to say that all classrooms were mired in the lecture-and-test routine. There were inspired teachers at Whitefish Bay High School, and these teachers clearly inspire their students. A third-year Spanish class I attended, taught by Catherine Rathjen, was marked by spontaneity, exuberance, and laughter. A calculus class, taught by a substitute and recent college graduate, was conducted as a seminar in which the teacher and students exchanged approaches to solving problems. And a physics class, taught by Thomas Bromley, was nothing short of remarkable. I had not taken physics in 20 years but found myself interested in a discussion about angular displacement and periodic motion. Bromley’s teaching was almost Socratic in that he constantly compelled students to re-examine their premises. When a student’s response was obviously formulaic, Bromley admonished, “You can’t memorize your way through this; you have to understand.’' He also attempted to appeal to intuition as well as to reason, encouraging students stymied by a problem “to just eyeball it.’'
Some of the most interesting teaching led me to the music room. Choir was rarely taken seriously during my time at Whitefish Bay High School, but so many students, as well as a number of teachers, spoke highly of choral director Randy Swiggum that one afternoon I decided to attend a rehearsal. As the choir was warming up, Swiggum, a man in his early 30s bristling with energy, passed me a note. What I was about to see, it said, was not a “traditional’’ rehearsal.
I had been in the school choir, but it was nothing like this. Essentially, we had read notes and adjusted our volume. This choir, on the other hand, sang with a nuanced sensitivity, an intensity of feeling. “Every time you’re in tune, your consonants together, your audience has a chance to rest, to enjoy your effectiveness,’' Swiggum reminded his singers.
In the music, “When David Heard,’' by the contemporary composer Norman Dinerstein, King David mournfully sings “Absalom, Absalom’’ to his dying son. Swiggum asked his choir if they felt there should be a seam between the tenors and the other sections. An animated discussion ensued in which a dozen students participated.
“A window, a silence, emphasizes the drama,’' one student said.
Disagreeing, another student said: “I like it better when it connects because when you feel deep sorrow, things overlap, rush together. Besides, if there is a pause, it would have to be a much longer one because people would be stunned into silence.’'
Then, following up on the various suggestions, the choir sang the music in a variety of interpretive modes.
“Instinct says to me that there should be a break,’' Swiggum finally offered, “though the composer didn’t want it that way. I want to know why.’'
The chorus shifted its attention to Gregorian chant, Swiggum first having the students sit down to study a sheet he prepared titled “Introduction To Gregorian Chant.’' He wanted the students to “get inside the mind of a monk,’' to understand that, for them, the focus was not on harmony but on melody--"the beauty of a single strand of sound.’' A segment of his handout reads, “It will help us understand the medieval mind, understand why they took their chant so seriously--it was everything, all music, all expressive power, all musical meaning.’' When sung, the music was oddly beautiful, so unaccustomed was I to hearing high school kids performing work of this kind.
At the rehearsal’s end, I asked the students if they were always given such freedom to voice their own opinions. Emphatically, the answer was “yes’'; even more emphatically, they said they wished they had this freedom in their other classes. After the bell, a number of students gathered about me and told me of their frustrations. Collectively, they said they had little opportunity to express themselves. All too often, their education consisted of restating passed-on information.
“The teaching styles and methods in this school are very rigid,’' senior Bethany Thompson said. “It’s like they’ve done it that way for 20 years and are still bound and determined to do it that way. I don’t see a lot of them changing to meet the needs of the students.’'
Chris Dietz, a junior planning a career in music, said there’s not a lot of creativity in teaching. “This is your average high school,’' he said. “Kids sit and listen, teachers talk. There’s a lot of ‘know this, know that’ but not a lot of ‘discover this, find out how you can use this.’ A lot of teachers get into the classroom and fall into this kind of teacher mode. They lose the human side of themselves. If you’re talking with them on the side, they’re great. But then it’s like they’ll shift gears because it’s time to teach. If teachers kept their own identity, the students would be more interested because it’s like, this is a person. I don’t think the teachers should say, ‘Well, this is how I teach, and you’re going to have to conform.’ Each kid is different and needs different things. For me personally, the repetition of everything kind of drives me crazy. I have trouble being stimulated.’'
Choir director Swiggum told me that his teaching has changed radically over 10 years. He once had attempted to impart to his students encyclopedic musical information; he was now primarily interested in giving them tools for expressing themselves, for learning and thinking. “That’s why,’' he said, “some of the disenfranchised kids--the so-called ‘less than good kids'--feel at home here. They may not know a lot about music theory, but they do know how a sophisticated piece of music works on them, whether it’s a spiritual or a Dinerstein piece. Here they have a forum to say, ‘You know, I love the part where...,’ or ‘This really gets me....’ I push them to express how they’re feeling because a real problem with our culture--especially in a college preparatory culture like this--is that the students’ feelings, let alone ideas, are not held to any value. We’re having an explosion of knowledge but not really finding a healthy way to deal with the whole affective side. This is why kids do drugs. They’re looking for a way to feel good, and no one’s taught them how.
“The exciting thing is that high school kids can express themselves; it’s not hard to get them to offer their opinions. And they’re very careful about listening to what another says and responding to it. You saw that when we were talking about the Dinerstein piece; they were always going for the philosophical. Why would we make this musical choice as opposed to another? Now, I could have made an arbitrary choice, and they would have accepted it, but it wouldn’t have made them think for themselves.’'
Swiggum realized that because he taught music as opposed to an “academic’’ subject, people tended to think it easier for him to make his teaching affective. But this he rejected. “Don’t get me wrong,’' he said cautiously. “I think some of the best teachers around are in this school. But most teachers still look at their students now as they did 20 years ago. But students have changed. Most say for the worse. They say they’re ruder, have shorter attention spans, are lazier, etc. And that’s all true; kids are like that. But there’s a reason for it. We’re at a watershed now. Students talk very openly with me about the way I teach. Kids are actually saying, ‘It would have been better had you said...,’ or ‘Ah, that was great....’ Kids are actually thinking about the learning process and starting to look at places in school where they think.’'
Are students today, then, substan- tially different from those of two decades ago? Those students who think about it say yes.
“Our values have declined,’' said sophomore Maggie Phelps, with whom a group of students agreed. “Our generation isn’t really interested in things like social issues.’' Another student added: “Your generation was more idealistic. Part of it is the constant pressure to get good grades, to succeed in a market that everyone keeps telling us is limited.’'
Whether or not our generation was truly idealistic is debatable. I often think that we, like over- indulged children, liked being the center of all the commotion. But in any case, we were clearly a lot noisier about what we took to be our convictions. For about these middle-class students, there is, at least in their relations with adults, an inwardness that is more disengaged than contemplative. They don’t want to raise hackles. Seeing school as a game, they play it without too much complaining, perhaps because they don’t see a real alternative. Unlike my earlier generation, these students have no Vietnam War or civil rights movement to rally around. They are bereft of a “great cause,’' and dreary submission is their primary way of responding to authority.
But this “playing of the game’’ takes its toll in stressed-out kids who are more likely to implode than rebel. Hence the more pronounced role of the guidance counselor, who once advised students on little more than college and career. “We are the front line of mental health,’' Albrightson told me of himself and his fellow counselors. They are, he said, plugged into the therapeutic community, to whom they frequently refer parents and their children. “Our counselors get calls from parents daily,’' Principal Seyfer said. “They want their kids to feel good, but they also want them to stay on the A track--no matter what.’'
Of course, there are many things beyond the control of the school that may drive students to therapy. The “therapy’’ mind-set is deeply ingrained into our culture; as Albrightson said, “Kids know the language.’' And Whitefish Bay families, with an increase in divorce and singleparent households, are under pressures that mirror those of others. Nevertheless, it seems that schools like Whitefish Bay create, or at least fail to mitigate, certain stresses they must then strive to address. As physics teacher Bromley said, “We must be conscious of the whole child because you can’t teach students if you’re not aware of what’s going on in the lives of those students.’'
Whitefish Bay High, like virtually all schools, could do better in this regard. But the teacher-centered and testdriven school invariably, if unintentionally, approaches students as cogs in the scholastic machine. This is particularly unfortunate in light of the fact that these students do respond to inspired teaching; intellectual and emotional passivity are not inherent characteristics of this generation of students but are in large part induced by school and community.
None of this is to suggest that standards be lowered to appease stressed-out students. It is to suggest, rather, that students be given a greater voice, even if it is one that occasionally digresses from the subject at hand.
A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as No Place For Dreamers