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Tragic Flaws

February 01, 2002 3 min read
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At a time when young people need adult role models and interaction with other age groups, they are sentenced to four years of isolation in academic warehouses.

Had it not been for a special relationship between one teacher and a troubled student, New Bedford High School in Massachusetts could have been devastated last fall by a tragedy even worse than the one that struck Columbine.

The incident at New Bedford—where a student told a teacher that a group of teenagers allegedly was planning to shoot up the school—is only the latest of several since Columbine in which students were thwarted from carrying out violent attacks. Not surprisingly, educators, parents, and the public express shock and surprise after each episode, wondering aloud how “that nice kid next door” could have been a potential terrorist. Unfortunately, they don’t seriously consider that high schools provide fertile soil for such antisocial behavior.

In fact, three national reports that assessed the American high school 30 years ago predicted events like Columbine and New Bedford. Each study found high school to be a seriously flawed institution and warned that it had become a breeding ground for adolescent alienation.

The reports warned that high schools isolate teenagers from the rest of society, pigeonholing them into rigidly defined age groups and affording them virtually no interaction with adults. As one study declared, high schools have effectively “decoupled the generations.” As a result, Lawrence Cremin, the distinguished Columbia University historian, observed: “The ordinary processes of socialization have been weakened, confused, and disjointed; and the symptoms are everywhere apparent—in the steady decline of academic standards in inner city schools, in the growing irregularity of attendance at most schools, and in the rising incidence of theft, vandalism, personal assault, and general alienation in all schools.”

High schools, especially big ones, nourish an adolescent subculture characterized by cliques and rivalries, racial and ethnic prejudices, bullying, casual sexual relationships, drugs, and depression. At a time when young people need adult role models and interaction with other age groups, they are sentenced to four years of isolation in academic warehouses.

A number of recent studies echo the conclusions of those conducted in the early 1970s. They found:

  • widespread student boredom, apathy, and, in extreme cases, alienation
  • inflexible departmentalization
  • fragmented, disjointed curricula lacking relevance
  • rigid curricular tracking
  • unequal learning opportunities and serious gaps in achievement based on socioeconomic status and race
  • low student achievement
  • high dropout rates
  • large, impersonal, often overcrowded schools, particularly in big urban districts
  • resistance to change.
  • Steps are being taken here and there to address these problems, but a much broader and more concerted effort is needed.

In schools that nourish tolerance and respect, kids are more likely to spend their days learning and growing than planning massacres.

High schools should be places where students know and care about each other, where the focus is as much on developing good human beings as it is on test scores. University of Georgia professor Carl Glickman argues that the most important purpose of public schools is to teach “the young the knowledge, skills, and habits which enable them to lay more profound claim to the responsibilities and power of democratic citizenship.” Students need to work on real problems, he says, exercise choice, be responsible to others, share their learning, and use their knowledge to contribute to the community.

As they do, they will develop tolerance and respect for others, and they will build relationships with their peers and adults. When asked what they value most about school, students often cite relationships. They yearn to establish the kind of trust with their teachers and fellow students that prevented a catastrophe at New Bedford. In schools that nourish such relationships, kids are more likely to spend their days learning and growing than planning massacres.

—Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2002 edition of Teacher as Tragic Flaws

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