Tucked away in a desk drawer underneath some papers, I have my uncle’s high school diploma from 1930. I take it out every now and then and think about him, my robust old uncle who let us spend the night at his house and eat chocolate cake at all hours.
He was the epitome of the title “Greatest Generation”: graduated from the county high school, taught at the local college, was a World War II veteran, and retired from Alcoa with over 30 years of service. He was educated, intelligent, and moral. People looked up to my uncle, and we’ve always been proud of his life, a life cut short by cancer when I was just a boy.
The interesting thing about his 1930 high school diploma is that his credits are listed right in the center of the document. He had two credits in Algebra, one and a half in Geometry, one credit in English Grammar, and two in Literature. He had General Science, Biology, and Chemistry, and, true to his upbringing, four credits in Agriculture. He had 16 credits in all, and he must have cared deeply for this yellow piece of paper, because it’s still crisp and bears not a single folding crease, even after 79 years.
I’ve been a teacher for almost a decade, and every now and then I will hear a news story, or read an article about how kids today are just not as smart as they used to be. I’ve heard it said that their attention spans have dwindled because of television and the Internet. I’ve read that they can’t write because of cellphone texting, and that their reasoning skills have been whittled away to nothing by untold mindless hours spent playing violent computer games.
But I don’t really know those kids. The kids I know need a minimum of 22 credits to receive a diploma from the same county that my “greatest generation” uncle got his. My kids have to take four years of English and literature, four years of math (starting with algebra), two years of a foreign language, and at least three years of social sciences. My kids are taking calculus, physics, college-level chemistry, and history, statistics, forensics, and geology.
And those who would question the quality of these modern courses in comparison to those of 1930 should remember that today’s kids have to take a staggering number of end-of-course tests, whose contest is mandated by the state.
Now what about after school, when people tend to think all teenagers are collapsed on the couch watching irreverent cartoons?
At my school, we have Planet Club, Scholars Bowl, Health Occupations Club, Future Farmers, Future Business Leaders, Christian Athletes, Key Club, and Military Club to occupy their time. We have football, baseball, soccer, volleyball, tennis, wrestling, golf, and bowling teams. There’s cheerleading and marching band. And our carpentry class builds houses: three-bedroom residences from the ground up, roofed and sided, just ready to be sold at auction and moved onto someone’s land. (And did I mention that they build two a year, and that the money they raise by selling the houses goes to help the school?)
Add to all this the fact that about half my juniors and seniors have after-school jobs, and you start to get the picture: The modern student is better educated, more involved, and more well-rounded than the students of my generation, and perhaps even of my uncle’s.
So why the misconception?
Maybe I don’t do a good job of selling my kids. Maybe I just let it go, when one of my 30-something friends says that kids today are getting worse and worse.
But I won’t let it go anymore.
I will tell my cynical friends about today’s requirements. (Because I know we sure didn’t take advanced physics and calculus in high school.) I will tell them about the time a new teacher at my school had $100 stolen from her purse, and kids who didn’t even have her for their teacher collected money in the cafeteria to pay her back.
I’ll tell them, and maybe they’ll tell someone else. In the end, maybe we will realize that our kids are smarter than us, at times nobler than us, and have just as much potential to fix the world as we did—maybe more.
Don’t insult the intelligence of my kids. They are doing just fine.
A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as Stop Complaining About ‘Kids Today’