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Sunday, September 30, 2018

What happens in high school doesn't stay in high school

The accusation that supreme court candidate Brett Kavanaugh grabbed and grappled with a girl at a party in an attempt to have his way with her has sparked much comment and conversation about the goings on in high school.  While high school kids everywhere are always testing the social boundaries, there is no common high school experience--except for the academic studies.  And they vary widely.

A professional friend of mine is an expert on the subject of what goes on in high schools.  I got to know him when he was a counselor at a high school where my spouse taught.  He was known for being unusually effective in his work and had dealt with some very violent situations.  He became nationally known for his knowledge and skill, and became part of an organization that schools bring in to help the staffs solve problems.  

He makes the point that high schools are extensions of their communities.  They are expressions of social values on which the communities operate.  If a community has serious issues of social and economic inequality, those issues will be reflected in the way the school is run and in the attitudes of the student body.  His operating principle was that schools could not change a community, but they could act as a beacon which helped students recognize factors which could limit them and show them the way to surmount those factors.

The last time I had an extensive exchange with the counselor was when he met with co-directors of the Dakota Writing Project to review the relationships the Project had with local schools and to formulate plans to make those relationships as effective as possible.  The original Dakota Writing Project was headquartered at Northern State with co-directors at Dakota State and Black Hills State.  I was a co-director and for a few years the principal director.  The Project was a totally teacher-run enterprise.  Its operation was based on the premise that talented and experienced teachers had developed strategies for teaching and developing student abilities that grew out of actual experience in the classroom.  While experts were called in to discuss these matters with local teachers, the Project's purpose was to draw out the successful experiences from the teachers and make them available to all teachers who are also searching for ways to engage their students and elicit competent and strong  achievements.  Writing Projects throughout the nation were able to show marked gains in student achievement.  Our task was to aid teachers in organizing and implementing the programs.  We had no problem in generating the interest and participation of teachers, but they often encountered resistance from school administrations which did not want autonomy among the teachers.  The counselor discussed with our Project members what they encountered and what were options for dealing with obstructions.

The counselor categorized how schools characterize themselves.  He said that very often you could determine a school's priorities by walking down the hallways during a change of classes.  The way students dressed, comported themselves, and interacted with teachers communicated much about what values guided the running of a school.  He said that in some schools, you could feel a sexual tension when you entered the building.  The girls dressed and comported themselves in ways that competed for attention and demonstrated that they thought in terms of a pecking order.  The boys displayed their attitudes by who they paid attention to.  When students were interviewed, they talked in terms of status and who were important.  Sometimes, he said, this attitude was apparent among the teaching staff.  These schools were run by cliques and students in the less prestigious cliques had disparaging attitudes about the school and education in general.  It boiled down to the community's attitude toward equality.

Those schools which serve the quest for social status have students with out-of-school life for which a major activity is drinking parties at which sexual encounters are involved.  The high school experiences for many students in these schools have been dominated by this social order.  Memories of school for the students, both those who participated in the parties and those who didn't, are of bitter social divisions and debauchery.  In communities where inequality rules as a social order, some schools are an extension of the inequality whereas others provide a refuge from it.  It is that latter function that the counselor said dedicated educators strive for.  Schools that surmount social divisions focus on the future of children, not the divisive attitudes of people in the community  they serve. 

The counselor said many schools are still segregated.  Not racially segregated, but by economic, social, and religious divisions.  However, most educators have had a required course in the foundations of American education, and adhere to the principles for maintaining a democratic society.  They believe that the survival of American democracy depends on people who know how to get informed and subject information to critical thought.  Many schools have submitted to the pressure to turn out students who will be docile workers who will never question authority.  The fact that such a large segment of Americans decry anyone who questions the authority of Donald Trump shows how many schools have become instruments of inequality.

As the nomination hearings for the Supreme Court have shown, the legacy of those schools which serve  the presumption of privilege was put on display.   Brett Kavanaugh threw a hysterical temper tantrum in which he asserted false conspiracy theories, and he was praised for "fighting back" in the Trump manner.  The fact that a nominee to the Supreme Court would do so on national television exhibits what has happened in our schools.  And, therefore, in our nation.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States