Every time I step foot on the high school campus where I work, I think about dying. And it’s not just because of the armed, uniform guards that man the locked doors. Yes, there’s an air of angst hanging in those tiled halls. The inmates are restless. This is nothing new. But school shooting paranoia aside, I look around as the daily routine repeats itself, and wonder – if this were our last day alive, would we be grateful for all the hours we’ve spent at this place? Do the benefits of high school really justify the amount of time it demands from the prime of our children’s lives?
For generations adults have talked about and treated teenagers like a garbage sector of society. Something to “deal with.” And it’s easy to understand. I work with high school students. They are often rude, ungrateful, arrogant, and dishonest. They’re frequently short-sighted, combative, and prone to petty fits.
But is this who they are by nature? Or is this is what they become when put in a hostile environment?
In many ways, high school is the hotbed of hypocrisy, where teens are supposed to practice being good adults while getting treated like naughty children. Don’t let the handwritten motivational posters in the hallways fool you. They may wag symbolic fingers in favor of dignity, responsibility, and independence, but inside the classroom these characteristics are inherently stifled.
Consider this. The same adults who give teens pep talks about self-respect force those teens to sit all day, knowing it’s bad for their health and concentration. And if those students protest? We label that as misbehavior, and start treating them like problem kids. That’s right, we, their supposed champions, punish even their most basic attempt to stand up for themselves. Literally.
How can we motivate young people to recognize their potential greatness while subjugating their most basic needs for well-being? You know what I’m talking about. Putting them under florescent lights we know cause migraines. Administering tests we know boost nothing but anxiety and intellectual classism. Filling their lunch trays with food we know at best fails to nourish them. Depriving them of the fresh air and free time that makes a day worth greeting – and then complaining about their attitude problems.
We grasp our pearls when they start saying fuck you, but isn’t it we who say it first?
We say it by refusing to validate their natural impulse to rehearse adulthood, which at the very least means letting them have sovereignty over their own bodies. We say it by failing to understand how essential teenagers are to a functional society. The system mainly treats them like a chaotic force to be contained and conditioned; instead of testing them all day, we should be letting them test us.
Whatever do I mean? Well, teenagers, though each unique, share a special profile of characteristics: They’re naturally alert, energetic, eager to prove themselves, and hormonally programmed to put themselves at risk.
In short, they are an army of would-be activists.
In this small window of life where they feel bold enough to take on the world, entitled enough to demand more from it, pissed off enough to call shit out, and foolish enough to put their bodies on the line, what do we do with them? We corral them into a controlled space and bury them in busy work.
But we can’t afford to do that anymore. We need them to seize their role as the imperturbable conscience of society. They’re the ones who hold space at the threshold between the hopeful heart of childhood and the tamed spirit of mature citizenship. We need them involved in real life problem solving, not the curriculum of hypotheticals that make up the bulk of their work.
How can we ask them to focus on these nonsense standardized test essays when they are living with real issues every day, in their personal lives and through their growing awareness of our corrupt and warring world? Trying to distract them from the conversations they really want to have and the problems they really need to solve only loses us their trust and pushes them toward apathy.
How dare we try to imbue in them a love of research and reading while deeming their personal interests irrelevant. That is not how “love” works. Forcing a person to study things they are not curious about is like trying to treat someone to mud flavored ice cream. You leave in their mouths an icky taste – boredom, resentment, embarrassment, anxiety – and it can last for life.
We tell young people they matter while all our interactions with them invalidate what makes them who they are – their specific ambitions, attention span, stress level, pace of learning, and distribution of energy. They can sniff out our lack of faith, and it undermines their confidence or simply fuels their indignation.
While we infantilize young adults to retain a sense of control over their raw power, not only do we rob ourselves the benefit of their moral feedback, we effectively force them to into the very small-minded self-centeredness that makes us roll our eyes.
Think about it. An emerging adult wants to prove herself to her community. She wants an initiation, a recognition of her worth. But we don’t give her the time or support to investigate her private passions. So instead of chaining herself to a greedy bulldozer or leading a sit-in on the steps of a corrupt congressman’s private mansion, she ends up looking for approval in her pre-approved microcosm. Cue the politics of teenage social climbing and the culture of Like-fishing selfies.
Can we just turn teens lose and expect them to all go be heroes? Of course not. They need mentorship, they need role models, and they need us to offer structure. They also need to have chances to test their limits and society’s boundaries before they reach an age of such heightened volatility. This means giving young kids more freedom to get to know themselves and develop common sense through unstructured play.
Bottom line: We already know high school’s current incarnation is failing students (to say nothing of how it fails teachers), but it’s time to realize that in letting down our teenagers, we let down society as a whole. They are not the loathsome demographic we make them out to be. They are, or at least should be, important contributors to our cultural ecosystem.
Maybe we fuddy-duddies just can’t imagine a viable alternative to the status quo. But we are in a position to ask for help in re-designing what a high school could be. As luck would have it, I happen to know a few tens of millions of Americans with big ideas and little fear of shaking things up.