High School Is Memorex

In a stack of papers called Unorganized.

  • Apr
  • 11
  • 2006

Most students don’t view high school as “the real world.” My seniors got to the idea that Siddhartha doesn’t think any of it is real, the life he leads and the people he meets. I pressed and asked if that’s the way teenagers feel about high school. When bad news comes from school, does it really matter? What about good news? In the grand scheme of things, does it have an impact on their lives? While they may have said it just because they sensed I was fishing for it, the overwhelming response was, “No.”

You see, Siddhartha spends some time as a merchant, but he treats the entire business as a game. Wins never concern him and loses roll off him like so much water on a duck. The whole time as a merchant, the reader gets the feeling that Siddhartha simply waits for the next phase of his life. He doesn’t consider it important and it’s almost as if he sees that experience as outside his real existence.

Is Siddhartha’s life as a merchant just a game? Is it part of the real world he experiences or is it just a distraction? In the same way, is high school just a game? Is it part of the real world? Aren’t standardized tests just big, annoying, time-consuming games?

To a certain extent, students are right to treat high school like it’s fake. For those of us who have graduated high school, when was the last time you thought about your high school GPA? When was the last time anyone asked for the name of your alma mater for anything other than pure curiosity? A few years past graduation, high school doesn’t really matter too much. In that respect, treating high school like a game isn’t such a bad idea.

Beyond that, though, if high school isn’t real life, then what’s the point? Making the connection to Camus, one must imagine Sisyphus happy; he’s the only one who can invest his task with meaning, with joy or misery. That is to say that you have to create your own reason for doing things or else it’s all a gigantic waste of time; what a horrible thing to consider, that all of your pain and suffering in daily life is for absolutely nothing. No one is going to create meaning for you and if you don’t create it, then it really is for absolutely nothing.

To consider high school outside the realm of the real means a total waste of those 4 years and possibly a waste of those 12 years of free education. To think of high school as anything but real means to consign yourself to senseless endeavors, futile labor. To view high school as a waiting room means that the possibility of a relation between curriculum and life outside the campus does not exist.

That’s how many of our kids feel each day. Can we really wonder at their apathy?


1. Tom says:

[4/11/2006 - 4:28 pm]

I slept through most of high school. It was a joke to me. I never cared a bit for the good or bad. I was just waiting for something interesting to happen and that didn’t happen in classes.

I’m going through the same thing now in my graduate classes. They are a waste of time. Were I in high school and asked to do this kind of crap (interview 20 friends about how many books they have vs. hours of TV watching) I would just skip it. I think that’s what most of our students do. Busy work is obvious and in many cases that’s all 90% of high school is.

It’s kind of like a clip on Oprah I saw today. She was trying to show how awful our school system is by asking random high school students who the first 5 presidents of the US were. I don’t think she realized her question is part of the problem with our “drop out nation.” Who cares who the first five presidents are? I don’t. I was a history major. These teenagers sure didn’t care. What possible use could I get out of memorizing those facts? Why would they care?

To me school (be in elementary, middle, high or college) in too many cases is an inane focus on trivialities and no real attempt to create thinking individuals. Standardized testing makes this even worse. I look at schools getting to do things like building roller coasters to explore physics and science and wonder where these places are and how they get the chance to do something like this.

I’m in instructional technology in graduate school and I’m doing multiple choice questions to “assess” my learning. If I didn’t have kids I’d drop out.

2. Robert says:

[4/11/2006 - 4:57 pm]

And I think this is a big reason why many college students end up filling their college years with cheap sensory indulgences, like sex, alcohol, and excessive devotion to sports. Many of them are in college but have no idea why; if you ask them (and I regularly do) they usually say something about wanting to have a good career once they get out. If you ask them why they want a good career, or what constitutes a good career, they don’t really know. They are going through motions they neither understand nor enjoy, and for me as a college prof it is terribly saddening.

3. Todd says:

[4/11/2006 - 6:38 pm]

After 12 years of Pavlovian training that education has no relevance outside of academia, how can we break that cycle? I think that’s the point both of you raise, though in differing degrees.

Tom, that’s a big reason I put off getting a masters degree. Well, that and the inertia/laziness combo. And having to take the GRE to get in or get out. Talk about a waste of time! And the money is wasted, too.

Even as an English major, I really have little interest in studying DAWG literature. But that’s an unfortunate part of any English masters program, whether through that silly GRE or the comprehensive exams at the end. I was thinking of Educational Technology, but everything you say talks me out of it!

Good point about the Oprah question. The irony of her question was likely lost on both her and her target audience.

Robert, I think there’s a conception out there that education is needed to get something else. And if you want to do something else, going to college is assumed. But I’m not so sure that the “something else” is often known. Too many students go to college just because.

I’m sorry to read what you typed, Robert. I always hoped that apathy stopped after high school. It’s even worse that students are paying to be apathetic about their learning.

4. Tom says:

[4/12/2006 - 3:34 am]

I see the same things at the Univ. of Richmond. I worked there for three years after I graduated and still tutor there.

I’m in a negative enough frame of mind to feel that there isn’t much hope for breaking any of these cycles. The patterns and what I see as corruption is just to ingrained. There is too much money being made by traveling this path regardless of the consequences. Oddly, I feel about the same about our government.

Thomas Jefferson said “Every generation needs a new revolution.” (I live in VA where you might think Jefferson’s still alive based on his importance) I think we’ve gone far too long without one in education. The book I’m studying on educational psychology is pretty consistently referencing studies from the 1930s. We are stuck with schools that prepare kids for the 1950s. The teaching of intelligent design is straight out of the Dark Ages.

I’m not positive we need to start from scratch but I’m pretty sure it’s a good idea. I don’t think it’ll happen but I’d like to see it.

5. Matt says:

[10/11/2006 - 4:39 pm]

I really dug high school. My English teachers taught me how to write, analyze and interpret. My psych teacher taught me some mental tricks and meditations that still work. My bio teacher taught me about blood sugar levels and second wind (I still remember his lecture and I share it with my students). Math was a bit of a drag, but I can still crank out the algebra when the need arises. My French teacher taught me how to NOT teach a foreign language. And so on and so forth….

Same goes for college: I got one degree in philosophy and one degree in Japanese. I lived in Japan. I worked as a speech writer and translator at the Japanese Consulate. I went to Stanford and got my master’s in Education, which I now use as a teacher of Japanese language at the same school with my brother-in-arms, Todd-sensei.

High school seems very real for me, because what I did there enabled me to get to the next level of education, which is where I received the training that I now use in my daily life. Further, high school gave me several habits of mind that allowed me to survive and flourish at that next level of training and beyond. I feel I have been in training for this job my whole life. I am really happy to be using my degrees on a daily basis.

Follow-up question (Todd, you’ve heard this one): How much does your own experience in high school color your view of high school in general? As a teacher? As a parent of a high school student? As a tax-payer? As a voter?

6. Allen says:

[6/24/2008 - 10:07 am]

Thanks Matt for the realistic view. It is not high school that is boring, it’s the fact that most high schoolers don’t know enough about what they would even like to do to make the learning appropriate. Students who have a passion to teach, spend a large part of high school classes not just learning what the teacher is teaching but how. Students who have a strong desire for the theatre (as I did) spend an inordinant amount of time studying the people…both teacher and classmates…and thinking about how they can be turned into characters. The apathy of students about their own future is what causes the apathy about their high school classes…not the other way around.

I teach now and deal largely with apathetic middle school students who come from households that, if they are lucky, might be able to afford to send them to a community college after high school. If you ask them what they want to do with their lives, they have dreams like movie stars and athletes…occasionally a doctor, lawyer or teacher. Do we squelch their dreams by telling them statistics about the number of aspiring high school athletes that actually make it pro or do we let them go on thinking that their strong love of the gridiron or basketball court will be sufficient to meet their needs? If we tell them the painful truth, then they become more apathetic. If we let them continue to believe a lie, then nothing changes except their reactions toward real work (negative reactions of course).

7. Todd says:

[6/24/2008 - 5:47 pm]

Allen, I take issue with your comment because you suggest that yours and Matt’s are the only “realistic” interpretations of student apathy, that any other interpretation is fake. I’m not being unrealistic when I suggest that students don’t see connections between what we do in the classroom and the world outside high school.

I wonder how many of our students feel the way you and Matt do. Years later, they *might* reach those conclusions, but in the moment? I venture to guess it’s a very small percentage. Further, since apathetic is how students feel a large part of the time while receiving their high school education, what can we do? Whether it’s apathy about high school classes or apathy about their future, how can schools be structured in a way that makes a difference?

Your second paragraph is what raises some interesting ideas. Those are tough questions to answer. Is there a happy medium, a way to encourage the dreams, but also push students to a Plan B? Oddly, though, reading that second paragraph, it seems like you have reached many of the same conclusions I espoused in the first place.

Whatever the reason, apathy is there and it’s a horrible thing to see. This doesn’t have anything to do with my experience in high school. Apathy is a fact. How can we change things?

8. Allen says:

[6/25/2008 - 8:07 am]

Sorry. Perhaps my first sentence was not worded to most reflect my feelings. I think that we agree, Todd, in our assessment. I do believe that apathy is 100% existent in the schools. I simply feel that it is more a student’s view of their future, and the current lesson’s place in that future, that causes the apathy. I think that making lessons relevant to our students and their future (for those who have an idea about their future) is the most challenging part of teaching…whether it’s math, communication arts, history, science or related arts.

I know that there were many classes that I didn’t like going through school and even into college (especially with the general education requirements) but I also realized, through both my teachers and my parents, that I would use that information in my future regardless of the path I took.

I’m glad I took the time to learn many of those things as my “future” changed two or three times while I was in college and has changed several more times since. Had I written off the lessons as meaningless because of what I perceived my future to be, I would be lacking in those skills now.

The “how to make lessons relevant” has plagued teachers for decades and I’m not sure I know the answer. I know that I bring a unique perspective because, while I teach in a metropolitan public school, my children are home-schooled by my wife and myself. The number of real-world lessons increases exponentially when the world is the classroom. I do a lot of work in the theatre and there is math all over in building sets, hanging lights, running sound, etc. I also do a lot of work with music…how much math is involved in that? My children are also learning math through grocery shopping and running races…they learn English by reading and acting our plays…they learn history by acting it out (how much more realistic can you get but living out the life of Anne Frank and her family for a couple hours…especially when the rehearsals include character and historical analysis).

Several years ago my dad, a librarian, sent an email to my sister, also a middle school teacher at the time; and myself. It was a test for 5th graders from the one-room-schoolhouse days. Most of the problems I would not have been able to answer and most phd’s would have had trouble with them except for the questions in their field. His questions was about the quality of education. Our response was the fact that in this information age when facts can be found by typing a few words and clicking the mouse a few times, is having memorized the formula for area of a circle or knowing the difference between a coordinating conjunction and a pronoun as important for those who do not use it everyday? My answer would be no. We have become such a specialized race (meaning the human race) that we have espoused the definition that an expert is someone who chooses to be ignorant about many things so that they can know everything about one thing…we all want to be experts at something don’t we?

Anyway, I’m rambling somewhat. But, it does still come back to the question of relevance…how do we make lessons relevant to students who may or may not be thinking realistically (even to themselves) about their future?

I wish I knew…