Opinion: High School Sets Us Up to Be Comfortable, Not Happy.

When we were kids, we were told that America was the land of opportunity, and that you could be successful in anything as long as you worked hard enough. For the middle class, this was said to be especially true. We had money, we had some connections, and above all we had access to a good education. And it is true that we attended school diligently for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 18 years, and we spent it being taught different subjects well. Now we owe our ability to articulate ourselves and thus earn respect from our elders and employers to this very education. It is because of our education that we can go out into the world, get a decent office job, and hopefully move up in our company or establishment.

Which means, actually, that the promise we received is inherently flawed: we cannot succeed in “anything”. We can succeed in one specific thing that is chosen for us.

We simple don’t have the opportunity to try lots of different things, and so do not have the chance to succeed in them. We cannot do more than just follow the simple path that we are expected to follow that was previously mentioned. If we do try to stray from the path, we are seen as not working hard or as being foolish, so we are automatically exempt from the “as long as you work hard you can be successful” theory. Working hard here means following the path and going through the motions of the quintessential American life.

We are fortunate to be able to be successful as long as we do what we’re told. We are fortunate that we have a path to follow that will guarantee living in relative comfort, in a suburban home with our family, watching football games and eating apple pie. This is the American dream, after all. We all want to be comfortable.

But along the way, in search of that goal, we must give up anything that would gamble our future, and anything that scares or excites us. In short, we must give up our dreams and our best possible future. We do not even have the chance to take a few steps down any sort of alternate path because, to do so, we must step off of the path we are on and risk our entire birthright to a comfortable future. And if we have never seriously tried something, how do we know if it is worth sacrificing a safe future for?

At the root of this problem lies the current American education system, that leaves no room to venture off of the path and teaches us instead to cling to it. Reinforcing and perpetuating this problem are the administrators and government that have kept the same ineffective education system for many years, and continue to standardize education more and more. Our parents are even somewhat to blame, as they don’t call for change and they reinforce the message that school (as it is now) is valuable and the most important thing to focus on.

The aforementioned assembly line is what schools have become. America houses millions of people, all with different interests and abilities and backgrounds, and then puts them through one standardized assembly line to create clones. It is inefficient, to say the least. Somewhere, sometime, someone decided that the most valuable things to know are mathematics, science, history, and english language arts. These were decided to be more important than anything else in the world, and so it was decided that for the roughly 12 years of the educational system (not counting preschool or kindergarten), exclusively these subjects would be taught. Some would argue that in some way or another, all topics of life fit into these 4 categories, but they are wrong. Even those these subjects may be the most widely used, they do not encompass all that can be known on this earth. We spend the first 5 years of our education learning the basics to get us through life: how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide; how to read and write; the basic history of our world; and the basic laws of the universe. Then comes middle school. Yet instead of moving to mastering other basic skills, for a more well-rounded education, the previous skills start to be developed further, moving into the specifics. We start to learn algebra, and biology, and study literature, and learn the exact dates and people that went into the American revolution, for example. What is being taught is getting more and more useless, but there are still some useful things being taught, so not all is lost.

Then we get into high school, where we divide up these subjects into sub-subjects and spend a year on each. For math, we get into geometry, then algebra II, then precalculus and trigonometry, and then calculus. For science, we learn physics, then chemistry, then biology, and then an AP class on one of those three where we get even more in depth. For history, we learn world history, world history II, american history, then a social studies course. For english, it is a little less segmented. We go through famous novels from around the world and write essays on each one.

In other words, we are going extremely in depth into these subjects. We are learning a lot of small facts at once in vastly different subjects. This is no longer a foundation of different things you need to succeed in the world; it is a very specific knowledge of smaller subjects that will only be useful if you go into one of those specific fields, and in fact is done in place of a foundation of other things that could allow you to succeed in the world. Except for some school that offer psychology, and aside from preschool and kindergarten which could be considered a breeding ground for social skills, we never learn why people are the way they are and how to communicate and represent ourselves well (which is a skill not only essential to every single job but also to your personal life). These skills could be integral at a time when we are figuring ourselves out and attempting our first relationships, but instead we are left to the wolves while we learn specific skills that we will either not use or will only use far in the future. At key stages in social development, we are given no help at all. Put conflicting personalities of kids who are trying to figure out themselves and the world all in 1 small place, and of course there will be conflict and rebellion, yet nothing is done to educate kids and in fact all that is done is punish them when they do something that is socially or morally wrong, when they never taught them what is socially or morally wrong in the first place. Few high schools have classes on philosophy, or ethics, or social interaction/communications, or marketing yourself well. Administrators and school in general also make all decisions for the student, by taking up all of their time and by choosing their classes. Students do not learn how to make their own decisions, or to make good decisions. They also do not learn how to be happy or take care of themselves. Health and gym classes are offered, but barely focus on mental health or resilience. These skills are necessary for life, but they are never taught.

So, it has been proven that high school does not assist at all with the most basic of life skills that are needed at that time, which is bad enough. However, it also does not fulfill its claims of preparing students for their future and the outside world, and not only because it does not teach students how to understand themselves and others and make decisions (which is a problem when they are thrust out into the world and immediately have to make decisions alone, something they never learned to do). It also does not teach any sort of “how to be an adult” classes or skills. Students never learn to balance a checkbook, or to cook, clean, or fix appliances (home ec, woodshop, and auto shop classes are the first to lose funding and are no longer commonplace). Students are not taught hands on or building skills. Public speaking classes, if offered, are optional.

Meanwhile, kids are struggling in class. Most people will tell you about at least one subject in which they really struggled with in high school. They hate the subject and obviously will never go into that field. Even for kids who did not hate a subject, there is no job that uses in depth of math, english, science, and history. There are some jobs that focus on 1. There are many jobs that focus on none. While many students do not know what they want to do with their lives at 15 or 16, or even 17 or 18, many know whether they want to further study and maybe go into 1 of the 4 fields, or at least if there are 1 or 2 or more that they definitely don’t want to go into. So why not allow students to drop these subjects? By high school, or even middle school, they have learned more than enough in each of the four subject to get through life as long as they don’t go into the subject. High school has become about getting a grade, not learning something, because what students are learning is not useful. After graduation, students will forget what they spent years learning, and be left with a general knowledge of the subjects, most of which they learned in elementary and middle school.

So, let’s not pretend that schools teach general skills that will benefit everyone in life. Why don’t we discuss how these will benefit students in a job? It has already been discussed that this only helps if you show an aptitude for and enjoy one subject, and will go into that field. Then it helps, only because that is specifically what this person wants to do. Considering how many different jobs there are that a person could do, this is often not the case, or the student only thinks they want to do this because they’re mildly good at it and have not had the chance to explore anything else. If high school was really about helping students explore different subjects so they can see what they are good at and enjoy, there would have to be a vast array of subjects, which there is not. Many students excel in theatre, or journalism, or painting. While there are often clubs or electives that teach these skills, there is not enough time to explore them all as students are too busy learning subjects they’ve been learning for 12 years and have already decided they will never use. So as these other subjects are not required, students don’t have the opportunity to explore many of them because they’re so busy learning how to differentiate equations. Students who do participate in these alternate subjects and know they are going to go into one of those fields feel incredibly frustrated with the small amount of time they can spend on these things while they spend the majority of their time on things they struggle in and will not use in their life, and wonder why these subjects are required while the ones they excel in are not. Even if they are smart, they may struggle in the four main classes and receive dismal grades. Bad grades can make students feel worthless and severely hurt confidence and chances at getting into a good college. Grades are not a good judge of intelligence. They mostly judge memorization instead or aptitude in 4 subjects out of thousands. Some intelligent people are unlucky enough not to excel in those subjects even though they excel in others, and these people will spend their lives feeling inadequate and being told they are dumb until they start to believe it.

Then there are the thousands of subjects not even offered or taught in high school. There is not even a club for them. Have you ever thought of all the different jobs out there? There are stylists, there are the people who choose songs to play during certain parts of movies and television shows, there are cooks, there are garbagemen, there are those who work at sexual assault or suicide prevention hotlines, there are firefighters and police officers, there are janitors and maids, there are day care workers, there are people who paint house.  There are advertisers, retail workers, stay at home mothers, social workers, and so many more. Beyond basic skills, what classes in high school help these people in their jobs? So the theory that high school prepares you for your future job is just false. Even if you are lucky enough to love a subject in high school, you might never get the chance to explore something you might love more, or you will still be forced to learn other subjects in addition to it that you’ve hated or known you wouldn’t go into for years.

Then there is the argument that what high school really does is teach us how to learn. Maybe a lawyer doesn’t learn law in high school, but they learn how to reason and argue in the few argumentative essays that they write. But if they’re going into law, why not have a class on reasoning and arguing instead of gradually learning it as they’re learning the in-depth info of another subject that they will not use? Why not learn how to learn while learning about something useful? If high school is just about learning how to learn, then clearly changing the material will do no harm.

All students learn differently and excel in different things. Why teach them all the same way and the same things?

By the time students get to college, many are expected to already know what they want to do. If you do not, you have a short amount of time to explore that before choosing a major. However, many of the classes are still academic. It’s also hard to even know where to start, because students had no chance to explore what they liked in high school. Also, if you want to try a new subject, you’re starting from the basics. Once you’ve had enough time to figure out if you like it and are good at it, it’s time to declare a major-but what if you don’t like it? What if you like it but want to try some other things too? You’ve already run out of time to do so. Plus, it becomes harder and harder to start learning a new subject that you may want to get a job in as you get older, and others your age have been studying what they will get a job in since elementary school and will have an easier time in school since they are just continuing the subject, and can get a job easier than you will with more knowledge in their field. That path starts to seem a lost easier, and starting from scratch with something new seems more and more intimidating. And then there’s the whole matter of having general education requirements to fulfill and needing to graduate on time, and still being extremely focused on grades because of the way the primary education system teaches you to be.

I don’t mean to denounce college in this statement. It has its problems, but that will be saved for another statement. What I mean to say is that high school should be vastly different than it is now for college to be useful.

It is easy to choose a path that will lead to comfort and prosperity. We willingly join the mass of zombies walking to a job they don’t really enjoy early every morning, with dead eyes and coffee in hand, because it means we can go back to our nice house afterwards and relax for a little. We have been doing this since high school, except we were going to school instead of work. It is what we are used to, and what we think is normal.

Of course, there are worse things that a life of comfort and having to deal with a mindless job. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fix this.

To fix it, we have to unstandardize education. We need to put less stress on math, science, history, and english, and focus more on a well-rounded education. All high schools and middle schools would have to do would be to offer a much higher multitude of different classes. Students would be required to learn the basics of many different subjects, and then they could choose to go into the specifics of the subjects they are interested in and are good at. Students should be able to choose their classes before college, after learning all of the basics. Students also would be required to try internships, and be allowed and encouraged to take time off from school to do so. High schools could couple with companies or an organization that helps students find internships. School would be shorter and involve less homework, and more clubs and extracurriculars would be offered or it could even be required to participate in a few. There could be a class or workshop on all the different jobs and options for life instead of convincing students that the only path is to get good grades in high school, go to a good college, get an internship, then get a job that pays well regardless of whether you like it or not. More practical skills could be taught. Home ec would be reintroduced, but better and larger-scale. It would be a more democratic system, where teachers don’t have all the authority, to help students learn how to make their own decisions and not feel powerless. The regular 4 classes would still be offered, but not required in high school or going into as many specifics. Or they would be more based on open discussion and questioning and testing things. Instead of grades being so important, recommendation letters and personal essays would be much more important for college applications. Grades would be participation based.

This sort of utopian high school may seem foolish or unrealistic. I’m sure there are those that would poke holes in it, but it couldn’t possibly be more immensely flawed than the current system. It should be making people angry how many hours are wasted on things that will be forgotten and never used after high school. High school might as well be memorizing a string of random numbers and words and forgetting then after a few months of leaving, that is how much of a waste of time it currently is. Not only does it waste time, but also money, and perfectly good potential of students and teachers who are willing to learn and teach. Kids and teenagers are so impressionable, and we should be much more careful what kinds of lessons we’re teaching: not the ones they memorize but the ones they’ll remember. Right now we are sending them the message that any skill not in math, science, history, or english is not useful or worthwhile. We teach them that if they can’t excel at these things, they are worthless. We teach them to be grateful for what they have and not to question what they could have. We teach them to conform. And these, not the parts of the cell or who was the 14th American president, are the lessons that they’re going to remember. Are these lessons really what we want to teach the future decision makers that will control the future of our world?

If we continue the education system the way it is, it will continue to yield the same results. It is said that the young of our country are apathetic and escapist. The same things have been said about the young for decades. Perhaps we are this way because we are taught that we have no say in our lives and cannot change things, so we apathetically follow the status quo and then in our free time indulge in thing like partying and drugs. Changing the education system could be changing the root of our country’s problems. Or maybe not, but why not try to change it and see? Perhaps that is too idealist, but this country could use a little idealism after the cynicism and apathy that pervades our culture and our youth today.

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