The Pepsi Generation
Never have I read a more accurate commentary on high-school social hierarchy than Cyrus Sanai’s “Community Kills.” When I went to high school in the late ‘80s we used to have this program called “All-Star,” whose stated purpose was to eliminate cliques and bring the school together. The program thought it could do this by a) making us watch Pepsi-sponsored movies featuring anti-drug propaganda and shrewd product placement; b) reinforcing the most obnoxious cliques on campus by choosing all the “All Star” officers from a popular group of athletes and cheerleaders (on average, B and C students who drank, smoked, and skipped class); c) doing everything possible to conceal the fact that high school’s purpose is education; and d) giving us the opportunity to buy as much “All Star” merchandise as our parents could afford. It was insulting and embarrassing and (thank God) only lasted a few months.
Programs like “All Star” are colossal wastes of time that make teen-agers hate school because they emphasize exactly what they attempt to eliminate. I hope people who have kids in high school will realize this and will not think that that is enough to end tragedies like that at Columbine.
The Rodriguez “We”
I think Cyrus Sanai missed the point of the Richard Rodriguez essay in the Los AngelesTimes last Sunday (see “Community Kills”). When Rodriguez talked about community, he was not talking about the need for more school spirit or collective pride in the success of high-school teams. And he certainly recognized the social divisions within the school as well (an athlete who singled out a Jew for being different comes to mind).
The kind of community he means does not come from pep rallies or car washes, but rather from a value system and a curriculum that teach the common bonds that we as Americans have. Not “celebrations of multiculturalism,” but a history, for example, that connects Thomas Jefferson and Malcolm X, as Rodriguez writes.
Also missing, as Rodriguez points out, is any structured family or neighborhood in many young people’s lives. That is the “we” he is talking about, of belonging to something and having that foundation laid prior to going to school and reaching adolescence. Not living an anonymous life in your room or on the Internet. The lack of these positive networks, he argues, as do others, is why many inner city kids look for “family” in gangs. The lack of strong families in too many young lives makes the public school’s job (poorly conceived and performed as well, according to Rodriguez) of teaching and bringing a sense of connection to other Americans, past and present, nearly impossible. This is a long-term problem, and he knows it. He is certainly not calling for more cries of “Go team!” or “Beat Northside High!”
Cyrus Sanai replies: I think Rodriguez is out of touch (maybe quite happily) with life as it is lived in the Columbine High Schools of America. You can’t teach common bonds of history to teens while the school and the community stress athletics as the most honored achievement. In fact, you can’t teach them at all; as an environment for educational and moral growth, American public secondary education will continue to be a miserable failure so long as the values of the institution are so at odds with its ostensible mission. (Only the better American colleges can salvage the mess left by high school, and they are only as good as they are because of the competition and diversity among them.) Monkeying with a curriculum to give it the correct ideological spin is fine for the careers of school administrators and educational consultants, but it won’t fool students. They may not know much of the world, but they certainly understand what the high school rewards, and it ain’t learning about Jefferson or Malcolm X. Indeed, the grand prize for doing well academically at public high school is to get you as far away as possible from it, to the Ivy League and its ilk.
It’s possible, of course, that in an alternate universe, where American high schools were truly academic institutions, the seriously disturbed Harris and Klebold might have open fire on the “brains,” but I doubt it; first of all because Harris and Klebold would have received some of the acceptance they craved on their own merits, and secondly because they would not have despised the school so for favoring the intellectual achievers. Among the most fierce hatreds of teens (probably right after public humiliation and rejection) is of hypocrisy; it’s why Holden Caulfield is one of the most authentic (and moral) voices in American literature.
My second set of objections to the communitarian explanation of Littleton is the way it over-blames parents. All of what you say about families is true, yet irrelevant. It’s a given that strong familial relationships help keep kids on the straight path. (Note that the Harris and Klebold families, from afar, seem quite ordinary, lacking the social pathologies typically blamed for deranged teen-age psyches.) But the job of forging these relationships, never easy, is made all the harder by the values fostered by the public schooling system. The fiercely family-oriented, usually devoutly Christian parents who increasingly pull their children out of the system in favor of home or religious schooling are correct to fear the corrupting influence of the Columbine Highs.
Such corruption is as much intellectual as moral. The religious schools, shifting their emphasis from athletics to learning (even if a large part of it is of the Biblical variety), have consistently delivered better results both in terms of educational and, I would guess, communal development, than the public schools. This is true most noticeably among minority scholarship students from weak familial backgrounds who have attended Catholic parochial schools (I seem to recall Chicago having the most famous examples of these). I am not advocating religious schooling as a solution, but rather pointing out that educational institutions which have their community values focused on learning rather than spectator sports will be much more successful in education, and will be substantially happier places for all students except, of course, the athletes, and even they will benefit from a better education.
I think it’s an easy (and well-traveled) path to pin the blame for many social ills on the perceived lack of communal cohesiveness in American life, and in some sectors it may be correct. When it comes to suburban high schools, though, I can say, as a survivor of the experience, that it’s a community almost perfectly designed to crush, twist, and kill the spirits of those who are different, thoughtful, or just have the bad luck to be on the wrong side of the school-endorsed elite. So, when I come across intellectuals peddling more community as a solution, it is necessary to let off both barrels of the sawed-off rhetorical reality check.
I wonder if Steven Brill has given much thought to his proposal to treat guns like we treat automobiles. He says in his exchange with Margaret Carlson: “register them and license those who would use them.” But he should put a little more thought into how we treat automobiles. There is no license requirement to own an automobile. To drive on a public street, one must have a tag on the car indicating that the driver has paid a fee to put it on the road. In the state of Washington, this fee is based on the value of the car. My piece of junk is about $35 a year to license.
One must also have a license to drive a car. Ostensibly, this is a safety measure to ensure that only competent drivers are on the road. In reality, any idiot can get one, and with minimal luck, avoid taking a driving test ever again. I ran a stop sign on my test 21 years ago and still passed. Both the car tags and the driver’s license entitle a person to drive in every state in the Union. Under Brill’s system, I could pay $20-$40 a year to license a used revolver; take a joke of a test administered by a surly, bored, bureaucrat; and carry a concealed weapon anywhere in the country. I think most gun nuts could go along with that.
Port Townsend, Wash.
Herbert Stein’s “The Equality Equation” is very interesting and to a degree valid. However, it would be very enlightening if he would have explained the 5 percent gap between the female workers whose productivity is the same or higher than men’s in a given industry or company.
With regard to the law prohibiting discrimination in this area, many women could have told him how this is evaded. All the employer needs to do is give male and female employees a different job classification or title.
A most interesting variation on the above is at a church of my acquaintance, where in the school the pay for women teachers is lower because only the male teachers are allowed to replace the minister in some unforeseen situation.