No More Teens, Please! — Arthur Herman

 

I have a confession.

When I originally got the assignment of reviewing Glenn Harlan Reynolds’s book, The New School, for National Review, I intended to use it as a platform for talking about my own recent book, The Cave and the Light. I thought it would be an opening to discuss how the best educational reform of all would be to have students learn the classics, especially Plato and Aristotle, etc. Unworthy, but there it is. And when Glenn’s book arrived and I saw how short it was (104 pages of text compared to Cave and Light’s 600 pages) I figured this bait-and-switch would be easy.

Far from it. I forgot about Plato and Aristotle (temporarily), because not only is Reynolds’s book everything I say it is  in the review, but it also explains why grades 7-12 in American schools are such living hell for all but a tiny privileged minority—and why public schools have so corrupted our culture.

As Reynolds sees it, it was the introduction of Prussian-style education to the US by Horace Mann, with the segregation of students by age and grade (with each grade practicing a one-size-fits-all curriculum regardless of ability and aptitude), that created the modern American teenager—the most dysfunctional cultural type ever spawned. “Once they were segregated by age in public schools,” Reynolds writes, “teens looked to their peers for status and recognition instead of to society at large,” or rather to adult virtues like responsibility and self-reliance instead of adolescent ones like what makes you cool or popular. In other words, it’s bad socialization — not hormones — that produces the bizarre creatures that stalk our living rooms and shopping malls immersed in their iPhones. 

Reynolds draws a lot from psychologists Joseph Allen, Claudia Worrell, and Richard Epstein (The Case Against Adolescence) and the argument makes thunderous sense. 

It means that the corrupting influence of our public schools doesn’t just stem from a super-liberal curriculum and/or lower standards and/or lousy teachers and teachers’ unions. It may be rooted in their very existence as institutions (and the private schools that aped the same “industrial model,” as Reynolds describes it). That leads to two questions: is any serious educational reform possible as long as we’re stuck with the same dysfunctional public school model?  And could abolishing the current system do more to save our culture and social fabric than anything in the last 100 years, by ridding us of the typical American teenager?

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  1. raycon and lindacon Inactive
    raycon and lindacon
    @rayconandlindacon

    Even our friends who home school seem to be advised by their association that mimicking the public school model for teaching itself is desirable.  And state control of home schooling pushes hard in that direction.

    • #1
  2. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    If you haven’t yet read Paul Graham’s famous essay “Why Nerds Are Unpopular”, read it. I’m sure you will find in him a kindred spirit. The essay is spot-on about how US high schools  really  work (or, rather, fail to). Yeah, high school life really  is  like that.

    • #2
  3. Rodin Member
    Rodin
    @Rodin

    Accreditation and credentialing will be drags on reform.

    • #3
  4. user_517406 Inactive
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    I always enjoyed school and had  good experiences all though my schooling.  I’ll have to think about this one.  About 20 years ago we spent a semester in Scotland and put our kids in school there.  Our oldest was about 15 at the time.  Many of his peers were about to exit school after taking lower level exams.  The ones who did well went on, but some were done at that age and had to find something to do with themselves.  It did not seem to be a good system, absent something that helped those who were not going to university to gain some sort of skill.  Apprenticeships would have been good, but there was no system in place for that.  Many just ended up in dead-end jobs or on the dole.  I do think more focused training at younger ages is a good idea, and certainly some changes to education are warranted, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater either.

    • #4
  5. tabula rasa Member
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Mr. Herman is too humble to push his own book, but I am not so constrained.

    The Cave and the Light is one of the handful of books that will change the way you look at the world around you.  I can think of a few others:  Tom Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions and Hadley Arkes’ First Things.  Both changed the way I saw the world.

    Arthur’s book is of the same type.  It is a thoughtful, beautifully written overview of the influences of Plato and Aristotle on Western culture (and they have influenced nearly everything). 

    It is a storehouse of marvelous insights.  So buy it, and read it slowly. It will change your life.

    [Back to our regularly scheduled programming]

    • #5
  6. user_428379 Thatcher
    user_428379
    @AlSparks

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:
    If you haven’t yet read Paul Graham’s famous essay “Why Nerds Are Unpopular”, read it. I’m sure you will find in him a kindred spirit. The essay is spot-on about how US high schools really work (or, rather, fail to). Yeah, high school life really is like that.

     I just read Graham’s piece on your recommendation.  Thanks.  I’m a little put off on his rant against suburbs.  I didn’t live in one, but I did live in a small town that wasn’t near a bigger city (nearest bigger city was 100 miles).  Is there a difference?  If you live in a small village or town, it’s not “artificial” like a suburb is it?

    I did have some of the same problems as a teenager.  What I related to most of what I read, was how clueless I was at the time what was going on.  I didn’t think about it, it just was.  I remember how happy I was when I moved onto the “real” world and realized how different it was.  I can’t say I thrived at first, I traded in one set of problems for another, but overall it was better.

    • #6
  7. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Al Sparks:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: If you haven’t yet read Paul Graham’s famous essay “Why Nerds Are Unpopular”, read it. I’m sure you will find in him a kindred spirit. The essay is spot-on about how US high schools really work (or, rather, fail to). Yeah, high school life really is like that.

    I just read Graham’s piece on your recommendation. Thanks. I’m a little put off on his rant against suburbs.

     I don’t agree with the part about the suburbs either, but he nails what high school is actually like.

    • #7
  8. PracticalMary Member
    PracticalMary
    @

    I don’t read or post much on education issues however I am always struck by the lack real study on the public school system beyond the curriculum- although there seems to be a lot more creativity these days for problem kids and some charter schools.  For instance why not start your kids (esp. boys) a year or two later when they are more mature and can sit still, or why not have 5 small recesses per day? You know, run around, study, run around, study. A vast amount of school time on all levels is ‘fill in’ anyway. A relative started all of her girls a year later and they have a significant boost. There has been talk and experimentation about the fact that test scores and other problems started when the practice began of changing classes for each subject, or even keeping the same teacher throughout high school years, for instance.

    Charter schools often present themselves as Art prep, classically oriented, why not ‘shop’ oriented? Why doesn’t somebody find a way to actually make a profit from them (gasp!), thus increasing the ability to hire and keep great teachers. I admit my state is very open to charters, homeschooling, and still has many very rural schools with small populations.

    Studying the classics is a great idea and a good basic class in Logic should be a prerequisite. This beginning class, not taught with all of the formulas (how many people actually like that part? yawn), but recognition of how it’s is used (and abused) in everyday life.

    • #8
  9. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    I teach college students.  I’m also a Rotarian, so I go to our local elementary schools and read to the students and talk to them about “literature.”  I’m reading to 3rd graders, so we’re doing stuff like diagramming the plot of The Cat in the Hat for Dr. Sues’s birthday.

    We’re talking about the climax of Cat in the Hat (and the teacher and I discussing the proper pronunciation of denouement) and the kids are just crawling over each other to answer my questions and talk about the book.  Then I go teach college freshman and we’re talking about the political parties.  They sit silently for my lecture.  I set aside a class for questions.  There will be a handful -I don’t know if the reason I average 4 questions is because there are so few of them so I answer in great detail with reference back to my lectures -of if it is because I answer in such depth I only get 4 questions.

    A plurality of my students come from the local schools.

    I consulted a colleague on the difference.  “Eighth Grade.”  He says.  “Eight Grade just beats learning out of them.”

    • #9
  10. user_82762 Thatcher
    user_82762
    @JamesGawron

    Arthur,

    Isn’t it ironic, as we are recognize the failure of the great socialist model for the public schools, we are embarking on another massive socialist model for health care.  The left never admits failure the solution is just more of the same no matter how great the disaster.

    Common Core Schools => Socialism for the mind.

    ACA Health Care => Socialism for the body.

    Never has it been more vital that somebody should be “standing athwart history yelling stop”.

    I really miss WFB.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #10
  11. Nick Stuart Inactive
    Nick Stuart
    @NickStuart

    The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager is an eminently readable discusion about the invention of “teenagerdom.” The notion of being a “teenager” was only invented in the early 20th century.

    Mandatory high school was invented during the Great Depression to make jobs for teachers, and keep teenagers out of the labor force. Something we’re extending today with “everybody to college for a BA in [Women, Black, Latino, LGBT, Etc.] studies, or sociology, art history, the history of ecology, etc.

    Sabrdance’s colleague is correct, Jr. High really does beat the learning out of kids. They are mercilessly mocked by their peers for taking any chances (like learning something new or participating in class), and bored to sobs by the incandescently mediocre teachers that make up the great majority of the faculty.

    I graduated high school hating to write (I’ve essentially made my living as a technical writer because early in my career I discovered I had the knack) and hating history (one of my great avocations is reading history which I discovered quite by accident in my 20s). These came after and in spite of, rather than during and because of, high school.

    • #11
  12. user_428379 Thatcher
    user_428379
    @AlSparks

    The emphasis of this post and comments have been on the American teenager.  So how do other countries do it?  I get the vague impression that western European countries have roughly emulated the U.S.  Is that true?   What about Asian first world countries?  From what little I can see, Japan has a culture that postpones adolescence much like we do.  It may be worse.

    And a related issue is that we are extending adolescence to at least the early twenties.

    Judith Levy’s podcasts (International Edition with Levy and Counsell) about Israel, indicate that their education system mitigates or erases that.  Could their upcoming almost mandatory universal military service be the cause?  That it focuses the mind in some way?

    • #12
  13. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Nick Stuart:
    Sabrdance’s colleague is correct, Jr. High really does beat the learning out of kids. They are mercilessly mocked by their peers for taking any chances (like learning something new or participating in class), and bored to sobs by the incandescently mediocre teachers that make up the great majority of the faculty.

    Even when the teachers aren’t incandescently bad, there’s just something about Jr High…

    Maybe it’s because the girls are just mastering how to be catty and the boys are so immature. If there were ever a time when segregating the sexes might prove useful in education, Jr High is it.

    Maybe it’s because, even with good teachers, the bright kids will be bored because, when you don’t learn, say, multiplication tables until the fourth grade, your capacity for learning has already so outpaced what you’ve actually learned that even good teachers can’t make up for it.

    At any rate, it’s so bad that I wonder if the kids wouldn’t be better off being sent to a field somewhere to pick beans for two years.

    • #13
  14. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Al Sparks:
    Judith Levy’s podcasts (International Edition with Levy and Counsell) about Israel, indicate that their education system mitigates or erases that. Could their upcoming almost mandatory universal military service be the cause? That it focuses the mind in some way?

    It may not be the mandatory military service  per se,  but rather the way they accelerate the curriculum so that teens can be fully trained academically  before  they enter the military. If I recall correctly, this involves, for example, the kids gifted in math and science learning Calculus at the age of about 12 instead of 16 (which is pretty much the earliest you’ll ever get it in a public school in the US, and even then, only if you’re lucky).

    • #14
  15. Julia PA Member
    Julia PA
    @JulesPA

    Arthur Herman: “teens looked to their peers for status and recognition instead of to society at large,” or rather to adult virtues like responsibility and self-reliance instead of adolescent ones like what makes you cool or popular.

    And to quote the article from National Review, “what we’re left with now is for the most part chaos, even a deadly chaos.”

    Chaos, because the natural immaturity and rebellion of teens feeds itself from the popular culture into a critical mass of adolescent foolishness and dissipation. The need to belong is strong, even if only to a toxic, fickle social group. “Survivor: The Island of School.”

    Chaos because adults befriend kids, instead of parenting them. They cave in to teenage group think, or more horrifying, share the adolescent values.

    The ratio of adults : students makes school stability tenuous at best, unless a majority of students embrace a disciplined purpose. When a faction of students determines to mutiny, chaos reigns, and no one can stop them. 

    • #15
  16. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: If you haven’t yet read Paul Graham’s famous essay “Why Nerds Are Unpopular”, read it. I’m sure you will find in him a kindred spirit. The essay is spot-on about how US high schools really work (or, rather, fail to). Yeah, high school life really is like that.

    I noticed this was written in 2003 which is light-years away from the present; most kids now understand that they live in an uber- competitive world and that it pays to be smart and studious.

    • #16
  17. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    EThompson:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: If you haven’t yet read Paul Graham’s famous essay “Why Nerds Are Unpopular”, read it. I’m sure you will find in him a kindred spirit. The essay is spot-on about how US high schools really work (or, rather, fail to). Yeah, high school life really is like that.

    I noticed this was written in 2003 which is light-years away from the present; most kids now understand that they live in an uber- competitive world and that it pays to be smart and studious.

    Having tutored in high schools and dealt with college freshman, I can attest that high schools are still pretty much like that.

    Perhaps it’s not that students don’t know the benefits of being competitive, but that often, they’re sadly not given enough worthwhile activities to be competitive  at. Some school districts are still, despite everything, nonetheless pretty good. But it would be a mistake to consider these representative of what’s usually out there.

    • #17
  18. Ralphie Member
    Ralphie
    @Ralphie

    John Taylor Gotto, a retired NY teacher, and also 1991 New York teacher of the year wrote  a book titled “Weapons of Mass Instruction” and an article “The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher”. (he also wrote others, but those come to mind) He has recently suffered a couple strokes, but is working on documentaries about education. Ivan Illitch  is another school critic, his “Deschooling Society” is a classic for those of us that have been concerned about the state of modern education.  I am glad someone like Reynolds, who is somewhat higher profile today has been picking up the ball and moving it forward.

    • #18
  19. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    I was in 8th grade in the late 1960s.  We had government simulations during my civics class.  Spent a week on different systems.  It was dull.  I decided to liven things up by staging a coup d’etat during the dictatorship  simulation. 

    This involved inviting several members of the football team (also in the class) to grab whomever was chosen as dictator and put them in the closet while I jumped on the teacher’s desk, fired a cap pistol into the ceiling, and declare the formation of the People’s Proletariat Paradise.  The other minions I recruited prevented reactionary counter-revolutionaries from overturning the People’s Paradise. (They made sure everyone else stayed in their seats.) We then distributed the resources so the Peoples’ President (me) got 40%, my five minions split 50%, and the other 25 students shared the remaining 10%.

    A good time was had by all.  The minions and I got an easy A that day.  The other students enjoyed an entertaining (and ultimately instructive) class.  The teacher, while initially befuddled, was delighted that someone showed interest in the subject.

    If I did it today?  I would have committed several felonies and been suspended the rest of the school year.

    Seawriter

    • #19
  20. AUMom Member
    AUMom
    @AUMom

    Wow, Seawriter, I don’t know whether to stand in awe or in fear of your 8th grade self. I do know I stand with respect with your resourcefulness and imagination. Great thinking on your part!

    • #20
  21. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    For a couple of year of elementary school, I was in a “split-grade” class.  One teacher, one classroom, but two grades.

    I think it was really beneficial. When I was in the younger half of the class I made friends who were older than me. If we’d been in different classes they might have become my bullies instead.

    When I was in the older half of the class, I made friends with kids who were younger than me. Ditto.

    • #21
  22. Syzygy Inactive
    Syzygy
    @TzviKilov

    For an eye-opening excellent read on similar topics, I highly recommend The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto. It’s quite long but worth every minute of your time. I particularly enjoy and am often reminded of his driving metaphor and the two sections about “Hector.”

    • #22
  23. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    AUMom: Wow, Seawriter, I don’t know whether to stand in awe or in fear of your 8th grade self.

     What I did was not considered that outre when I was in 8th grade.  Back then the high school had a rifle team, and my fellow 8th- graders would bring in pheasant feet from the pheasants they shot during the season.

    The worst I expected was to be sent to the principal’s office if the teacher were sufficiently unhappy.  The absolute worse that would happen there was a 3-day suspension — and that would have been considered a gross overreaction.

    It seems common sense and a sense of proportion has disappeared from the public schools since the 1960s.  Quilter and I homeschooled our three during the 1990s and don’t regret having done so. (Two are successful engineers, and the third — an Eagle Scout — is finishing college in engineering.)

    Seawriter

    • #23
  24. user_646010 Member
    user_646010
    @Kephalithos

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:
    Perhaps it’s not that students don’t know the benefits of being competitive, but that often, they’re sadly not given enough worthwhile activities to be competitive at.

    True, though I’d add a caveat. A school can provide only so much motivation; at some point, students must function as autodidacts.

    I’m acquainted with plenty of individuals who, though quite capable, know only what school has taught them. The lack of esoteric knowledge among young people is very disheartening.

    • #24
  25. user_646010 Member
    user_646010
    @Kephalithos

    Double post.

    • #25
  26. Arthur Herman Contributor
    Arthur Herman
    @ArthurHerman

    James Gawron:
    Arthur,
    Isn’t it ironic, as we are recognize the failure of the great socialist model for the public schools, we are embarking on another massive socialist model for health care. The left never admits failure the solution is just more of the same no matter how great the disaster.
    Common Core Schools => Socialism for the mind.
    ACA Health Care => Socialism for the body.
    Never has it been more vital that somebody should be “standing athwart history yelling stop”.
    I really miss WFB.
    Regards,
    Jim

     I do,too.  But I’m here-and will be more often, I promise! 

    • #26
  27. Arthur Herman Contributor
    Arthur Herman
    @ArthurHerman

    Nick Stuart:
    The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager is an eminently readable discusion about the invention of “teenagerdom.” The notion of being a “teenager” was only invented in the early 20th century.
    Mandatory high school was invented during the Great Depression to make jobs for teachers, and keep teenagers out of the labor force. Something we’re extending today with “everybody to college for a BA in [Women, Black, Latino, LGBT,

    EThompson:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: If you haven’t yet read Paul Graham’s famous essay “Why Nerds Are Unpopular”, read it. I’m sure you will find in him a kindred spirit. The essay is spot-on about how US high schools really work (or, rather, fail to). Yeah, high school life really is like that.

    I noticed this was written in 2003 which is light-years away from the present; most kids now understand that they live in an uber- competitive world and that it pays to be smart and studious.

    Really, most kids??  Maybe those at the top of the economic ladder, and those whose parents can either afford to send them to private school or to live near the best public schools.   For the rest, the system is failing and failing badly.  

    Education used to be a principal vehicle for social mobility in America; now it’s become an instrument of social stratification, reinforcing the line between the haves and have nots. 

    Etc.] studies, or sociology, art history, the history of ecology, etc.
    Sabrdance’s colleague is correct, Jr. High really does beat the learning out of kids. They are mercilessly mocked by their peers for taking any chances (like learning something new or participating in class), and bored to sobs by the incandescently mediocre teachers that make up the great majority of the faculty.
    I graduated high school hating to write (I’ve essentially made my living as a technical writer because early in my career I discovered I had the knack) and hating history (one of my great avocations is reading history which I discovered quite by accident in my 20s). These came after and in spite of, rather than during and because of, high school.

     It’s sad how American schools generally leave kids with a positive hatred of every subject they teach.   It takes a handful of truly heroic teachers (and I had a couple) to fight against the tide, and the system punishes them by 1. rewarding seniority (ie time served) instead of merit and 2. constantly changing the required curriculum, so that teachers spend a large part of their prep time trying to stay abreast of the latest fad dreamed up by state or federal bureaucrats  

    • #27
  28. Arthur Herman Contributor
    Arthur Herman
    @ArthurHerman

    tabula rasa:
    Mr. Herman is too humble to push his own book, but I am not so constrained.
    The Cave and the Light is one of the handful of books that will change the way you look at the world around you. I can think of a few others: Tom Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions and Hadley Arkes’ First Things. Both changed the way I saw the world.
    Arthur’s book is of the same type. It is a thoughtful, beautifully written overview of the influences of Plato and Aristotle on Western culture (and they have influenced nearly everything).
    It is a storehouse of marvelous insights. So buy it, and read it slowly. It will change your life.
    [Back to our regularly scheduled programming]

     Thanks for the plug! 

    • #28
  29. Arthur Herman Contributor
    Arthur Herman
    @ArthurHerman

    Al Sparks:
    The emphasis of this post and comments have been on the American teenager. So how do other countries do it? I get the vague impression that western European countries have roughly emulated the U.S. Is that true? What about Asian first world countries? From what little I can see, Japan has a culture that postpones adolescence much like we do. It may be worse.
    And a related issue is that we are extending adolescence to at least the early twenties.
    Judith Levy’s podcasts (International Edition with Levy and Counsell) about Israel, indicate that their education system mitigates or erases that. Could their upcoming almost mandatory universal military service be the cause? That it focuses the mind in some way?

     I’d say it plays a major part.  You could say the draft used to do the same thing for adolescent males in this country, and offset the ill effects of public school education by thrusting them in a world of adult responsibilities and mastery of skills, even if it was just running a quartermaster’s warehouse or repairing trucks in the motor pool.  

    For my libertarian friends, this is NOT an argument for returning to the draft.  It is a way of  understanding what’s missing from our current education system.  

    • #29
  30. Arthur Herman Contributor
    Arthur Herman
    @ArthurHerman

    Merina Smith:
    I always enjoyed school and had good experiences all though my schooling. I’ll have to think about this one. About 20 years ago we spent a semester in Scotland and put our kids in school there. Our oldest was about 15 at the time. Many of his peers were about to exit school after taking lower level exams. The ones who did well went on, but some were done at that age and had to find something to do with themselves. It did not seem to be a good system, absent something that helped those who were not going to university to gain some sort of skill. Apprenticeships would have been good, but there was no system in place for that. Many just ended up in dead-end jobs or on the dole. I do think more focused training at younger ages is a good idea, and certainly some changes to education are warranted, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater either.

    The baby is drowning.  The water is toxic.   The country and the culture are headed down the drain.   It’s time to get a new tub!  

    • #30

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