Monday, January 28, 2013

high school is nearly everybody

I tried very hard for several days to write long form about this New York Magazine piece by Jennifer Senior; I have failed, rather deeply, to produce something worthy of publishing.  I was viscerally unhappy with the article when I first read it, and since then I've been working hard to generate a more sympathetic reading. Certainly, I can understand many of her points, and I do think that it's always worthwhile to talk about alienation and loneliness. But I simply don't believe that Senior's depiction of high school-- as a place of ceaseless torment and unhappiness for anyone who isn't at the pinnacle of the popularity pyramid-- is accurate. Senior does some reviews of the social scientific literature, but while she makes a compelling argument about the tendency of high school to exacerbate social problems, she does essentially no work to prove that high school is as bad for as many people as she claims. Again and again in the piece, she talks as if most everybody agrees that high school is necessarily a pit of sadness. And I think the truth is that, as most of us do, she's just extrapolating from her own unhappiness. I get that impulse; we all want to see in the masses a reflection of our own internal life. (See what I did there?) But the piece ends up seeming like an act of resentful axe-grinding due to Senior's exaggerations, and it's not aided by the headline (probably thought up by an editor). The "you" in "Why You Truly Never Leave High School" is about as presumptuous as such a thing can be.

(By the way: "It was a really small study. I wouldn’t necessarily read too much into it. But its results sum up the entire high-school experience." It was a really small study that you shouldn't read too much into, but it sums up a vast diversity of the human experience. There are not enough face palms.)

I also think that there is a deeper problem in her attitude. Because what the piece really is about is less the failings of high school and more the failings of other people. The dominant impression of Senior's essay is not that the structure of high school failed her but that the people around her did not meet her standards. More than anything, after reading the article I just wanted to say to her, "I'm sorry that the people around you have failed to meet your expectations. Perhaps you should look deeper to see if they're feeling pain similar to yours." As you can probably guess, this is a case of me finding particularly aggravating flaws I identify in myself. I struggle constantly to balance a necessary criticism of all of the fucked up bullshit without falling into a flat, useless misanthropy. (Not for anyone else, but for myself.) So feel free to find this hypocritical, or take it as someone who is working on it.

Ultimately, my disagreement lies most in Senior's corrosive notion that the problem with high school is the way it exposes us to difference:
In fact, one of the reasons that high schools may produce such peculiar value systems is precisely because the people there have little in common, except their ages. “These are people in a large box without any clear, predetermined way of sorting out status,” says Robert Faris, a sociologist at UC Davis who’s spent a lot of time studying high-school aggression. “There’s no natural connection between them.” Such a situation, in his view, is likely to reward aggression. Absent established hierarchies and power structures (apart from the privileges that naturally accrue from being an upperclassman), kids create them on their own
This isn't a problem with high school. It is the best thing about high school. Compelling people to spend time with others who are not like them is an essential function of schooling, one that the affluent frequently avoid by sending their kids to private school or home schooling them. And, not surprisingly, many kids who went to private school or were home schooled grow into the kind of adults with no sense of what the world is like outside of their social milieu-- which further dulls the sense of communal responsibility. Senior's notion that there is something wrong with being exposed to people across legitimate differences is truly corrosive to democracy, to egalitarianism, to society itself. We already have become such a siloed, segregated culture. So many of the products and services you can access online now are geared towards eliminating your interactions with people who are genuinely not like you. (At its worst, homeschooling takes this logic to its extreme, along with the typical arrogance of parenthood: my child is simply too precious to be exposed to the unworthy.) I simply don't believe that a civil society that is as diverse as ours can survive when we have walled off our lives from those who are not like us. And while I don't blame people for not undertaking such a process of exposure artificially, it's essential to the long-term health and fairness of society for it to be a part of our education and socialization. Democracy has consequences, diversity has consequences, and while I'd never wish it on anyone, the reality of diversity is that sometimes our encounters across difference will be unhappy.

Finally, there's this: Senior is allowed to complain about the throng because she positions herself as punching up, because she tells us that she was unpopular in high school and is thus permitted, in that vague way, to cast her judgments. Certainly, that's the lesson of most high school movies: the unpopular people are the sensitive dreamers who are gifted with the right to tell the story, while the popular people are cruel and vain, and thus not eligible. I was pretty popular in high school, so I suppose I shouldn't be the one making this argument. But there's nothing inherently more accurate or perceptive about the observations of those on the bottom than those on the top. One thing that I realized long ago: the "losers" in high school are often not any more fair, open-minded,  or generous than those at the top. They simply lack the power to do anything about it. Now, if we're talking about addressing problems of cruelty and abuse, certainly, my sympathy and support goes to the people who are the subject of it. But when we're attempting what Senior is attempting, and trying to take a bird's eye view, we need to avoid the temptation to take the Hollywood path and assert the superior virtue of the more oppressed.

Senior's self-identified status as a high school loser animates the whole piece. It reminds me that there is a profound narcissism in those who constantly self-identify as social outcasts. Take the fleets of people who make videos saying "I am a true geek." They claim to be arguing that they are responding to the perception that they are unworthy. I think instead they are simply saying, I am great, and I deserve to be recognized for it. The only reason the behavior is permitted is because of the preemptive self-branding as a geek or loser. Ask yourself: would New York have ever run the essay, if it was the perspective of one of the winners, complaining about the profound lack of character and low moral fiber of those below?


Ethan Gach said...

On the structural point about how high school fails by rejecting certain sorting mechanisms, I have to responses.

First, walk into any high school and you will find that the compulsion to sort is alive and well. Students sort one another into different groups. They sort themselves into groups. They identify as artsy kids, or jocks, or mathlete/quizbowl types, or punks and skaters, freaks and druggies. All of them are hybridizations, with people moving in and out of certain roles, mingling in different cicles, etc. etc. But no one can look at the high school populace and think, "My God, if only people could be arond people more like themselves!"

Which leads into the second point: one could just as easily argue that the problem with High School is that there isn't enough exposure to difference. Most of the cruelty is a direct result of being around other messed up kids who are figuring themselves out. How many of us have had that experience of seeing someone we knew vaguely in high school and thinking either "Wow, they're so, polite and adult now?!" or "Wow, I can't believe I ever made fun of that kid--why was I such an ass tart?!" The fact that so many people of the same age are forced together, and given so few options for interacting with other people of different ages (20-30 year old adults, middle aged people, old people, etc.) I think is a large contributing factor to how skewed high school kids' ideas are about what's out there and what life is (I'm thinking of John Taylor Gatto on this point).

And then third, I didn't know I had a third, but I do, which is all of the sorting that occurs academically. "Slow" kids are put with other "slow" kids. The accelerated ones are also stuck together, to fester in their mutual superiority and inevitable destinies for greatness, an the great middle is left middling.

Then there are all the other sortings that having something more in common with a prison facility or a factory assembly line than a place of learning/education/child development.

When it comes to the main point about cruelty though, I do fail to see where she makes a strong case that it's something structural that causes it; something in the very essence of the institution that engenders or encourages social abuse and vileness.

On that point though I will note that I don't think schools, in most cases, do nearly enough to try and curb those Lord of the Flies tendencies. There's talk in the classroom about tolerance, and being nice and generous; sharing and caring, etc. You read books about, celebrate holidays about it, etc.

But when it actually comes to trying to do the deeds, and get down into the mess of it all, most teachers/admins/hourly workers are just too busy or exhausted to do that part (or they, being those who obviously loved high school enough to return and spend the rest of their lives there, are in some way oblivious to much of the natural cruelty). Teachers are paid barely enough to try and educate 21st century techophiles about Shakespeare or measuring triangles, let alone grade their homework and meet standardized test requirments, to then also try to teach them to be "kind, respectable, and honest young men and women."

Zach said...

The TAL show on middle school sounds like the bizarro version of this article.

Ferny Reyes said...

This seems like a weird inversion of leftist thinking.

We do privilege the underclasses and their narrative in the description of the power dynamics that disempower them and shower cruelty upon them. I think your disinterest in this particular realm seems a bit odd, though it might be because on the forum you engage in a lot, those same 'losers' in HS are also the ones that are engaging in the faux-snobbery of the AV club.

Ethan Gach said...

@Ferny--I'm skeptical there's that much overlap between the ideal A.V. Clubber and downtrodden high schooler (perhaps there is more overlapp in the comments, but not the editorial staff).

Freddie said...

Well I guess that's just it-- I don't think that the high school status contest maps neatly onto material advantage and disadvantage at all.

cian said...

(At its worst, homeschooling takes this logic to its extreme, along with the typical arrogance of parenthood: my child is simply too precious to be exposed to the unworthy.

This is overstating things considerably. Yes there is a subset of the upper middle class who feel this way about their offspring. However they are a minority, albeit one which is greatly over represented in the media.

zmil said...

@Ethan Gach

"Which leads into the second point: one could just as easily argue that the problem with High School is that there isn't enough exposure to difference. Most of the cruelty is a direct result of being around other messed up kids who are figuring themselves out"

This. Which is also alluded to in the article, e.g:

"Once kids hit their teen years, they did a variety of things: farmed, helped run the home, earned a regular wage. Before the banning of child labor, they worked in factories and textile mills and mines...But these disparate paths did arguably have one virtue in common: They placed adolescent children alongside adults. They were not sequestered as they matured. Now teens live in a biosphere of their own."

The problem is not just that different people are pushed together, it is that different, emotionally immature people are put together, without any actual role models. The teachers can't do much in that way, they're too busy, and they're not talking with other adults.

Homeschooling can lead to other forms of social maladjustment (although I think the evidence that homeschoolers are poorly "socialized" is weak to non-existent), but they avoid the bizarre social hierarchies, and are more exposed to adults interacting with other adults.

That said, I'm biased, as I was homeschooled, and my personal experience of real high school was extremely limited.

I always felt I had more in common with grown-ups than my peers, and never understood the whole teenage rebellion phenomenon, but who knows how much of that is due to homeschooling, and how much is due to me being weird?

bcg said...

"I get that impulse; we all want to see in the masses a reflection of our own internal life. (See what I did there?)"
Everybody extrapolates from one example. At least, I do.

Ferny Reyes said...

@Freddie - Right, but that seems to be a different argument, no? I mean, I'm not implying that these are the downtrodden proletariat.

But that it seems a weird inversion that in most cultural spheres, we would give a lot more credence to the idea that someone is speaking from a position of less power and privilege their narrative to some extent.

You can say that HS is such a minor and minute part of the development of human beings and of American society that it seems weird to care about any narrative (though I'd strongly critique that - I actually think HS might be the most important cultural institution in the US).

That was my thought. Look, I was predominantly 'middle class' in HS, so in many ways, I didn't get the 'loser' narrative in the same way. But I knew people/had friends with people who did feel this label and it was oppressive in a way that reminds me of how I felt in relation to white culture at the time (being a poor, hispanic kid). Clearly, there's a difference between mass-scale, socially-reproduced, historical-racial oppression and the angst of losers in HS, but within the context of HS, it seems important.

Anonymous said...

zmil/Ethan -
Thanks for the incisive posts.

bcg said...

But there's nothing inherently more accurate or perceptive about the observations of those on the bottom than those on the top.

How viciously high school sucked or didn't suck for you is going to change how you weigh the competing parts of high school. If you're a social outcast and "lack the power to do anything about it" then that affects how much you value the multicultural landscape of high school - for you personally, that landscape was not an engine for pain, but for a lot of people it was. (Not me either, I went to a school that was too small to really alienate people enough to have true bullies.)

Telling people that their experience with some severe socially-generated pain at the time of your life when you are most sensitive to socially-generated pain should be disregarded because of some abstract agenda isn't helpful. All that pain for these people is poisoning any effort you have to convince them to see all the diversity as a plus.

Freddie said...

But I'm not talking to them. I'm talking about how we should interpret their perspectives. Senior published the cover story in a national magazine. I'm questioning the perspective with which she wrote that piece. Her emotional attachment to her position is irrelevant to me.

Han said...

"Senior's notion that there is something wrong with being exposed to people across legitimate differences is truly corrosive to democracy, to egalitarianism, to society itself"

One could argue that you are talking a position that recent western conceptions of society and schooling are universal, context-free and normative.

Societies that are not ruled from above are often tiny tribes in which adolescents probably meet a very small number of people of equal age and/or status. Can one say that such parochialism is always a bad thing?

You could easily argue (perhaps using James C Scott's line of thinking) that western public schooling, governed by the whims of political elites, is society's sausage-maker. It produces in miniature the social strata that the "good" citizen must accept. Even the outcast(e)s have a place in the system, and their own TV shows. :)

Perhaps the loathing some people feel for school comes from the feeling that society is trying to pigeonhole us, and make us "legible" to the system?