Friday, May 15, 2009

Societal Graffiti

See all those banners at the entrance of various neighborhoods congratulating high school graduates as if they've actually accomplished something?

I say, take 'em all down.

If you check out this article, you'll see that about 90% of all students eventually get a high school diploma. About 88% of them actually go through a graduation ceremony, and about 83% overall graduate on time.

We would better waste money on banners congratulating those who eat breakfast.

Sure, that sounds senseless--but there is actually a smaller percentage of people eating breakfast every day than the percentage of people who get a high school diploma.

We wouldn't think for a moment that it's worth wasting money on a banner congratulating people for doing something as basic as eating breakfast, but our society has decided to act like it's a big deal for students to do something that is virtually unavoidable: graduate from high school.

I taught school for more than quarter century. I can assure you that school has been reduced to a lowest common denominator; the requirement to graduate are so basic that one has to make an effort not to graduate by (1) being absent from school excessively and failing to make up work, (2) refusing to do assigned work, or (3) being a constant disciplinary problem.

Simply by attending school regularly and doing all assignments, a student is virtually guaranteed to graduate. I can honestly say that, in the 25+ years I taught, I never saw a single student who failed to graduate for reasons that didn't involve one or more of the three reasons listed above.

Parents act like the world should recognize their child's "achievement." They host big parties; they send out announcements in anticipation of gifts; they band together and print up those aforementioned neighborhood banners (on which they frequently misspell "congratulations").

But that diploma is not a measure of achievement--it's little more than a certificate of attendance.

Sure, there are some who genuinely achieve--those students who excel, those who take challenging courses, those who push themselves to learn as much as high school has to offer. Their parents have every reason to be proud, as do the students themselves--but the graduation ceremony doesn't really recognize that. It may allow the valedictorian a chance to make a speech, and it may even put a star next to the name of honor graduates, but those are minor additions to a meaningless ceremony. The superlative student, the true scholar graduates right alongside the minimal achiever, the socially promoted, and the slacker who graduates only because his parents create so many problems for the school that it's easier to graduate the student than to fight the good battle to deny the student the diploma he didn't really earn.

So am I saying that high school is worthless? Not at all. I have said more than once that high school gave me everything I truly needed to achieve whatever measure of success I have found in life. Whether I'm talking about teaching, writing, or running a business, all the skills I needed came from my high school experience. Sure, college gave me the degree necessary to teach, but none of the skills--and I took no classes in business management, in basic accounting, or in anything else that would have assisted me in the latter two. College offered me a chance to enjoy studying in a more scholarly atmosphere, and I loved the experience--but had I not gone to college at all, I could have done just as well in each of my three careers (had it been legal for me to teach without a college degree, of course).

High school's value comes not in graduating, but in realizing that the core skills and knowledge necessary for success can be gained there. Certainly, college and post-graduate studies can build on those skills--I don't deny that. But all the basics are there already, if one simply chooses to take advantage of all that high school has to offer.

How many of those graduates actually do that? Not so many--certainly not the majority. Far too many students shoot for a minimal level of achievement, and society endorses that by acting like the minimal achievement of graduating is the only goal worth achieving.. For most students, it's not--and for those who have truly accomplished something, there is no appropriate recognition... although there certainly should be.

Those banners? Societal graffiti, that's all...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh man. I hope the liberals steer clear of your common sense writings. I saw first-hand the lack of challenging curriculum and this was back in '91. The emphasis appears to have shifted from educating young adults to grading teachers, schools and students on the performance on standardized tests.

I fondly remember your teachings and enthusiasm you shared with your students. Thank you again for your many years of service to the community, to the youth.