One of the enjoyable things about working with middle school students is seeing how creative they can be and how skilled many are at critical thinking. One of the depressing things about working with middle school students is the thought that as human beings, they may have reached their apogee of reason and empathy. It all could be downhill from there.
There is a disconnect between twelve to fourteen-year-olds being able to define a problem and then develop workable solutions and then them growing up to be adults who vote for Donald Trump.
Granted, not all middle schoolers are deep thinkers and effective problem solvers. But a lot of them are. And you have to wonder whether they have a more refined sense of fairness than adults do.
Let me posit some reasons other than education as to why in most societies school goes beyond 8th grade:
- Baby-sitting. Think about it. If we didn’t have schools, what would kids do? Where would they go? How would they stay out of trouble?
- This is a valid argument if there are no alternative activities for kids. But it’s also a self-fulfilling prophesy. If structurally we don’t have alternative activities, then we don’t have to think about them and we settle for the default option, school as we know it.
- Many adults like to maintain power over children. School is a way in which adults can prescribe what kids are doing, perhaps well past a time when it is healthy. During teenage years, there is an imbalance of power and adults hold the upper hand. They tend to like that and are not anxious to support a more equitable balance.
- Our fixation with competition. There’s healthy competition and then there’s the kind that is unhealthy. Schools have a lot of both, but it seems that the balance is tilting too much in the direction of the unhealthy kind.
- Perhaps the most insidious way is in ranking schools. It used to be that kids could brag to one another with deep statements like “My school is better than your school.” Educators thought that it would be a good idea to go “deeper” than that, so they started measuring schools against one another. Which school has the highest test scores? What the hell does that mean? Does it mean that the school won the lottery and the students enrolled are better test-takers than those in other schools, or does it mean that the schools do a better job of teaching. We don’t know. How about those high schools that have more Advanced Placement courses, and more students enrolled in them? Isn’t this just a form of fancy labeling for what has always gone on in schools. Some courses are more challenging than others, but now we’ve given them increased prestige and corporate backing (AP is in many ways like an industrial complex), so now it’s supposed to be more meaningful.
- Sports can be healthy competition, but is it worth it if kids have to mortgage their free time to participate? No matter how hard coaches push the “winning is everything” philosophy, the laws of physics and logic tell us that in each binary competition, there’s only going to be one winner. If the team that has the most points winds up doing more damage to the “student-athletes” because of the pressure put in them, are they really the winning team?
- Extra-curricular activities like mock trial and debate can be cut-throat. There’s nothing wrong with examining different points of view on different issues. But in these activities, is there room for ambiguity or uncertainty? If not, then they are not based on reality and that’s not good training for kids.
Since the social norm is increasingly for students to finish college, not just high school, they must have ways to justify to themselves that what they are doing is worth it. It’s somewhat like the Stockholm Syndrome. Most students buy into what they are supposed to be doing. But during so much of this time, they are being forced to do things; their lives are so scripted.
Suppose that after middle school we offered a potpourri of activities for kids. First and foremost, they could learn. But it wouldn’t have to be in a pressure cooker. Learning more about what interests them makes it more meaningful. It also increases their chances of becoming life-long learners, something that schools often fail to do.
They could enter the work force (this would naturally require the government to create many of the jobs, but we still have enormous needs in the public sector). Furthermore, as artificial intelligence replaces more conventional jobs, we are going to have to redefine what we do in much of our waking hours. It may be that we do less traditional work and we look for other ways to promote our psychological, social and community health.
Seeing the pressure that so many students are under to learn something today only to forget it tomorrow, you have to wonder about much of school. Wouldn’t we serve individuals and our society better if we lightened up? Is there anything inherent about five to twenty-two-year-olds spending so much time in classrooms when there are so many other ways to grow intellectually and emotionally?
If the best that we can get now is a country that votes for Donald Trump, we might want to reexamine what we’re doing. No quick changes, but start thinking about it.