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Why Giant High Schools Just Can’t Help Messed-Up Kids


As one might expect, the mass shooting in Florida has led to endless commentary about the state of the nation and of the nation’s young in particular. Gun-control advocates predictably exploited the event to call for banning firearms, never questioning the laws already in place, the incompetence of law enforcement, or the effectiveness or plausibility of taking away everyone’s guns. Those in favor of gun ownership trotted out the same responses, and the point has since become mostly moot once more.

Those not obsessed with the Second Amendment explored other issues at play like mental health and fatherlessness—two issues government really cannot do much to fix. These writers have pointed out that nearly every mass shooter has been a young male who did not have a father, or he was a Muslim terrorist.

As common sense would easily show, a boy without a father is prey to all sorts of bad influences. Television, videogames, Internet, and gangs will quickly fill the void left by a man who did not raise his son to develop inner strength and feel supported.

However, a relatively new concern the Florida shooting raised is the existence of large suburban high schools. Stella Morabito treated this issue in its entirety for The Federalist, which is aptly expressed in her article’s title, “13 Ways Public Schools Incubate Mental Instability in Kids.” Even though she breaks down her argument into 13 ways, the reader can sum it up into two main points: (1) high schools today are way too big, and (2) many of these schools enforce a progressive and political agenda.

The weakness of her second point has the unfortunate effect of hurting the strength of her first. With the exception of a few “woke” schools (like one in Ithaca, New  York, that banned the performance of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” because it did not have a sufficiently inclusive cast), most high schools hardly bother with heavy political indoctrination in the ways Morabito suggests. True, most public schools have LGBT clubs and employ more than a few leftists, but most political activism happens off campus or online.

Her first point about the oppressive nature of overly large schools merits more consideration. Big schools really are ugly and really do alienate kids and stifle maturity, more often than not. Understanding how this happens, though, would help in determining better solutions than simply dismissing public education altogether, telling everyone to start homeschooling, and keep voting conservative.

Why We Even Have Huge High Schools

To begin, people should understand the reason for designing schools that take in 2,000-plus students. This is mainly to minimize costs and maximize oversight by consolidating property and staff.

Some might argue that public schools still waste tons of money, but what they call waste, other parents and politicians consider necessary: administrators, special education programs, extracurricular programs requiring coaches and directors, updated technology, professional training, etc. If districts hope to shrink their campuses and have more of them, they would have to cut costs somewhere else, or simply have more money on hand (e.g., Frisco, Texas).

Once built and staffed, these big schools then have the implicit challenge of maintaining order among a widely varied collection of students. The amount of paperwork this creates is enormous: schedules, report cards, special accommodations, test scores, disciplinary reports, attendance, technology reports, meeting agendas, and many other administrative minutia. Far from knowing too little about students, educators must shuffle through students’ records like a dealer shuffles through a deck of cards. Students who pose problems require even more paper-shuffling.

On one hand this abundant paperwork is truly a marvel of high-tech bureaucracy. On the other, it has the inevitable effect of dehumanizing educators and transforming the essence of their work. The teacher in a large school does not instruct and give feedback, but assesses and records data; a counselor does not actually counsel, but rather labels and catalogues students; and principals do not lead and build, but rather administer preset rules and standards.

Altogether, people who work at such schools spend far more time with documentation than actually connecting with students. With each new educational reform, the former task of managing paperwork (“analyzing data”) becomes ever more profound while the latter task of helping students becomes ever more distant and superficial.

People who enter education with the hope of inspiring students, plumbing the depths of their subject matter, and leaving a lasting impression will have to adapt to the corporate environment and tone down their enthusiasm, or they will burn out quickly and leave. This alters the image of the ideal teacher somewhat: less like “Stand and Deliver’s” Jaime Escalante (whom principals pushed out after he created the most famously successful calculus program in the nation), and more like an efficient office worker who is not featured in any movie because his story would put an audience to sleep.

How This Affects Students’ Self-Grouping

This leaves the many students to cope with a place that views them more as folders with arms and legs than human beings with thoughts and feelings. Although school leaders will give a steady diet of school spirit propaganda so students might derive some sense of identity and belonging, most students will forge their own selves by joining a clique. Athletes, band kids, top-ten kids, gamers, and all the rest will find others like them and make their way through school.

Morabito and others criticize the cliques that result as hierarchical, divisive, and exclusionary. They cite movies like “Mean Girls,” where girls bully other girls outside their social circle. While such a scenario happens occasionally, critics fail to mention the kids who find comfort and balance in an otherwise hectic and crowded environment. Cliques are natural to any large community and not necessarily bad. Adults do this when they form a circle of friends and acquaintances. Ironically, young people tend to be far more egalitarian and welcoming to outsiders than adults, who often cling to their tribes and look askance at those who might trespass.

Contrary to popular belief, large schools actually discourage cliques and hierarchies. To maintain stability and order, administrators and teachers leave less and less freedom to students: passing periods and lunch periods are shortened, talking discouraged, and associations supervised through larger, more time-consuming extracurricular programs. Life for students is highly regimented.

Indeed, some liken this to prison. Someone watches them not just during school hours, but after and before the school day as well. Does this mean critics are right to point out that school officials hope to marginalize parents’ influence and home life? Not deliberately. They simply want minimize variables that might upset the machine. To be fair, parents demand a secure, orderly environment—and, oppressive as it seems, this is what it looks like.

Bring on the Smartphone Dope

The proliferation of iPads and smartphones has facilitated this system as well. Many suburban districts have welcomed more technology because it sedates students (and teachers) and ensures more order.

The sound of these schools’ lunchrooms used to be deafening. Now, with all the students plugged and connected to their devices, it is eerily quiet. Not surprisingly, smartphone addiction has become common on most high school campuses, which has led to students having even less opportunity to form their personalities or make friends.

The real difference the large suburban school brings about, then, is a general flattening of the culture. Everything that gives an individual a community becomes superficial: relationships, personality, values, life goals, and behavior. The culture of the large school flatly contradicts Ralph Waldo Emerson’s recommendation of a warm, friendly place that allows maximum freedom, profound insights, and heroic, self-reliant individuals.

What Students Lack Is Friendship

For such a system so devoted to security and with so much information collected on each student, one might wander how kids can fall through cracks and become criminals. To be clear, no kid truly falls through the cracks, since there are no cracks. They simply fall, and schools lack the capacity to help them.

Somewhat like the main character, Peter, in the movie “Office Space,” a bad student has many bosses to tell him about his mistakes: his teachers, principal, counselor, and even a specialist assigned to his case. What he does not have are actual friends and guardians to love him and treat him like a human being, not a drone. For all the resources school personnel have at their fingertips, they cannot replace fundamental players in a young person’s development.

No kid truly falls through the cracks, since there are no cracks. They simply fall, and schools lack the capacity to help them.

In most cases, students who disrupt the system are removed from class and sent to disciplinary campuses. There, they have even less freedom, less contact with others, and more isolation.

Some people might resent this outcome, but the alternative would be letting a juvenile delinquent ruin classes, bully other kids, and cause a general ruckus at school without any serious consequences. Such is the drawback of alternative disciplinary processes meant to keep at-risk students off the path to prison—which, apparently, the Florida high school implemented with little success.

Keeping this in mind, critics of public education need to recognize that large suburban schools, along with all public schools, must take in all students, including demented, unloved students, not just the good ones. Making schools smaller might help ease some the high-density corporate stress and superficial culture of consolidated suburban schools, but will not eliminate dangerous kids with emotional problems and easy access to a loaded gun.

People with an interest in young people’s wellbeing (“stakeholders” as they are called in the educational world) will have to intervene themselves, particularly men. In general, society needs to replace the artificial processes with human relationships, the shallow scripts with deeper reasoning, and collective fear with individual love.