In America, high school is supposed to be about learning.
But as historian and cultural critic Rebecca Solnit argues in an article titled “Abolish High School” in the April issue of Harpers, it’s mostly an education in status issues and gender norms.
“You get acculturated that it’s terrible to be gay,” she tells Business Insider, “that it’s important for girls to be popular with boys, that it’s important for boys to be masculine according to certain rules, that being good at athletic things greatly increases your social standing, that being good at academic things may in fact decrease your social standing.”
In her piece, Solnit argues that in many high schools, life is often a”parade of clichés” — jocks and cheerleaders stand in the popular center of student life, with anyone queer, artistic, or otherwise exile-able pushed to the periphery.
It’s an argument worth looking into.
Especially in regards to teen depression and suicide:
• According to the National Insitute of Mental Health, 11% of adolescents have a depressive disorder by age 18.
• According to the American Psychological Association, 20% of high school students consider suicide every year, with 8% making a suicide attempt every year.
• According to the American Psychological Association, about 1,700 teens die to suicide every year.
• According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the rate of teen suicide tripled between 1950 and 1980
While it’s easy to blow that statistic off with a swift ‘whelp, the teen years are hard!’, it would be more responsible to see if American high schools are especially — and unnecessarily — rough on students’ well-being.
In a telling 2011 paper titled “Back to school blues: Seasonality of youth suicide and the academic calendar,“ economists Benjamin Hansen and Matthew Lang tracked state suicide rates among teens from 1980 to 2004.
They found that teen suicide rates go up during the school year — and fall off during the summer.
But that trend doesn’t hold for adults.
Hansen and Lang reason that the “negative social interactions” (ie, bullying) drop off during the summer.
“If negative social interactions are more likely when school is in session, then summer break could lead to a time period in which we expect the frequency of total negative social interactions to decline,” they write. “This is in part because total social interactions are likely lower in summer months, and because youth have more latitude during the summer to select the peers with whom they spend their vacation months.”
Bullying — a part of high school life made light of in shows like “The Simpsons” — is more prevalant than you might think. Solnit reports that 28% of public high schoolers report being bullied and 21% of private schoolers, with the numbers going up in nonurban areas.
The bullying has real effects on mental well-being. According to a 2008 Yale meta-analysis of the psychological research on bullying, children who have been bullied are “two to nine times more likely to report suicidal thoughts than other children were.”
Kids who are bullied aren’t just affected in high school. In a 2013 study, researchers tracked 1,273 people every year from ages 11 to 13 to age 16, then again from ages 19 to 26. The kids who were chronically bullied in childhood were poorer, less educated, and felt more socially isolated as young adults.
What makes American high schools such fertile ground for toxic behaviour?
To Solnit, it’s that for American teens, high school is so all-encompassing — sports, theatre, all these things happen at school, making one’s social standing there an incredibly high stakes game.
It doesn’t have to be this way
There are other models than the American system. In Europe, for instance, sports happen in a club system, so they’re not so closely associated with schools, and the accompanying status symbols of pep rallies and trophy cases are kept out. While they have their own problems, schooling in other advanced economies tends to be more about learning intellectual skills that will serve students later in their lives.
Whereas in the States, high school is largely a matter of learning and mandating norms.
Solnit quotes Rutgers education scholar Catherine Lugg, who argues that American public high schools have historically had the role of “enforcer of expected norms regarding gender, heteronormativity, and homophobia.”
As America becomes more demographically diverse both ethnically and sexually, high school is a system that will have to change, or we’ll risk psychologically wounding our increasingly kaleidoscopic population of young people — for the rest of their lives.