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December 19, 2000

Boston Public: The Case Against Schools

[This is a rather long article which I originally published as 7 separate pages-- I've culled it all together into one big entry, to fit the blog format and consolidate my articles into blog entries.]

This week, I decided to watch Fox's new show "Boston Public," a Monday night show about a public school in, well, Boston. I don't know if the show's producer (David E. Kelley of "Ally McBeal" fame) intended to make a strong political statement or not, but it looks to me like an abstract infomercial for homeschooling. The show's tempo is defined by a succession of situations guaranteed to make a parent think, "I wouldn't want my kid going there."

Certainly, a T.V. show isn't reality, but the scenes depicted were material we are all familiar with, from the news and from our own experiences:

* A sexy student doesn't wear a bra. The principal orders her to. When a female teacher questions him on his liberal application of the dress code, he responds: "Today, the policy is that Dana Poole wears a bra." Dana Poole files a complaint with the superintendent.

* A teacher refuses to continue teaching the "basement class"- the classic rough and unteachable class. She is absent, leaving only this message scrawled on the chalkboard: "I'm going to kill myself. Hope you're happy!" She appears a few times through the show, where her main purpose is to show how shattered and disillusioned a teacher can get. When the principal tells her she needs to be taking her medicine, she responds, "I can't feel anything when I take it. What's the point of teaching if you don't feel?" She is put on leave, and warned that if she doesn't straighten up she'll be fired.

* A black U.S. history student tells his teacher the textbook sucks, because it doesn't mention that the founding fathers owned slaves, and that Thomas Jefferson slept with his slaves. He says something to the effect of "my black ass ain't reading it." The elderly Jewish teacher responds that his class is intended to prepare students for a standardized test, and that Jefferson sleeping with his slaves isn't going to be on the test- so the student had better "learn the lies in this book, or your black ass will end up having to listen to my Jewish ass all next school year." Over the course of this, the teacher loses his cool, and this last part is screamed in the student's face at a distance of 3 inches or so.

* A football hero is failing two classes, and can no longer play on the team. Throughout the episode, the two teachers who failed him are pressured to change their grades, by the father (with an attorney), the coach, and the football star himself. Finally, one of the teachers changes the grade because a girl (braless Dana from above, in fact) threatens to expose their secret sex affair.

* A bully harasses a much smaller geek. The principal stops the geek in the hall to ask him who did it. The bully sees them talking, and later cracks the geek's head open because he thinks he told on him. He does this off school grounds, so, as he says to the principal, "it's not your problem." The principal says he's making it his problem, and repeatedly and roughly shoves the bully against the lockers, finishing with, "If [that boy] gets so much as a hangnail, I will take your head off." The bully files a complaint with the superintendent.

As they say, T.V. reflects society reflects T.V., and Boston Public may be truer than many fictional T.V. shows. These stories could be grabbed right out of the newspapers, and the problems are well-known. Since they are being aired once more, it's worth asking again what is causing the problems in our schools.

Who's to Blame?

Who does the show blame for this? It would seem that the students and the parents are the problem. Not one student was portrayed in a positive light. Besides the cast of characters in the examples above, there was an overly intelligent girl who runs a controversial student website, breeding gossip and mocking teachers with offensive cartoons. There is a clique of no-brained "cool" girls. There is the student who writes "BITCH" with spray paint on the chalkboard of one of the teachers who is failing the football star. Above all, there is the repeated message that "they don't want to learn."

The kids are products of parents who only care about their education when there's a problem, according to the show. The football star's dad says to the "BITCH" teacher, (paraphrase) "I'm aware of how I've failed with my child's education, but this time, it's you who is failing him," as he tries to pressure her to pass his son so he can get his football scholarship. The parents of the unteachable ruffians in the basement class fill the main office in mob fashion, after their new teacher fires a gun in class, in a last-ditch effort to get attention and respect. The principal shoos them away with "He will be dealt with," while refusing to answer when they ask "How?" (The gun-firing teacher, by the way, gets a verbal final warning from the vice-principal, and a warning from the principal that the next time, their friendship won't stop him from firing him.)

I don't necessarily agree or disagree with the producer's choice of villains and heroes- but no matter what David E. Kelley wanted me to think, I came away with this: School is no place for kids to be- particularly not if they want an education.

Over the past twenty years, the homeschooling movement has grown by leaps and bounds, and has reached a level of public acceptance where it's something every parent can consider embarking upon. And while there are still significant hurdles involved with homeschooling, "Boston Public" should give any parent reason to give it a more than a little thought.

All of the mini-nightmares depicted in the examples above are, I propose, a natural by-product of a school-based education. I think we as a nation sometimes fail to understand how unnatural our average school environment is. In many ways, schools are as unnatural an environment as prisons are. There are certain things that come about in certain settings, and there are some things that we can expect to happen in schools, no matter what we do. After all, whatever you think of prison riots, it's unlikely that you find them surprising.

Well, we don't have riots in schools (yet), but there are definitely things which we can expect to happen in just about every school, and "Boston Public" lays them out for all to see.

Sexuality Problems

In middle and high school, sexual urges consume the thoughts of many students. And while sexual development and curiosity is natural, school amplifies, distorts, and confuses the issue for most students. The years of close contact with hundreds of their peers, the awkward situations, the pressure on appearance, and other factors commingle to send most kids on a 6-year emotional roller coaster from the onset of puberty until their graduation party. In this week's "Boston Public," this manifests itself with Dana Poole, a sexy, manipulative girl who fools around with her teacher, blackmails him, and doesn't wear a bra.

The thing you don't see is that 200 lonely guys at Boston Public ride an emotional roller coaster every day, and it's driven by Dana Poole and her friends. Force 200 lonely guys to spend 6 years squirming in their seats as they fantasize about their sexy female peers who they won't ever be with, and you will produce a certain percentage of rapists. It's an expectable reaction to an unnatural situation.

Of course, that's just one natural manifestation of the sexual politics of middle and high school, and there's a lot more damage done than just creating rapists. Just about everybody carries a heavy load of emotional baggage when they leave high school, and many people spend years readjusting and reassessing their self-image once they are liberated from school- whether it's echoes of "Fatty!" or "Four-Eyes!" ringing in their ears, or years of degradation from being called "Baldy" ever since having one's pants pulled down in 7th grade gym class. (Note: The "Baldy" thing is not a personal story. ;-))

When you put that many young people in a building together for years on end, and then crank up the hormones, it gets complicated real quick. And when all most students have for answers is their own 'peer grapevine,' it's an invitation to sexual and emotional dysfunction. Teen pregnancy, high divorce rates, date rapes, depression- these should be no surprise. In schools, we have created an environment where these things are sure to flourish.

Educational Anarchy

The basement class of uncontrollable students is a classic entertainment stereotype, since the days of "The Blackboard Jungle" and "Welcome Back Kotter," and before. In movies and TV the tough teacher usually digs in and triumphs with some special gimmick. But in real life, more teachers lose that battle than win it, and "Boston Public" gives credence to this. BoPub's basement class sends one teacher home screaming, after previously having driven her to seek pharmaceutical assistance. The teacher sent to replace her, after first refusing the task, then avoiding it, finally shows up wearing a holstered gun- his "special gimmick" is firing blanks at the wall. I'll have to tune in next week to see if it straightened out the class and got him the respect he was looking for, but I think most people would question his method, regardless of its results.

The thing you don't see is how those "unteachable" students act when they are doing something they actually want to do, and how quickly they learn when it appeals to their interests- whether it be learning rap lyrics, memorizing sports statistics and figuring odds, researching black history, or rolling the perfect joint. What isn't said is that there will always be students who simply can't be appealed to with classroom methods. What isn't said is if you haven't gotten a student interested in school by 6th grade, chances are you never will- unless you try something truly different.

What isn't said is that people learn in very different ways- and schools teach in one way to everyone. Until you've reached a certain level, you don't really have much control over how you learn best. And if you aren't taught in a way that appeals to your learning style, you aren't likely to learn well. And if that's the case, you aren't likely to enjoy your classes very much. After 8 or 10 years of dissatisfied, frustrated attempts to "get it," is it surprising that many kids end up as unruly and "unteachable"?

The Sports Scholarship/"Move 'Em Up, and Ship 'Em Out" Plan

The stories of poor students being advanced or having grades fudged so they can stay on the team are legion, and last night's show highlighted the issue. In this case, it was sexy Dana's blackmail that turned the tide and kept the star on the team, but it doesn't always need to come to that. Oftentimes, it doesn't even have to be a sports scholarship hanging in the balance- educational statistics clearly show that tons of students get to grade 12 without having a grade 12 education.

It should be no surprise that this has become epidemic in schools. After all, what else is a teacher to do? Once they've tried their hardest to help the kid pass, what else is there? It wouldn't be fair to the other students to focus the needed amount of time teaching just one kid. And holding him back for another year will surely stunt his social growth and self-image, and he'll get even worse. When you have 20 or 30 students, there is only so much you can do for any one, and so you just move 'em up, or take the risk of making a bad problem even worse by holding them back or designating them "special" or "troubled." By 10th grade or so, the idea of denying a student the "right to a diploma" is mostly reserved for disciplinary problems. The educationally deficient students will, for the most part, graduate as long as they show up. After all, who would want to be responsible for sealing a young person's fate by denying them a high school diploma?

While many students can learn through a homogenized, group-based teaching method, a certain number can't. Whether it's peer fear, fluorescent lights, bad techniques, or any of a thousand other reasons, some kids just find it very hard to learn in a school setting. And unless they reach a certain learning plateau, they aren't likely to be able to overcome that difficulty. Since, in our culture, not graduating from high school is considered a critical failure, schools and teachers are understandably hesitant to shackle even the "dumbest" student with that noose. The result? A great number of 12th graders graduate with not even close to a 12th grade education level. This trend has a twin sister, which involves giving kids who have learned at least something good enough grades so that they can get into college. The result of that? Lots of kids starting college who can't read, or spell, or write complete sentences. Unfortunately, this is a trend in schools which is nearly impossible to avoid- as shown by the fact that it is getting worse, not better, despite long-standing efforts to employ "strict standards and accountability."

Bullies, Power Plays, and Cliques

Intimidation is a major interference with education- as the geek in "Boston Public" knows all too well. It's also another unavoidable by-product of school-based education. Students in schools have very little power. They have been stripped of most of the rights that adults enjoy, and their activities are strictly governed- by their teachers, by the school's rules and schedule, and by the peer code, among others.

To compensate for this compromising situation, students in schools try to exert power in whatever limited ways they can. Smart kids do so by running school newspapers and clubs, putting their hands up first, and ruining bell curves. Delinquent kids do so by cheating, breaking rules, and skipping school. And bullies...well, bullies bully.

The classic bully is not very smart by conventional measures, and has never been appreciated for anything, except perhaps his size. His power play is physical force and threats, and it involves draining those weaker than him- of lunch money, of happiness, of enjoyment. The more people fear and dislike him, the better he is doing his job, and the more power he feels. The bully in Boston Public clearly relishes being "tough," as is shown by a nearly endless staredown between him and the vice principal. He also quite clearly has nothing else to offer the school-- bullying is what he does. In the show, the way that this is "solved" is that the principal acts as an even bigger bully-- the geek's stand-in big brother-- who says "touch my brother again and I'll kill you." And in a touching moment near the end of the episode, the principal gives the geek tips on how to twist someone's arm back, saying "He needs to learn how to defend himself."

Of course, the bully, and other student power plays, are a symptom of the school environment, where students feel like they are being treated like herded animals, and they act as such. Demoralized by the confining structure, branded by their peers and graded by their teachers, students in schools have very little wiggle room in which to define themselves. The result is kids "acting out" and doing the bizarre things kids do to stand out, and repressing any unique interests or feelings that could brand them as "weird" or "queer".

Another natural outcropping of schools are cliques, or factions of students who band together for security. The preps, the nerds, the stoners, band people, drama people, jocks- all these are artificial constructs, which are mostly shed once high school ends. Of course, they are often replaced or revived by adults, with discrimination based on other factors, such as race, religion, and lifestyle- and there are even some "jock" adults who still resent "nerds," and "nerds" who resent "stoners," out here in the real world.

Most people, however, outgrow the habit of resenting people based on stereotypes sometime after leaving school- or at least they try to. Unfortunately, discrimination and stereotypes are no stranger to adults, and many social groups still band together because they feel threatened and powerless. While this is unfortunate, it shouldn't be a surprise. It's a natural outcome of 12 years in the school system, where cliques rule the school, and if you're not part of one, you don't count. Why wouldn't people try to apply the guidelines they learned in school, after they graduate?

Teaching to the Test & Ideological Conflict

Standardized education requires standardization, and the chances of that standard being the right fit for all students are slim to none. Race, religion, and other factors of culture and upbringing make for an astoundingly diverse set of perspectives, and homogenized education is certain to clash with each of them at some point, in the effort to appeal to all of them. What's more, "teaching to the test" has the inevitable effect of ignoring a great deal of subject matter. U.S. history can be approached from a variety of viewpoints and angles- but the school system as we know it requires that it be taught in the same way to everybody.

One glaring example of ideological conflict is the difference between whites and minorities in the view of U.S. history. In schools, as the student in Boston Public pointed out, most students are taught "white" U.S. History. But there are many ways to teach U.S. History, as can be witnessed by the fact that other countries tell a different story than we do. There is also Her-story, as feminists will rightly point out. Many believe that more focus should be on "regular people," and less on leaders and wars. Others believe our history lessons should take more of a world view, and less of an America-centric one. The way in which you learn your history helps determine how you will live your future, and many people feel that schools take a very narrow view in their teaching of history. And they are right- schools have to pick one lesson to teach, no matter who they are teaching it to.

Another ideological difference has already motivated over a million parents to remove their children from the school system. Religious faith and school teachings can come into conflict quite quickly, whether it's in the teaching of world history, or the origin of the universe, or the books selected for reading in English class. The result is that some students are forced to try to reconcile very opposing views on important issues, like moral principles, and the meaning of existence. It should be no surprise that religious belief is the main factor that drove the early homeschool movement.

Now the homeschool movement is growing, for reasons other than religious belief, and it should be obvious why. Boston Public clearly isn't a place you would want your kid to be. But don't blame the school- it can't help itself.

This idea, of the hopelessness of the school system, is perhaps best shown in a short exchange at the end of last night's episode. A teacher, and friend of the principal, is talking to him about his shoving fit with the bully:

"As a friend, crossed the line."

"I know. Sometimes-"

"I know."

So they agree. Sometimes- well, you know.

Read about an upcoming alternative to school here

Posted by Lance Brown at December 19, 2000 09:12 PM | TrackBack
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