I once saw a circus lion-tamer keep five lions at bay with a whip and a chair. His choreographed movements–his pivots, gestures, and spins–were ballet-like. The lions, on the other hand, showed no practiced grace; instead, they looked like what they were–ferocious creatures coerced into sitting on chairs and jumping through hoops. I was reminded of my high school students.
While my students don’t ordinarily wave their claws at me and very few roar when I pass by, many stay in their seats only because of a vague foreboding about the consequences if they don’t. Instead of a whip and chair, I have grades and the threat of sending a student to the office though that latter consequence would offer a student a probably welcome break in classroom routine.
On the other hand, when I teach a night class at a local college for adult students who work in factories and offices, they do not have to be kept in their seats with metaphorical whips and chairs but rather demand that I deliver the goods. They are in a classroom because a degree is no longer another hoop to jump through but a doorway to something more desirable. And while they may be the same people who 15 years before were waving their claws in the classroom, they return to the classroom as different students.
So. Should we abolish middle and high school? Should we occupy teenagers in some other way and haul them back into school when they have reached the necessary maturity level?
Answer #1: Absolutely. Let teenagers roam about, being their feral selves, spending 12 and 14 hours a day exploring whatever legal activities they’re interested in. Let them search out coaches, mentors, and sponsors, and let them make mistakes and learn from those mistakes during a long, long summer. It would be a wonderful disaster.
Answer #2: Oh my god, no! I love my teenage students and would hate to teach only adults. Each teenager is creating a version of him/herself and each is finding a community into which that self can fit. I am amazingly fortunate to be working in the midst of all that; and while my high school students are often neither ready for nor receptive to what I am teaching, there are shimmering moments when a head turns at the sound of a new idea or an essay wanders into an original perception.
So, selfishly, I defer to T.S. Eliot who wrote, “No one can become really educated without having pursued some study in which he took no interest- for it is a part of education to learn to interest ourselves in subjects for which we have no aptitude.”