Happiness is a sheathed gun

July 9, 1999

A spate of violent attacks has forced the reassessment of the American high school, says Sheldon Rothblatt

Puberty has been captured by the most commercialised popular culture ever known, with consequences detrimental to education and maturity. President Clinton has also just spoken out against the gruesome movies, video games and music targeted at adolescents. Millions of weapons are in circulation in the US. With the regulation of gun control laws essentially in the hands of the 50 states of the union, each with its own history and politics, the chances of uniform action against the accidental or intentional use of firearms are generally minimal. But can anything be done about reducing violence in classrooms and playgrounds?

There have been some desperate responses to this year's tragedies. Some inner city precincts have installed metal detectors. Others require high-school pupils to carry their belongings in see-through bags. School uniforms are talked up in the hope that common dress will inhibit the formation of social cliques. Heresy. If the Constitution should turn out really to preserve the liberty of individuals to tote guns, then by analogy it must surely protect the right of adolescents to express their individuality.

The Berkeley campus of the University of California, eager to recruit undergraduates from low-income backgrounds now that most affirmative action policies are gone, has adopted a more

positive approach. This includes outreach remediation efforts, after-school and in-school tutoring and revising admissions procedures to take greater account of personal circumstances. This long-standing practice of elite

private colleges was once attacked by critics as a thin disguise for maintaining a socially exclusive student body.

Leon Botstein, an accomplished musician and president of Bard College at Annandale-on-Hudson in the state of New York, has delivered an uncompromising attack on the assumptions defining American high schools. Writing in The New York Times, he called the schools "a failure not worth reforming". Several of his criticisms are standing themes in debates about what ails schools: football coaches who serve as principals; a heavy emphasis on popularity and appearance; poorly educated teachers. But in some respects his attack is novel, or at least not customarily aired in the media. He has reminded readers that the division of schools into elementary, junior and senior secondary segments did not arise from academic considerations alone but also from biology. The purpose was to isolate pupils entering puberty from the innocent below and the dangerous above.

Abolition of an "age-segregated environment" (meaning first a chronological break around age 11, followed by school-leaving fixed at 16) takes account of the fact that the age at which puberty first occurs is earlier than before. Afterwards, graduates can choose between further or higher education, a galaxy of vocational or specialised schools or entry into labour markets. The object is to limit the period of enforced schooling to take account of life-cycle changes, to encourage an adult sense of responsibility and decision-making and to allow further learning to take place in a variety of situations.

There are serious problems. What employment would be available for a 16-year-old without the education, experience or deportment necessary when even a higher education first degree is virtually a minimal qualification? Or perhaps the experience of holding an entry-level position would stimulate ambition?

The attraction is that the scheme proposes a completely revolutionary approach to a system of lower education in so many respects inconsistent with underlying American principles of achievement. As the sociologist Burton Clark pointed out in the 1980s, state schools, unlike colleges and universities, are not required to compete against one another for pupils and talent. Certain privatisation initiatives within state schools, notably "charter schools", which feature parental control with respect to hiring and curriculum, have met keen resistance from local vested interests such as school boards and teacher unions.

Ironically, Botstein's main structural reforms resemble

features appearing or once apparent in European education systems. An "11 plus" break, followed by secondary education and an early school-leaving age, was the English system before the Labour Party took another look several decades ago. However, that system used the period around puberty to identify high academic potential, and those so chosen could remain through the sixth form. The system was bitterly criticised as unfair. In the Botstein plan no segregation takes place at age 11. Sixth form or its equivalent, or direct entrance to another level of education, is an option for all.

American universities might be ready for such a move. They already accept for study "advanced placement" high school students who have nothing more to gain from full-time schooling. Many are accustomed to in-and-out or part-time students, and most no longer regard the late adolescent undergraduate as their principal client.

But the biggest question remains. The American high school is a creation of local authorities and is maintained by local interests. At best this is supposed to stimulate flexibility. At worst, it results in low quality. How, in the absence of national policy enforced by a disliked Washington bureaucracy, can widely adopted dramatic alterations ever be achieved except through the slow eternity of time?

Sheldon Rothblatt is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and STINT professor of history at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

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