18 December 2009

Deterritorializing High School

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:30 am

I’m neither a student nor a teacher in the educational system, so I don’t think about school as much as many people do. I’m writing now as an outside observer of the excellent American high school our daughter attends in this affluent and well-educated community. I have to say that I find the institution troublingly efficient and effective.

From a societal standpoint, the high school serves largely a preparatory economic function. It assigns tasks, equips individuals and groups to assume responsibility for completing these tasks according to the requirements, imposes external evaluation of outcomes, encourages both competition and cooperation in playing a game for which the rules and objectives have already been decided.

From the family’s perspective, the high school establishes the parameters of the sort of  task space in which one’s kid must learn how to function. Again, high school is a preparatory environment, simulating the workplace. If my kid is smart, she’s got a leg up on everyone else’s kid. If she can apply herself successfully to the tasks as they’re presented to her, earning high marks as evidence of success, then she can further exploit her natural talent in the competitive sphere. If she can package herself attractively, she can position herself for a big promotion: admission to an elite university, preferably a choice among several excellent options, with hopefully a financial scholarship offered as further incentive. It’s the parents who insist that the schools be tougher, assign more homework, achieve higher average scores on standardized tests. It’s also the parents who try to get their own kids an edge within this tough environment, pushing them to take the toughest course options, helping them with their homework, disciplining them if they underperform, sending them to SAT preparatory courses so they look smarter to the university admissions offices.

While I’m sure I’m not the only parent who questions this educational approach, I am, I’ve come to realize, one of the few. I don’t doubt that kids learn things in this sort of school. I also acknowledge that there are right and wrong answers, effective and ineffective ways of organizing ideas, good and bad art, foundational skills and knowledge on which to build more complex intellectual performances. I also recognize that many kids thrive in the high school environment, and that things tend to work out better for the high school thrivers at the next level.

Still, adolescence is more a cultural construct than a biological life phase. There’s empirical evidence that adolescent brains aren’t as hard-wired as they will be in a few years, making them both more malleable and more open to alternatives. Kids are also less risk-averse, which is certainly cultural at least in part, but it’s also probably neurological as well. Society expects nothing of adolescents other than staying out of trouble. And, let’s face it, most jobs can be performed competently with maybe six months of training. So you’d think that high school would be a perfect environment for taking intellectual risks, trying out unprecedented possibilities, following interests and passions wherever they might lead, cultivating standards and commitments.

I think about Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis applied at the high school level. The high school, and the high school student, seem like prime candidates for deterritorialization. The adolescent’s territorial channels would seem to be rather shallow and inchoate — which is part of the problem as far as many parents are concerned. Parents of primary schoolers exert discipline in order to get their kids to follow the rules. For high schoolers the parents and their adult allies shift tactics: now the main disciplinary objective is to get their kids to perform successfully in the socio-economic territorialization program laid down in high school. The territorial markings of lectures, homework, and grades have already been laid down in primary school; now you want your kids to internalize these markings. The disciplinary incentive shifts from present to future, from avoiding the displeasure of teacher and parents to earning a spot in a good university. And to a large extent these shifts succeed: the high school peer group seems hell-bent on reinforcing the standard objectives among one other. Kids who aren’t making it are either stupid or troubled. The kid who thinks the whole high school experience is stupid might well have caught on to something important, but the usual response of parents and school personnel is to treat the symptom rather than listening to it. Find a tutor, find a therapist, find a coach. Kids with a passion or special talent are admired by their peers and their peers’ parents — these kids will have an edge in applying to Dartmouth and Stanford. The talented kid who isn’t getting the grades? It’s inspiring: there’s room for all of us in this democracy of ours. And it’s encouraging: this talented kid has eliminated herself from the competition, possibly opening up a spot for my own kid at the next level.

What about deterritorializing the high school itself? There are some excellent schools that encourage self-study and customized curriculum-building. Generally these are private schools, available only to well-heeled families who can afford the tuition. Some public charter schools adopt this flexible approach, but they’re typically regarded by parents as sort of hippie schools, best suited for the free spirits (kids and parents), artsy/techie, not particularly challenging academically. The smart kids (and their parents) tend to self-select out of these schools. As a consequence, aggregate results on standardized tests tend to suffer, and so these free-spirit schools are regarded with some suspicion by the university recruiters.

So I’m wondering whether it’s possible to slice through the overly-territorializing high school machine at an oblique angle, a “schiz” that enhances experimentation both individually and societally. Most kids accumulate more than enough course credits to graduate and to satisfy the minimum requirements for university acceptance. Some kids do the bare minimum; most (at least around here) tend to fill up their schedules with elective courses selected from the high school menu, or from the local university for the more advanced students. What about self-study instead of electives? Encourage the curious kid to delve into some interest or cause in depth, pursuing lines of flight as they open up rather than following a prescribed curriculum, cutting across traditional disciplinary boundaries in the pursuit of some bit of truth or beauty or justice. Figure out a way for the kid to get academic credit for the project. Build some sort of collaborative component for kids whose individual interests converge. Help the kids make connections with experts and fellow enthusiasts in the larger world.

Hey, it’ll look great in the Dartmouth application portfolio.



  1. as you’d guess i am deeply into this discussion, but it’s vacation so more after the 1st of jan


    Comment by the voice of parodic reason — 18 December 2009 @ 11:57 pm

  2. I look forward to it, vopr. I’d like to know what sorts of videos your students have been making. What trends in collective imagination do you see, what releases and deterritorializations does moviemaking afford? This is a rather mundane application of D&G, but no less difficult for that.


    Comment by john doyle — 19 December 2009 @ 6:53 am

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