The Varieties of High School Education

by Conor Friedersdorf

Alan Jacobs is pondering the appropriate high school curriculum for his son:

He’s headed into the eleventh grade, and while his education so far has given him a sound overview of Western cultural history, we’re concerned that he hasn’t had enough experience digging deeply into particular issues, doing wide-ranging research and coming up with sophisticated theses based on what he has learned. So we’ve decided to organize the coming school year around particular topics with interdisciplinary facets to them, starting in each case with one or two books that will in different ways orient him to the issues. Our focus will be on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the West, though any non-Western topics could reach back farther.

So, for instance, one topic will start with Voltaire’s Candide and, probably, Nicholas Shrady’s book on the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, The Last Day, and will involve philosophical optimism, the “problem of evil” for Christians and other religious believers, and associated topics. Another unit will involve sanitation and social class in Victorian England. Wes will start by reading Dickens’s Bleak House and Stephen Johnson’s The Ghost Map, and will expand his research from there.

On this side of the Atlantic, we might have Wes read Ellis’s Founding Brothers and Garry Wills’s Cincinnatus he has already read the Federalist Papers, so it would be interesting to have that in the background.

The post goes on like that. At the end, Alan asks for feedback and advice from readers, and the comments section includes some wonderful suggestions. The whole exchange makes me jealous of young Wes, and the education he is receiving. It is so obviously superior to my own academic experience in ninth through twelfth grade.

I say that as someone who attended a well-regarded Catholic high school that offered numerous AP classes, better than average teachers and a reputation among elite colleges for turning out exceptionally well prepared students. Even so, I cannot help but assess its curriculum with a Paul Simon line: "When I look back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all." Despite hard work that resulted in a 4.0+ GPA, I spent four years studying Spanish without becoming anything near fluent, passed an AP Physics class knowing embarrassingly little about the subject, and endured a biology class that basically amounted to memorizing terms long enough to pass successive unit exams (and no longer), conceptual understanding be damned. The only classes that afforded real learning were senior year English, modern art, geometry, and an ethics course, classes I remain grateful for having taken -- they've afforded more intellectual fulfillment in subsequent years than anything in my upbringing save the fact that my parents read to me endlessly as a little kid.

What strikes me, all these years later, about my lousy but better-than-average high school education is how useful it proved in preparing me for college and the job market. Absent exceptional teachers, an academically competitive high school basically teaches the young how to game the system lots of people call the American meritocracy. It is difficult to describe this skill set precisely, though it certainly includes things like earning good grades in classes you know little if anything about, learning to game standardized tests and exams, employing writerly tricks to obscure the fact that you know nothing of substance about the topic of your five page paper, and understanding which teachers aren't desirous of substance insomuch as they want an ability to fake it on pages where the margins and font are diligently set to their specifications.

Oh to have those youthful years back. As an adult, I understand the preciousness of time, and I sorely regret having wasted any of it simulating rather than gaining knowledge. The experience does inform a suspicion that if we stopped making the overlap between academic skills and life skills a self-fulfilling prophecy, they might overlap less than we imagine. Were that the case, perhaps high schools would rejigger their curriculum to more closely resemble what Alan is attempting: knowledge as something more than a metric to be measured by standardized tests, a means of admission to a selective college or a prerequisite for strategic advancement in the American job market.