Cold again this morning. I started chores early for no good reason than I’d risen early, and it was nice to be outside on the leading edge of daylight, the sky turning shades of pink and blue above me. Yesterday’s snowfall had obscured our bootways, and every third or fourth step I’d land wrong, slide off the packed path, and sink to the thigh. Set down the hay bale, the slop bucket, the water pail, heave out my leg, pick up my load, walk, repeat.
Rebecca Solnit has a nice essay in the new issue of Harper’s, called “Abolish High School.” Here is some of what she writes:
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens, responsible for 4,600 deaths per year. Federal studies report that for every suicide there are at least a hundred attempts – nearly half a million a year. Eight percent of high school students have attempted to kill themselves, and 16 percent have considered trying. That’s a lot of people crying out for something to change.
We tend to think that adolescence is inherently ridden with angst, but much of the misery comes from the cruelty of one’s peers. Twenty-eight percent of public high school students and 21 percent of private school students report being bullied, and though inner-city kids are routinely portrayed in the press as menaces, the highest levels of bullying are reported among white kids and in nonurban areas. Victims of bullying are, according to a Yale study, somewhere between two and nine times more likely to attempt suicide. Why should children be confined to institutions in which these experiences are so common?
Solnit’s question is rhetorical, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer to it. Or many answers, probably, but for the sake of expedience, I’ll suggest only one: Because their parents can’t imagine something different. Part of the reason they can’t imagine something different is because they can’t afford to imagine something different. And partly, it’s because they’re afraid to imagine something different – in my experience, that fear is oriented primarily around their children’s social and economic prospects. In short, they worry that if they don’t send their kids to school, their kids will become outcasts with few prospects for gainful employment. Better to risk the bullying than the job prospects, and besides, at some point, kids have to learn that not everyone’s going to treat them nicely, don’t they?
But I also think many parents can’t imagine something different because they don’t know there’s something different to imagine. They are not aware there are other paths to walk. Because as Solnit also writes: High school is often considered a definitive American experience, in two senses: an experience that nearly everyone shares, and one that can define who you are, for better or worse, for the rest of your life. This is how the story of school has become so foundational; as adults, most of us have been defined by it, and we have come to depend on it to understand, at least in part, who we are.
Which begs the question: Who are we? Many things, of course. Far too many to list here. But among them, we are a culture that compels their children to be confined daily to a space where 28% of them are bullied. Furthermore, we are a society that comprises 4.6% of the world’s population, but consumes 80% of the world’s pain medication. Depending on age group and gender, nearly 25% of us take drugs to treat our depression.
When people read interviews with me and criticize what I have to say about education, I often wonder what they see in the institutionalized school system that is so worthy an alternative. Are they thinking of the 72% of children who aren’t bullied? I mean, hey, that’s a majority! Nice work. But what of the bullies themselves, if one can be so compassionate as to think of them? I’ve known a few bullies in my life; I even know one or two now. None of them seem very happy to me.
Or are they thinking of the economic opportunities they presume unschooled children won’t have? They are, or at least they say they are, and in a way, this makes me saddest of all, because it suggests that a child’s education should first and foremost be subservient to their economic interests.
Still, sometimes I wonder if the reasons stated for their opposition run even deeper. As Solnit writes, school has become a definitive part of the American experience. It is apple pie, it is Fourth of July, it is part and parcel of our faith that the story we’ve all grown up inside, the story we are all – to varying degrees and by varying levels of complicity -invested in is the right story.
As I went about chores this morning, stumbling and slipping along our well-worn boot packs, I was thinking about how our foot travel has mostly been limited to those prescribed paths for so long. And it occurred to me this morning how liberating it will feel to be able to walk where we please, as if, having been trapped in a labyrinth for all this time, we suddenly find ourselves at the exit.