Education or Isolation? Modern Rules in an Ancient Game

Education or Isolation? Modern Rules in an Ancient Game

Schools have made a strong impact on American youth, in good ways and bad. For boys, school has created a number of problems that can offset its positive aspects.

For a fascinating look at the history of education in America and its impact on teens, I highly recommend Thomas Hine’s book The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager. Hine paints a clear picture of the events and changes that have occurred in our educational philosophies, systems, and beliefs.

I also recommend John Taylor Gatto’s powerful Dumbing Us Down, which includes strong views gleaned from a career of teaching inner-city kids. Gatto was named New York City Teacher of the Year three times and received a similar designation from New York State, only to resign immediately afterward. His explanation for that move was that once everyone saw his techniques and theories on teaching, they’d probably have to fire him for his alternative approaches. His book is a fascinating look at the educational system from someone who had spectacular results with very difficult populations of kids.

The Traditional Public School System Backfiring for Some Teens

As an advocate for education and learning in general, it is not my intention to denigrate education, but instead to point out that many aspects of our educational systems do not work or are indeed backfiring from their original intentions. My own career has been filled with teens who don’t fit into the traditional public school system very well. Many of the teens I’ve worked with have been made to feel like failures for their performance in school, particularly those boys who are headed toward work in a trade, rather than to college.


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I’ve come to understand that the goal of “standardized” education is improbable if not impossible. Standardization is at odds with our diverse culture, and the standardized testing that the educational system adheres to continues to show us our cultural differences in spite of our efforts to get everyone to the same place at the same time. By forcing our youth to interact primarily with kids of the same age, we take away their access to diversity. Older boys won’t mentor younger boys, and younger boys won’t see the modeling of older youth. And this approach completely disregards the individual boy’s developmental stage.

America’s evolution into compulsory education goes back to our earliest years as settlers. Most of us are familiar with stories of the schoolhouse where all ages were engaged in one room, arguably the best school model around. Kids were taught basic skills on which they could build throughout their lives as needed or desired. This setting allowed for mentoring and rising to one’s personal best without having to wait for other students to catch up.

Schooling Then and Now: From Depression to Repression?

Education actually had a difficult time getting a foothold in America. The problem was that teens were actually considered irreplaceable at home or work, the result of a long history of contributing to society and the family. The role of teens in our society has gone from being indispensable for their contribution to the family’s daily existence to being irresponsible and out of place. Or, as Hine claims, “The principal reason high schools now enroll nearly all teenagers is that we can’t imagine what else they might do.”

During the Depression, jobs were scarce, and when the New Deal was implemented, it prioritized who got to work. Fathers with multiple children got the first shot at employment, and fathers who had fewer or one child were next on the list. They were followed by men with wives and finally single men, with male teens holding the last place for employment.

Adults quickly learned that something now needed to be done with these newly independent and uninvolved teens, so school was a convenient holding place for them. The separation of teen boys from mainstream work left them open to create their own culture, which we are all too familiar with today.

All-day school became the norm, and many changes were made to school systems and curricula that reflected a new focus on technology, an outgrowth of the war.

Are White-Collar Jobs More Important Than Blue-Collar?

Education or Isolation? Modern Rules in an Ancient GameSoon after World War II, our Western trend toward developing technology and the burgeoning of white-collar jobs prompted the belief that to succeed in life kids would need more education than ever. Hine quotes from an article written way back in 1934, in which the National Education Association asked,

“What are we to do with our youth up to the age of eighteen or twenty when our best technical engineers and industrial experts are agreed that they cannot be used in the industry or agriculture of the future?”

Suddenly, blue-collar work, so long the backbone of America, was considered old-fashioned in an increasingly technological society. Today that trend continues as we create devices and tools for doing blue-collar work, often costing thousands of workers their jobs.

We do vocational testing with my high-risk teens. What we have found year after year is that they will probably grow up to be trade people such as mechanics, carpenters, sheet-rock layers, bricklayers, truck drivers, and so on. What really bothers me is that they are usually taught in the educational system that this is not good enough.

Teens are encouraged and cajoled to finish high school, then to go to college and get a white-collar job that pays more and is easier on the body. While that may be good advice for many kids, blue-collar jobs are still the backbone of this culture, and I take offense that so many kids feel like failures because they are unable or unwilling to attend college.

I don’t know about you, but it makes little difference to me if the person who tunes up my car went to college, or if the guy fixing my roof or putting in new carpet completed college, or even high school for that matter — as long as he is good at what he does.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Park Street Press, an imprint of Inner Traditions Inc.
©2004, 2006 by Bret Stephenson. www.innertraditions.com


This article was adapted with permission from Chapter 6 of the book:

From Boys to Men: Spiritual Rites of Passage in an Indulgent Age
by Bret Stephenson.

From Boys to Men: Spiritual Rites of Passage in an Indulgent Age by Bret Stephenson.For tens of thousands of years all across the globe, societies have been coping with raising adolescents. Why is it then that native cultures never had the need for juvenile halls, residential treatment centers, mood-altering drugs, or boot camps? How did they avoid the high incidence of teen violence America is experiencing? In From Boys to Men, Bret Stephenson shows readers that older cultures didn’t magically avoid adolescence; instead they developed successful rituals and rites of passage for sculpting teen boys into healthy young men.

Click here for more info or to order this book on Amazon.


About the Author

Bret Stephenson, author of From Boys to Men: Spiritual Rites of Passage in an Indulgent AgeBRET STEPHENSON is a counselor of at-risk and high-risk adolescents and a men’s group facilitator. In addition to serving as executive director at Labyrinth Center, a nonprofit organization in South Lake Tahoe offering classes and workshops on adolescent issues for teens and adults, he is currently designing and implementing employment and entrepreneurial projects for teens. He has been a presenter and speaker at the United Nations World Peace Festival and the World Children’s Summit.

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