High School's Adolescent Society (page 2)
Excerpt from: Teachers, Schools, and Society: A Brief Introduction to Education p. 89-93
Rock singer Frank Zappa said, "High school isn't a time and a place. It's a state of mind." Sociologist James Coleman says that high school is "the closest thing to a real social system that exists in our society, the closest thing to a closed social system." Sociologist Edgar Friedenberg points out that most high schools are so insular that they have their own mechanism for telling time — not by the clock but by periods, as in "I'll meet you for lunch after fourth period." Author Kurt Vonnegut says that "high school is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of." In his inaugural speech before Congress, President Gerald Ford confided, "I'm here to confess that in my first campaign for president—at my senior class at South High School—I headed the Progressive party ticket and I lost. Maybe that's why I became a Republican." More than forty years later, Gerald Ford still remembered high school. No matter where we go or who we become, we can never entirely run away from high school. It is an experience indelibly imprinted on our mind.
More than 13 million students arrive at twenty thousand public high schools every day. These schools run the gamut from decaying buildings plagued by vandalism and drugs to orderly, congenial places with educators who hold positive expectations and high standards for their students. They vary in size from fifty to five thousand students, who spend days divided into either six or seven 50-minute periods or perhaps fewer, longer blocks of time.
In his book Is There Life After High School? Ralph Keyes stirs up the pot of high school memories and draws a very lively picture of what life was like during that time and in that place and state of mind. In researching his book, he asked many people, both the famous and the obscure, about their high school experiences. He was amazed at the vividness and detail with which their memories came pouring out—particularly about the status system, that pattern of social reward and recognition that can be so intensely painful or exhilarating. High school was remembered as a caste system of "innies" and "outies," a minutely detailed social register in which one's popularity or lack of it was continually analyzed and contemplated. In The Adolescent Society, James Coleman notes that a high school "has little material reward to dispense, so that its system of reward is reflected almost directly in the distribution of status. Those who are popular hold the highest status."
In a major study conducted almost a quarter of a century after Coleman wrote The Adolescent Society, John Goodlad reached a similar conclusion; the junior and senior high school students he researched were preoccupied not with academics but, rather, with athletics, popularity, and physical appearance. Only 14 percent of the junior high and 7 percent of the senior high students said that "smart students were the most popular." Thirty-seven percent of the junior high students said that the "good-looking" students and 23 per-cent said the athletes were the most popular. (See Figure 3.3.) In senior high, 74 percent of the students said that the most popular kids were "good-looking" and "athletes."
When junior and senior high school students were asked to identify the one best thing about their school, they usually said, "My friends." Sports activities ranked second. "Nothing" ranked higher than "classes I'm taking" and "teachers." In some secondary schools, peer group interests bubbled so close to the surface that they actually pushed attention to academic subjects aside and almost took over the classroom. When asked to describe her school, one high school junior said,
The classes are okay, I guess. Most of the time I find them pretty boring, but then I suppose that's the way school classes are supposed to be. What I like most about the place is the chance to be with my friends. It's nice to he a part of a group. I don't mean one of the clubs or groups the school runs. They're for the grinds. But an informal group of your own friends is great.
Most informal groups are rigidly homogeneous, as becomes apparent in the seating arrangements of the secondary school cafeteria. A student in one high school described the cafeteria's social geography like this: "Behind you are the jocks; over on the side of the room are the greasers, and in front of you are the preppies—white preppies, black preppies, Chinese preppies, preppies of all kinds. The preppies are the in group this year; jocks of course are always in and greasers are always out."
Reprinted with the permission of McGraw-Hill Companies.
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