High Schools and Declensionist Narratives

Years ago at a conference, I heard a paper about “declensionist narratives. “  Declensionist narratives are the stories we tell each other about how/why today is an even bigger mess than the past.  Since most people prefer complaining to praising, such narratives are quite common.  They include your uncle who talks about how kids were more obedient in the old days, newspaper reporters who claim that a new type of “super-predator” has emerged in the ghetto, and teachers who claim that today’s student are more defiant or stupid than those during the good ol’days.  Dodgers fans who claim that the team was never better than when it was in Brooklyn, and advocates of “The Greatest Generation” are also telling declensionist narratives about why things are worse today than in the past. Such narratives common with people who deal with society’s social problems, such as police officers, teachers, social workers, etc.  A good example of such declensionist narrative was written by a college instructor, “Professor X” is in the June 2008 Atlantic Monthly, called “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.”  Professor X complains that too many of the students in his community college English classes should not be there because they do not have basic writing skills.  To a certain extent, such narratives are important because they focus attention on real problems–which is better than ignoring things.  But such declensionist narratives can also lead us into a destructive swamp of cynicism.

The other problem with decenionist narratives is that in the long-run, few things have actually gotten worse, despite the complaining.  Life expectancy is up, illness is way down, average house sizes are up, diet has gotten so good that we worry about obesity and not starvation, and we travel more than ever.  The population is far more literate than it was decades ago, etc., etc., etc.  In the case of community colleges writing classes, part of the problem is that larger proportions of the population are attending them, and addressing the writing problems that Professor X describes.  This did not happen only sixty years ago when community colleges barely existed.

One of my personal favorite declensionist narratives is to complain about high schools.  My kids’ school in particular frustrates me. I often find it to be a bureaucratic nightmare always asking me to sign another waiver form for “liability reasons”, but unable to challenge my children intellectually.  I think that their p.e. classes are really stupid, as were mine decades ago.  My kids slept too much in school which always instead seems more focused on trivial matters like who is going with whom, sports, dances and those liability forms.  A favorite part of my declensionist narrative is about a ninth grade “computer” class where my daughter was given lessons in “keyboarding skills” she first developed in kindergarten. Not surprisingly, the kids instead played computer games, snuck into chatrooms, and wasted time on My Space. The only kid who ever did something original invented a computer game in which you could shoot a photo of his friend’s head while it bounced around the computer screen.  The kid was suspended for inciting violence, or some such thing  (I would have given him an award for breaking the tedium).  This was a crime, but the fact that my ninth grade daughter took a nap every morning in English (and still got an A) was somehow ok.

This happened in a school where test scores are substantially lower than schools with similar socio-demographics, the number AP classes declined last year, and in place of an emphasis on academics, there is that focus on dances, sports, and sexual abstinence lectures.  PE classes are as silly and lacking in content as they have always been—the only difference is that unlike in my day, they are now co-ed.

The implication is that, things were somehow better when I went high school back in the early 1970s, or at my dad’s school in the late 1940s.  But this is actually where my declensionist narrative starts to fall apart, because no matter how much I complain about my kids’ school today, J. F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento actually offered much less in the 1970s.  Indeed, my daughter may have slept through ninth grade English in 2006, but at least when I bothered to go, I slept through most of my high school career.
Academically, things at Kennedy were pretty weak.  I was regarded as ambitious because I took two years of college prep English, and three of math.  Typing, filmmaking, jewelry making, driver’s ed/health, print shop, p.e. were among the other classes rounding out my schedule.  And I still routinely left class at about noon.  Leaving school was fortunate, because I needed to avoid the bathrooms (as the teachers did), which were full of smoke and really mean guys who carried butterfly knives.  Suspendable offenses tended to involve real violence (not computer games), and I remember the riot police on campus during junior high school when there were fears of race riots.  As for my dad’s school in the 1940s…he told me tales of switchblades carried by the boys, and razor blades hidden in girls’ hair-dos.  In his day, he too was in the math fast track, which meant that he took geometry, a class that children routinely today often take in ninth grade.

Now, I write this not because I do not think that today’s high schools need reform.  They always do, and school teachers and administrators always need the challenges of students, parents, and a citizenry to be better.  My daughter may have slept in ninth grade, but I am grateful that her tenth grade teacher was a bit grouchy with her, and woke her up and still gave her her a B.  We also need to appreciate the achievements of the past, but, the more I watch the criticism of the schools, the more I become aware that reform efforts are trapped in an often cynical declensionist narrative that leaves little room for hope.  One of my favorite blogs on the web is “Bridging Differences” organized by two historians of school reform, Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch.  Better than most, they know that reform efforts have been with us for the last 100 years.  But, even with two such knowledgeable people, sometimes the dialog slips into a nostalgia for when children were obedient, standards rigorous, and teachers appreciated.  The problem of course is what is forgotten: a minority of children even graduated from high school until after 1940, racial segregation was legal in the 1960s, and society is now rising to the challenge of educating immigrant children, rather than pushing them into factory work at 14.

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