Meaningless High School

by Bob Wallace

When I was in high school my life consisted mainly of four things: high school, family, partying, and science-fiction. The first two were close to meaningless, and the last two meant a lot. In fact, they were pretty much the focus of my high school life.

It took me years to figure out what the answer was to that puzzle of why the first two meant so little and the last two so much. I didn't have a bad family life. It was just that, like a lot of kids then and now, family just didn't mean that much (I'm sure I would have realized just how much it meant if I didn't have it). Finally, I realized the answer was pretty simple: it had to do with meaning. The first two had little meaning to me; the last two a great deal. Everything has to have meaning, or it's not really worth doing or having.

For the last few decades there has been a lot of controversy among many people about the break-up of families. They have a point, and it's an important one. But when families are intact, there is something else little noticed but very important. As Ortega y Gassett has written, "People do not live together merely to be together. They live together to do something together."

Because of the way American life has evolved (in large part due to the interference of the State), there was no place for most teenagers when I was growing up, in society or the family. It's no different today. Teenagers have been marginalized for a long time, including in the family, even if it's not purposely done. Lots of teenager's lives don't have much purpose or meaning, even in their families. There is no true sense of community. That, I realized, was one of the main problems.

About a year ago I was in Memphis, sitting in a mall on a Friday night with a woman I know, waiting for a movie to start. I watched the same kids circle the mall, widdershins. That's all they were doing. I especially remember two girls, dressed like Goths, who I saw four times as they circled, before we left for the movie. That was the meaning and purpose of a lot of their life for these teenage girls. Walking in circles around the mall on a Friday night.

A few months ago I was in Chicago, in another mall on Saturday morning. I saw the same behavior among teenagers I saw in Memphis.

It wasn't always like what I saw. The only book by Laura Ingalls Wilder I've read is Farmer Boy, which is about the life of Wilder's husband, Almanzo Wilder, when he was ten years old and growing up on a farm. I was surprised by his life, which wasn't all that long ago--in the 1860's.

Almanzo had a place and a purpose in the family, and an important one. The functioning of the farm was very much dependent on him, and Almanzo didn't mind at all. He enjoyed it a great deal. How many teenagers today can say the same? How many today just live with their families, but don't truly feel part of them? As for school--ugh.

There was something very interesting about Almanzo's life. He hated school passionately and apparently only attended a few months at the most in his entire life. Yet he grew up intelligent and well-read.

He also remembered nearly everything that happened to him when he was young. I remember little, mostly because I spent most of my time in school, and it was the same meaningless thing day after day. I couldn't tell one day from the other. I have few memories from between the ages of six and 11. I'm not the only one.

So, school, too, is a major part of the problem with teenagers today. Many have little purpose or meaning in their families, and even less in school. Unfortunately, to borrow a phrase from John Taylor Gatto, the purpose of government factory schools is indoctrination. That's why it puzzled me at first why family and school didn't mean that much to me. I especially had no place, or meaning, or purpose, in school. Indoctrination is not education, and it's always boring and never has any meaning.

Almanzo had an important place in the family, but no place in school. That's why he hated it. School meant nothing to him, and it bored him. It isn't any different today.

When I was in high school, we formed our own little communities. The same thing happens today. We called them "cliques" back then. To a degree I found it amusing even at the time. For one thing, in the one I belonged to, we all dressed exactly the same, from head to feet. It was the uniform for our community. More than anything else, what I remember from high school is the group I belonged to, and how we dressed.

The only acceptable shoes were Hush Puppies. I don't even know if they exist these days. Dark socks. White sweat socks? Ack! "Greasers" wore them. I didn't even know what the heck a greaser was. None of us did.

Pants? Blue jeans as long as they were Levi's. They had to have the welt down the outside, and be flares, which were sort of a modified bell-bottom. Shirts? I remember flannel shirts were okay in the winter, as long as they were worn with a blue peacoat. No button-up shirts, especially with short sleeves. Pure Nerdsville. No hats were acceptable, either. Long hair was an imperative. Mine was down in-between my shoulder blades.

Sound silly? Not really. It was the uniform of our community. It was part of the ritual. And without ritual, community and meaning, you'll get not much more than alienation.

As for the purpose and meaning of my group, there was exactly one: partying on the weekends. And I'll tell you what: I had a great time. I belonged to a true community, and all of us had a meaning and purpose. It was nothing that could last for life--partying never does--but for those few years, it was wonderful. When I told one of my friends stories of my teenage years he admitted years later he was envious of me, because his high-school years consisted of him and his best friend sitting in the basement eating popcorn and watching TV. While I was on an island with 500 people, partying around a bonfire.

The science fiction, I knew even at the time, gave me what is commonly called "a sense of wonder." I traveled from one end of the universe to the other, from the beginning of time to the end. It was amazing stuff--meaningful stuff, to me--and to this day I still read it. Even in jr. high and high school I knew it was a reaction against the boredom of both. I just drifted away in my imagination, which at the time was more vivid than life.

When the Harry Potter books came out, and I saw they were so popular that kids dressed like him, I understood why. Harry also had no place in his family. It wasn't even his real family. He was an outsider, an outcast. I think that's one of the reasons for the popularity of the books, because even many small kids realize they don't have any true place or meaning in their families. It wasn't until Harry went away to Hogwarts that he was given a place in his new family, and a meaning--in his case, a very important meaning.

Is it any wonder those books are so popular?

I've come to the conclusion there is no hope for the public schools. They bore kids, they destroy their imaginations, they give them no meaning or purpose. I'd shut them down on the spot if I could. How many kids like school? Almost none. Doesn't that tell people something?

Why in the world do we need 12 years of schooling anyway? What exactly does it take 12 years to learn? And that doesn't include college and graduate and post-graduate work. Is all of this necessary? It isn't a good thing, of that I am convinced.

I read an article several months ago about a rather strange man who lived in a cave with his 12-year-old daughter. He taught her out of a set of old encyclopedias. When the police finally found them, investigators said the daughter was "usually intelligent and knowledgeable."

I'm certainly not recommending living in a cave with your kid, only pointing out perhaps schools aren't only not necessary, maybe they are instead a obstacle to true education. Watch Ferris Bueller's Day Off sometime. It reminds me of a nightmare I sometimes have: it is the last day of high school, and for some horrible reason I won't graduate and have to go another year. It is the only nightmare I have repeatedly.

It'd be better if a lot of kids started as apprentices at 12 years old. I've known several people who just simply could not finish high school. All of them later became successful in their field. One friend who lived next door to me when we were in high school dropped out, and later became an airline pilot. None of them could find a place, a meaning and a purpose in schools they attended.

As for families, I do know one thing; the State is the cause of most of their problems. Interference by public schools, interference in the economy, destruction of neighborhoods and communities...all of these things are created and exacerbated by the State. Interference by the State takes away the meaning and purpose of people's lives, and tries to replace it with its meaning, which is generally bureaucracy, militarization, war and empire.

The State does a lot of bad things to people. Taking away a true meaning to their lives and replacing it with false one is one of the worst. Or, as Robert Nisbet put it in his The Quest for Community, "The conflict between the central power of the political State, and the whole set of functions and authorities contained in church, family, guild and local community has been, I believe, the main source of those dislocations of social structure and the uprootings of status which lie behind the problem of community in our age."

published at Endervidualism on  12/9/04

Bob Wallace has a degree in Journalism. Formerly a reporter and editor, now an author, Bob penned I Write What I See. Visit his Shameless Book Promotion Page and his Page Full o' Fun. He also blogs. Bob has previously written articles and essays which have been published by LewRockwell.com, The Libertarian Enterprise, Sierra Times, Strike-the-Root, and The Price of Liberty, in addition to Endervidualism.