School is Something You Put Up With
Illinois teens speak their minds in the 1970s
Illinois Journal of Education
Yes, Virginia—in the old days the State of Illinois’s public schools agency, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, published a sort-of academic journal. In 1972 I was enrolled a graduate student in Oral History at Sangamon State University in Springfield, the predecessor of today’s University of Illinois Springfield. I interviewed some remarkably articulate and astute local teenagers about their school experience, and edited their conversations into an article with comments by me. (No prizes for guessing that the “small middle-class city in Central Illinois” mentioned in the article is Springfield.)
“A friend of mine said that school made him feel unhuman, like he was a machine. I don't think that's right. You're not a machine, you're machine material. The school's the machine." —Robert, age 15
What follows is a portrait of four high school students from a small middle-class city in Central Illinois. It's a picture culled from a series of twenty conversations tape-recorded with students between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. Some of these kids hoped to go on to college, while some intended to find a job upon graduation. Some were good students and some were not so good—most considered themselves average. I found students who had given up on the schools, and some on whom the schools had given up; students who had mastered the game and those who, for one reason or another, had chosen not to play. What their words reveal about themselves is important, but what those words reveal about the schools they attend is perhaps even more important. Their experiences in the public schools were as varied as their backgrounds and their talents, but all of them, in their separate ways, chronicled a common confusion, anger, and disenchantment with schooling as a process and as an institution.
It would be hard to call the four young people whose stories appear below "typical." They tend to be more intelligent than the average, for one thing, and they are certainly more vocal in their criticisms than most of their contemporaries. The judgments here expressed, therefore, do not constitute a majority opinion, and I would be remiss if I did not stress that a great many students are perfectly happy with the education they're receiving from the public schools. But if students like David, John, Susan, and Robert are a minority, they are a sizable minority, and one that's growing. Their criticisms deserve attention.
The conversations quoted were taped in October and November of 1970. Students' responses have been reprinted intact except for some slight editing by the author to delete false starts, extraneous comments, etc. All names have been changed to protect the identity and reputation of persons named.
David and John
David and John were fifteen years old at the time of our interview. Close friends, they had attended public schools together for eight years, during which time they earned fair grades and reputations as troublemakers. Sons of professional men, both are of above-average intelligence and are currently enrolled in a private school.
David was the more conversationally aggressive of the two. He sat cross-legged on the floor, orchestrating his rapid-fire monologue with waving arms and jabbing fingers.
"The schools are too much prescribed things. Most educational things they have in the country are preparing you for something that's been the same for a long time. It's something you do—you go to public school, you go to high school, you go to college, and that's it. There's very little flexibility.
"We all managed to get by without doing much work at all. We were smart enough to just guess up the tests and get a 'B' average. All along they kept saying, 'You have the capabilities, but you just aren't using them,' so we'd say, 'Yeah, but I don't want to.'"
David struck me as being much older than his age. It wasn't that his actions and opinions were any more restrained (in the tired manner we call "adult") than those of his friends, but that his manner seemed so much more self-assured and certain. He went on:
"You see, we were the only friends us two had, 'cause the rest of the students thought we were absolutely insane. We wrote a theme in French one night, and although we didn't cheat on it, they came out exactly the same, almost word for word, and they, of course, took us down for cheating and we denied the whole thing, because we really didn't do it, you know. This guy'd put his arm around you and say, 'Now really, I want you to level with me on this,' and I'd say, 'Man, I really trust you,' cause you're my vice-principal, and you guys can't be all that bad, and I'm telling from deep down in my heart that I really didn't cheat,' and he'd say, 'Yeah, sure, kid.'
"The vice-principal is the hatchet man. This guy was really unbelievable. He'd come in there and grill you. And the kids'd sit there laughing af him, and he didn't know what to do. This one kid I know went up there to his office, and he says, 'All right, Mark, I'm afraid I'm going to have to give you swats'—which is a dishonest term for giving a beating—so he says, 'I'm going to give you two medium swats,' and he hits him twice with his big stick, and the kid starts laughing his head off, so he says, 'Those were soft.' But nobody was impressed."
It became obvious in the course of the interview that David's sarcasm was used chiefly to keep a hostile world at bay. As a weapon against the demands of arbitrary authority, sarcasm has great advantages, and David used it with telling effect. Still, his sarcasm seemed too brittle and contrived, and his outraqe a little too theatrical to be altogether real. I think he came closer to betraying his true feelings when he told me, “When you go to school you don't have any love in your heart at all.
“All you do is hate. You hate your parents because they jump on you for getting straight 'Cs'; you hate the teachers . . . well, because you just hate 'em; you hate the other students because they think you're crazy and you're not." John seemed not to be as troubled as David by his school experience. In fact, he seemed untroubled by much of anything, being constitutionally unable to take school or himself seriously enough to allow either to disturb his intellectual or emotional well-being. He had set the psychological limits of conflict, and like David retaliated with sarcasm when those limits were violated by adults. Unlike David's, however, John's sarcasm was kept from bitterness by an easy and natural sense of humor. He spoke in a slow, lazy style that came close to being a drawl. His voice cracked into squeaky laughter every time he made a particularly telling point. It is impossible to translate into print the tone of John's voice as he related the following anecdote. It was clear to me that he was struck more by the absurdity of his own predicament than by the stupidity of this particular instructor.
"The administrators were bad, but you could cope with them. The teachers were the worst. They would hand out these notes with the assignments for the week all written down. So this guy would start to lecture on this. I'm sitting in the front row, following him down the page. He says, 'Why aren't you taking notes?' I said, 'Everything you've said is right here on the page.' He then kicks me, and says, We take notes in this class.' " John didn't react with fear to administrators' attempts to bridle his spirit. He didn't fear them because, as he saw it, their blandishments and threats endangered nothing very vital. As he told me. "I would kiss ass, only I wouldn't do it as much as they wanted me to." John did what he had to do to honor his truce with the men who ran the school, since he wanted only to be left alone, but if they made demands which looked like intrusions upon his peace, he (like David) responded with the most devastating weapon in his arsenal—mockery.
David: "One thing that really got me was sex education. I got it from my parents as soon as I asked. In the public schools, you walk into class, and there you are, in the eighth grade, and they show you this film, and they focus in on this big statue of David, and no one's really impressed. The teacher's some schmuck who's got about twelve kids of his own, and everybody starts laughing, so he says, 'There'll be no laughing during this showing. . . .' " John: "They zero in on this statue and we all burst out into hysterics because it's so stupid, and he thinks we're laughing because we think it's dirty."
David: "We always got the chicken eggs, too."
John: "The teachers sit there and think we're laughing because we think it's dirty, but actually we're laughing because we know all about it."
David: "It's stupid. They just know it in the scientific terms, and we know it in the terms used out in the streets." John: "I'm sure they do, too, 'cause they grew up. . . ."
David: "They did?"
John: "No. Mr. S was probably born an adult. He was in Hitler's Youth Corps, and he was in the German Army when he was about five years old, and he used to dress up in one of those little uniforms and march around. . . ."
David: "My gym teacher was another one. He beat me once, completely nude, in front of the entire class. I was sittin' there without any clothes on, and he starts beatin' me because I didn't bring my shower shoes. He said he was worried that I might get athlete's foot. So he started hitting me. . . ."
John just smiled at me and shrugged his shoulders.
Susan is fourteen years old, the daughter of parents educated well beyond the graduate level. She's new in town and has attended high school here for a little more than a month. At times during the interview she spoke freely and at length about the subject at hand; at other times she withdrew, quietly staring at the floor or her hands while the discussion surrounded her. The kind of girl people call moody, or maybe shy.
"I just started at this high school, so I've been working very hard to try to make a good impression on everybody, so that later on, when I start doing terrible, they'll say, 'Well, at least she came into school anxious to learn.’” Susan's face is open and proud. It's appealing, too, but for reasons more profound than what older people nostalgically (and not too accurately) refer to as the innocence of adolescence.
"Another thing about public schools—I'm not joking or anything—is that they literally, really teach you how to fight against something, and how to organize yourself and other people, and how to get mad at people without sort of going to pieces. It really does. It shows you how to treat authority, 'cause it keeps you from getting the idea that authority is some big thing, because you realize how stupid it really is. And it gives you something to talk about with other people, because they all share the same shit.
"It's just a continuous program, like they planned it all out. They just harass you constantly; there's a whole network of people throughout the school whose job it is to harass you and give you dirty looks, and refuse to let you be different.
"When something good does happen, you know, you feel really good about it. . . ." What finally struck me most about Susan was her hands. They were quick and slender, and she used them not merely to punctuate her thoughts, but, it seemed, to mold them, to shape them more precisely to the image she found so difficult to convey with words alone.
"The way the school is put together is genius. They take the way your mind normally sorts things out, the way your mind works, and change it all around and give you a new basis for sorting things out, and everybody has to do it the same way. Everybody, all over the country. I've been thinking about that. You can't fight it. I think I'd rather just sort of keep it dormant. I go along with the whole thing usually—i fight against that all the time—but sometimes I let it come out in words or something, get really down-hearted. But usually I just let it go.”
She doodled while the rest of us talked; when the interview was over and she had left, I picked up the paper and looked at it. It was a passably professional picture of a marijuana leaf.
". . . then summertime comes and everything's beautiful and rosy. It's gorgeous to have three full months free. And they talk about being bored in the summer. It's crazy."
Robert is fifteen years old, a sophomore in the same school attended by David, John, and Susan. He is intelligent, sensitive beyond the maudlin concerns of adolescence, and admittedly confused about who he is. His father is an insurance company executive, his mother a housewife. As he sees it, his future is merely something that must inevitably happen—making plans is impossible, he says, because school has "messed up" his mind.
"I'm taking all the required courses this year—English, some form of science—I'm taking biology and algebra—and gym. I'm taking French, which isn't required, and that's it. The only thing I'm really interested in, that really excites me, is French; the rest of 'em are just . . . they're just shit courses.
"They're nothing. Like this biology course I'm taking. Everything's geared for the test, not for the individual's personal knowledge or his interest or his curiosity in that field. It's geared [to the test] because the teacher is there, this is what he's doing to get paid, and he wants to give us this material just as fast as he can, whether we get it or not, give you the test, and go on to something else. There's no consideration for the individual at all—none whatsoever.
"You just have to try to get through it. What I'm trying to do is put up with what they give you, just do the work and sit back and laugh at them. I'm told a lot of people do that, except the typical 'school'-type people. They make straight 'As' all the time, kiss all the asses put in front of them, and they don't worry about anything too much. But I haven't been able to do this. It's either laziness, or I get too sick of the school to do it, or whatever. I don't know."
Robert wants to quit school when he turns sixteen, but he's painfully aware of the consequences of dropping out. There are no good or bad choices for him; school is just something you have to put up with, like acne or a squeaky voice.
"School has completely destroyed my memory. I gets to the point now where I can't even remember things about school. I forget little things, like my books. It's just wrecked my memory totally. I don't know—it's messed up my mind. I can't think things out now. This might be a 'typical adolescent problem,' but I don't believe so, because I know where I stand on most things that I have a pretty good idea about, but since I've been in this school I can't. I can't even spell anymore. I've also developed a horrible stutter, and it really bugs me.
"They give you a time for English, and they give you a time for math, and they give you a time for biology—like they're separate things, and don't have anything to do with each other, like you'll never need them at the same time. I find myself going along with this after about a month in the system. 'Now it's time for English,' so I put myself in the mood for English. Then you go and get the math book and start thinking math—not what you could possibly use this for in the future or what this is helping you to do—just play the teacher's game and get out of there. Not how to learn it or remember it, just how can I cheat and get this over with. What's the easiest way? What's the least work I'll have to do?" These kids have a habit, when they speak in earnest, of leaning heavily on the word "really." It's almost as if they were making a conscious effort to transcend those habits of practiced deception they resort to at school, in order to assure their audience that, "yes, this thought, this experience, is really real to me."
"There's a few students, you can just sense that this is the only way they know how to live. They might not even have a mind of their own, they just need someone to tell them. If you can't or won't go along with what the school does to you, they won't have you in school; they'll flunk you out or something. It takes a super-bright kid with a lot of initiative to do it their way and yet learn it his, to go his own way yet still pass it their way. I guess you have to be put together with iron to take all this pressure to stay in it.
"Maybe when I get out I can readjust and come down, and get off whatever the schools puts you on, and just straighten myself out. Maybe I can know where I stand in the world and realize that I am human. . . ."
Note: These interviews are printed exactly as given to Mr. Krohe and have not been censored. ●
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