Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Awful Waste of "Senior Year"

Not, however, if you are at university.

The culture of the American high school is largely trickle-down from that of American universities' colleges, as seen in the ambiguity of the signifiers "freshman", "sophomore", "junior", and "senior", which in the United States can refer to either a year at university (the older usage) or in high school. The key linking event was the deliberations of the Committee of Ten in 1892, which was convened to establish coordinated curricula for American high schools, which were newly expanding from the late 19th century through the middle of the 20th, by which time the high school graduation rate had increased from under 10% to over 70% of the annual cohort. With university presidents such as Charles Elliot of Harvard in charge of this key committee, the only conception of the American high school was for college preparation; vocational training was never considered, since America usually had a labour shortage and young men (a woman's place was elsewhere) could pretty easily find work after finishing elementary school in the eighth grade, or joining the paid workforce even earlier.

But young people in their mid-teens are considerably less mature than those around 20, and while college students have been shown, in Making the Most of College and elsewhere, to be able to handle romantic relationships, sports, and work without their academic success being negatively affected, this is not true of younger teens, when these distractions, encouraged by the culture of the standard comprehensive high school, considerably detract from American students' academic performance, to the point where they have fallen significantly behind their foreign competitors by the end of high school.

Worst of all is the awful waste of senior year, when students, upon submitting their college applications, often drift from one mindless celebration (of what? future unemployment?) to the next, such as homecoming, the winter dance, senior ditch day, various dress-silly days, the prom, awards night, and graduation -- but what American young people are graduating to is increasingly unclear.

By contrast, I have been studying the culture of Terminale, the last year of secondary school in a French lycee. You won't find any of the above popular activities there; students must study for their baccalaureat, which, once passed, confers free admission to public universities in pursuit of three-year bachelor's degrees, with all expenses paid for by the state. The work is hard, with many practice tests, long hours, and regular studying; but the payoff is real, not some meaningless scroll, again imitating higher education, that prepares students for nothing but a letdown. And this serious use of the last year of secondary school is not particular to France; it is common throughout the developed world, where meaningful external examinations are prepared for at the end of secondary school, with significant consequences for the students, in comparison with America's current testing to grade the teachers. The malady "senioritis" is unheard of in any of these countries outside North America. Meanwhile, our seniors party away, as if they had something like a college diploma to celebrate; they don't, and even the latter is increasingly uncertain security in the face of global competition.

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