Cultural Heritage

High schools are strange places. In our formative years, we spend so much time in them that they become intertwined with our youth. It’s the setting for most of the the social, academic, physical, and cognative development that happens in the teen years. Many graduates are instantly nostalgic for high school, and schools have to have “visitor” policies to keep from being overrun by alumni returning home from college each Thanksgiving. In our minds, high school is a fond (or not so fond) memory of the past.

And yet the mission of school is almost entirely focused on the future. We want to develop life-long learners. We want to prepare students for college and career. We want to foster curiosity and discovery and collaboration and innovation. High school is about making sure our students are as prepared as possible for life after high school. We want our students to leave us, go out and conquer the world, and come back and tell us about it. But not too often.

My alma mater’s band, 20 years after I graduated.
Photo credit: Chris Gent on Flickr.

For students, high school is a static experience. The cultures, routines, and rituals were already established when they got there, and they continued after they left. For all time, they live in that place.

The class of 2001 was nearing graduation, and they had some extra money. That’s pretty rare, but they had done some extraordinary fundraising, and hadn’t spent as much as they anticipated, so they were heading into May with a healthy balance. The class officers approached the assistant principal. “We want to have a cookout.”

It took some convincing, but finally, they reached consensus. On the Friday before prom, the seniors would have a cookout behind the school during lunch periods. They collected a few propane grills from students’ houses, bought some burgers and dogs, played music and games, and had a little party. It was a big success.

The next year, the class of 2002 didn’t have any money, but they wanted to have a cookout too. So they collected a few dollars from everyone in a freewill offering, and they had their own senior cookout. For the class of 2003, the cookout was a tradition that had happened since the beginning of time. They didn’t remember not having one. The principal picked up the tab and the tradition was born. The senior cookout lasted fifteen years, through two more principals, until it died a natural death long after I had moved to a different building. That was four years ago. The current students at that school probably don’t even know that they ever happened.

When we go back to high school, we expect it to be like it was when we were there. It’s such an important setting in our memories that it can be disconcerting when things change. “Whoa! The lockers are RED now? That’s just WRONG!” “What do you MEAN Mrs. Harrison isn’t in room 209 anymore? Yes, I know she was sixty years old I was in school, and I’m in my extremely late 40s now, but it’s very inconsiderate of her to just up and retire like that.” God help the school that changes their colors from traditional gold to Vegas gold, or that re-draws the mascot to update the look and avoid infringing on a professional sports team’s trademark.

From the students’ perspective, high school is a snap shot. It’s a moment in time. The space and the institution and the people are all fixed in the past. The shared experience of the cultural tradition binds us together as a community. There’s something special about seeing YOUR high school marching band, even if they’re playing the same songs as every other high school marching band.

I think that’s why we struggle with schools changing. We fondly remember high school. Even if we didn’t like high school (and I didn’t), nostalgia plays cruel tricks on us. In hindsight, it wasn’t so bad. We want our children to have the same experiences we had. Or, maybe, we want them to have the same fond memories that we have. And we work to create them by trying to make high school today like high school was yesterday.

I read somewhere recently that schools do a really good job of preparing students for their parents’ generation. After the war, we focused on basic literacy, following directions, and industrial job skills. That was school for the baby boomers. But when they got into the world, those jobs were going away. So they had to adapt. The service economy took over, and school evolved to meet those needs. But when Generation X entered the job market, they found that the world needed knowledge workers. So they had to adapt. Now, schools are moving toward a focus on information abundance, critical thinking, and data-driven decision making. But at the same time, we’re trying to include some resilience to change. We need students to be able to adjust and adapt. They have to be flexible. They have to be learners. The best thing we can teach them is how to learn. Because we don’t really know what their future will look like.

I’ve said for years that public school is 1/3 academic preparation and 2/3 cultural tradition. I think we can do both, though. Those fond memories of high school that you have? They’re not about endless lectures or multiple choice tests or reading “modern” novels of long-dead authors who spoke to a generation long since retired. You don’t fondly remember the note cards from your research papers or the odd-numbered math problems at the end of each section that you spent so much time on. You remember the tradition of high school. You remember the cultural touch points that bind you to everyone else who attended that school. And your flavor of that tradition is just a little different, because maybe you had a senior cookout or a glow dance or it rained on homecoming or you spent half of your sophomore year learning from home.

So while our students are creating fond memories of their high school experience, let’s make some adjustments to the other third of school. Let’s make the learning part a little more memorable. We can give them some of the skills they’re going to need when they leave us. We can help them connect their learning to their world. We can foster innovation and creativity and problem solving. We can challenge them to solve difficult problems and work with one another, and share their ideas effectively. And we can help them learn how to learn, and love doing it. Because that’s the most important thing we can teach them.