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Posted February 17, 2003 

Leaving Traditional High School:
A Shelter From Contemporary Adolescent Culture?

“No school is values-free. Public as well as private education
has a view of the human being which is reflected in everything that is done.” ~
Betty Staley, Between Form and Freedom: A Practical Guide to the Teenage Years

By Wendy Simpson,
Bonners Ferry, Idaho

One of the things we often hear parents grieve over, as they make the decision to send their son or daughter to a program, is the loss of the traditional high school experience. For better or for worse, high school dances, football games, and prom night have become our commonly accepted cultural rites of passage. Most of us are conditioned to accept that our experiences in high school are an integral part of growing up in American culture. Yet few would disagree that our teenagers are crying out for far more meaning in their lives than we have invested in their current model of education. In some ways, high school has arrested the development of our young people, shielding them from the larger questions we face as individuals and society, keeping them in a suspended state of childhood. We have kept adolescents passive, rather than active, in a time of their lives of great vitality and potential.

In answering parent’s concerns about pulling their student out of a traditional high school to attend an emotional growth program, we must remind ourselves of one of the primary developmental tasks in the adolescent transition. That task, of course, is for adolescents to assess the experiences they have accumulated in life so far and forge an individual identity that is genuine; free from cultural and peer influences. This can be an overwhelming task as the adolescent learns to stand on his own two feet as a moral human being, and yet this work is the very foundation upon which we enter adulthood. It is for precisely this work, that earlier cultures separated their adolescents for a time, away from the distractions and expectations of the community, in order for them to experience rebirth as a new adult.

Because we live in such an affluent country, our children have not been required to work or participate in any of the more serious tasks of adulthood. Our adolescents often exist in a world of their own, outside of the moral, economic, spiritual, political and sometimes day-to-day concerns of the larger society. Teenagers have become their own sub-culture, reinforced by advertising, music and movies. Their separate world has its own rules and hierarchy, which has no authentic meaning or value outside of high school. At a time when most young people are intelligent enough, sophisticated enough, and technologically experienced enough to expand in many new directions, we have kept them in an environment of conformity and competition. Most teenagers have very little interaction, especially in personal relationships, with the adults around them. High schools are not necessarily to blame for this. Our culture and its values have changed tremendously in the last fifty years, but our methods for educating young people have not.

In a recent issue of the “Atlantic Monthly”, Ron Powers wrote a story about escalating teen violence in the state of Vermont. Powers concludes his article by urging us to make changes in the way we regard adolescents: 

The national task of recentering ourselves and our children will be enormous, and will require painful shifts in our expectations of expediency, personal gratification, and the unfettered accumulation of wealth. Children crave a sense of self-worth. The craving is answered most readily through a reintegration of our young into the immediate circles of family and community life. We must face the fact that having ceased to exploit children as laborers, we now exploit them as consumers. We must offer them useful functions, tailored to their evolving capacities. Closely allied to this goal is an expanded definition of “education” - one that ranges far beyond debates over public and private schools and how much to spend on them to embrace an ethic of sustained mentoring that extends from community to personal relationships.

When we look at the small window of opportunity through which we can assist adolescents in this transition, it is easy to see why high schools are failing and why leaving a traditional setting is not as risky as it seems: “The underlying concepts of education today are materialistic” writes Betty Staley in her book, Between Form and Freedom. “Messages in the environment call upon youngsters to get stoned, make lots of money, have a fancy car, attain power, feel good, and “make it” in the world. There are fewer voices in the environment telling them how to build relationships, how to care about other people, how to take responsibility.” If we are to assist students in finding out who they are, then an integral part of our job must be helping them to separate from the messages of their culture.

Finding Sanctuary: Two perspectives

Bonners Ferry Idaho, thirty miles from the Canadian border, is certainly off the beaten track, but for a small town we have a surprisingly diverse population. Nowhere is that diversity more apparent than in the education of the region’s children.

Along with a strong home schooling network, we are home to several programs (both small and large) for at risk adolescents, and a growing community of Mennonite families. Mennonite families only educate their children until the 8th grade; after that, both boys and girls are integrated into the daily routine of adults. Mennonite teenagers work in the community alongside adults in a variety of ways; on weekdays, one often sees students learning trades, and applying what they’ve learned in school to the tasks of daily life. By placing an adolescent alongside working adults, the adolescent reaches up into the adult world, rather than across, or perhaps down to the level of his peers. Whatever your beliefs are, it is a joy to see young men and women making a step towards, rather than away from, the world of adults.

The Mennonite way of life is meant as a sanctuary from the larger culture, and is some ways, so is an emotional growth boarding school. It is surprising to compare the similarities of the work we do in schools for at-risk youth with the Mennonite schools and way of life: both have created a strong culture independent of outside influences. Both have a strong adult presence with clearly defined expectations and roles. Both the Mennonite community and the schools for at-risk teens are based on the idea that hard work breeds character, and that meaning is formed in the quiet hours, away from the noisy world and one’s peers. Both shelter young people from the crass materialism, consumerism, and image conscious culture we live in. Both require young people to dress in simple, practical clothes free of commercial images. Another important aspect they have in common is the emphasis on self development and self awareness, rather than the strong identification with peers so often seen at this age.

Both also believe that hard work and responsibility solves many of the insecurities, moods, and questions that plague adolescents. This is almost like saying that adolescent angst is the luxury of an affluent society. They also feel that hard work brings true self esteem and a way to earn one’s place in the world. While adolescence certainly brings its own particular trials and tribulations, we have watched depressed and angry teens snap out of it when confronted with the “real work” of a wilderness trip: a hiking destination to be reached by sundown, firewood to cut and gather, food to be cooked over a fire. They “snap out of it” because they are needed, the task is real, and how well it is done has real and immediate results. These concepts are contrary to the tendencies of the larger society, where young people strive to embrace all of the supposed “perks” of adulthood, such as drinking, driving, and sex, with none of the responsibility.

In our experience, most adolescents are healthier emotionally, socially, and morally outside of school culture. When working or learning in situations outside of school culture, teenagers often ask questions or express enthusiasm about subjects they might not have been willing to show in the classroom. They were willing to look smart, rather than cool. Many small programs use in house academics of one kind or another to give their students haven from the negative aspects of peer culture. Their “breather” away from high school has almost miraculous healing qualities. Having this time away from their peers helps students renew or expand their interests and abilities and gives them a new foothold in the world; they relax into their true selves again. This is not possible in a classroom of thirty highly competitive, and anxious students, wondering where they fit on the popularity scale.

“The alienation we are experiencing stems from a lack of meaning in our culture . . . a society can only go for so long serving its young people stones instead of bread before they strike out in defiance or anger or withdraw into passivity” implores Betty Staley. Changing this situation is indeed enormous work for our entire culture. But in the meantime, more meaningful rites of passage are available every day to students fortunate enough to be attending emotional growth schools all over the country. It is a tribute to the courage of their parents, that they support their children’s departure from the mainstream of culture to find out who they truly are.

PO Box 1671 | Bonners Ferry, ID 83805 | 208-267-5550
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