A call to radically rethink high school

Interview / Leon Botstein

A call to radically rethink high school

Leon Botstein shared the dazed horror of the rest of America when he first heard of the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., last month. "Littleton was as shocking to me as it was to anyone," says the president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Equally astounding, he adds, wasthe spate of copycat incidents that followed.

Yet for Dr. Botstein, the string of events was not as incomprehensible as it might have seemed to others. Two years ago, he wrote a book advocating the abolition of the American high school, calling it an obsolete institution and one that at best wastes the time of America's adolescents, and at worst actually harms them.

"When I wrote the book, well before Littleton, I wasn't thinking of kids being put physically at risk," says Botstein, reflecting on both his book and the events in Colorado over breakfast in New York last week. "I was worried about their being put at risk intellectually." But subsequent events have added a prophetic tone to his harsh critique of high school in "Jefferson's Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture" (Doubleday).

"The failure of American high schools may retard the progress of the best students," he wrote. "But the greatest damage is wreaked upon the average and lower-than-average student. They stay in school but they are bored. They can't concentrate. They gaze out of the window, dreaming about doing something else. They can't sit still. And they cannot divert the enormous energy they possess into something that makes them feel better about themselves."

The American high school, Botstein says, is "a very destructive environment."

Certainly, Botstein is not alone in questioning the value of the high school experience. But unlike many other critics, he doesn't hanker after the high schools of yesteryear, or argue that a lowering of academic standards is to blame for the failure of the institution.

"High school is a completely corrupt, outdated, oppressive atmosphere and experience," he insists. But that's nothing new, he argues. "It never worked very well." But he adds that a number of factors -earlier physical maturation, increasingly ill-prepared high school teachers, and the explosion of the information age -have deepened the crisis by rendering the American high school even more obsolete today than it was previously.

Botstein worries that the passion teens naturally express is suppressed rather than nurtured in high school. "We've got overripe young people confined in an artificial, age-segregated environment without sufficient employment or stimulation," he says. Adolescence is the time when students could and should be excited about and engaged by the arts, music, books, ideas, and meaningful work -and yet that's not happening. "We let most of our kids slip through our fingers," he says.

Graduate students earlier

Botstein suggests eliminating high school. Grades K to 6 would make up elementary school, secondary school would serve Grades 7 to 10, and the average age of graduation would be 16.

That happens to be the age at which Botstein himself graduated from New York City's High School of Music and Art in 1963. He then sailed through a bachelor's program at the University of Chicago, received two graduate degrees from Harvard, and at 23 became the youngest college president in the United States.

But to those who object that he was hardly the typical teen, Botstein responds by pointing to the growing number of students in this country participating in "bridge" programs that allow them to begin college classes before finishing high school. (Minnesota today leads the country with more than 7,000 bridge students, but 21 states have programs of their own.)

Botstein would like to see 16-year-olds begin four-year or community colleges, enter vocational training, or try their hands in the working world. The important thing, he says, is that they should be engaged in serious, meaningful activity that would be more connected both to real life and to adults of different ages than is the "sealed-off" world of high school.

The average adolescent, he says, is ready and hungry for such an experience.

After the Littleton shootings, Botstein held an open house at his home for Bard students to share thoughts and feelings about the event. What struck him most was how many had unhappy memories of high school. Many spoke of the viciousness of the clique system and the pain of feeling like an outsider.

Ironically, says Botstein, high school is "an upside-down cake." Later in life, he points out, the outsiders often become very successful and turn into leaders. The reason, he says, is that "the values of high school are the opposite of the values of life."

Change the emphasis

High school, he says , is a world where athletic prowess and good looks are generally valued above learning, even by faculty, and superficial standards determine success and popularity. It's a system he says favors a few and damages many.

"It's something everyone knows but no one wants to deal with," he insists. "Working with young children is very fun and cute. Everybody likes to talk about the Mozart effect, to give CDs to infants, but most adults don't want to work with adolescents." Focusing on early education at the expense of the teen years is like "building an eight-lane highway that leads to a dirt road," he says. "Puberty is actually a much more powerful time."

Certainly, Botstein agrees, the events at Columbine High School cannot be fully explained by any shortcomings of the high school system. "There was a convergence of factors which combined to produce what happened," he says.

But he hopes that the experience will serve as a red flag, and possibly an inducement to rethink high school in a very radical fashion. "The system is teetering," Botstein warns. "Let's try to fix it before it's too late, while there's still something left to build on."

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