The other day, I received a request (to which I agreed, of course) to attend the high school graduation of a neighbor. There is a lot of that going around this month. Actually, June has no monopoly on graduation ceremonies. We attend so many schools, classes, and supplementary training sessions these days that some of us are always graduating from something. We receive diplomas from preschool, college, vocational school classes, and rehab. (I’m not suggesting a necessary life arc there.) They are delivered throughout the year, but June is the month for the most noteworthy ones, and high school diplomas remain the most noteworthy of all.
Once upon a not-so-very-long-ago time, high school graduation marked the transition to adulthood. Biologically and legally it still pretty much does – though the law for 18-21s has grown more muddled lately in the US. Socially, it doesn’t so much anymore. We commonly call 21-year-old college students “kids.” 19-year-old newlyweds shock us, and their families almost surely tried to talk them out of it. Outside of the military, few 18-21s are fully self-supporting. For all that, high school attendance and high school graduation are fundamental rites of passage.
As a central cultural experience, high school is scarcely a century old. Before 1880, only small numbers of privileged offspring attended high school (aka secondary school), and nearly all of those schools were private. Public high schools sprang up alongside the private ones in the next two decades, but even by 1900 only 6% of American teenagers graduated from any of them. None of my grandparents, all born within a few years of 1900, went further than the 8th grade, which was normal for their generation. The big change came 1910-1920. By the 1920s, high school was the majority experience of teenagers with attendance enforced by law. Today, nine decades later, almost everyone attends high school and nearly 90% of Americans finish.
By throwing 13-19-year-olds together en masse, high school arguably created “teenagers” as a distinct subculture. High school became the time of the Vision Quest. It is the place where and when most of us define who we are – and there ever after remains a part of us who is 16-years-old and waiting impatiently for the 3 o’clock bus.
For all the vast amounts of taxpayer money spent on it, what high school doesn’t do (except for a quite small minority of students) is impart much of academic value. Unorthodox private schools such as Sudbury, which has no curriculum or grades (teachers and educational resources are available for anyone who chooses to use them, but students can play baseball all day if they wish), confound traditional educators by turning out graduates who do as well on SATs and in college as graduates of public schools. The force-fed fare of traditional schools exits the minds of most students immediately after final exams. Few people retain skills after 12th grade that are one whit beyond what they had in 8th grade; in future careers, most rely on those 8th grade skills and on whatever subsequent college or vocational training relates specifically to their jobs. If you’ve ever watched adult professionals struggle on an episode of Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?, you know I am being generous with “8th grade” skills. True polymaths are rare in the world, and they probably would have sought out broad knowledge on their own anyway.
This is not to say there is no value at all to the boot camp for life that is high school. The hierarchies and social stresses we encounter there really do parallel those in the adult world. Classroom politics and office politics are much the same. For this reason at least, the diploma stands for something. I will applaud when my neighbor receives hers