Friday, August 13, 2010

Culture: Life as High School

TORONTO, ONTARIO - For reasons that were apparently so ethereal that I not only don't remember them, but can't seem to re-create them, a rash of radio talk shows about a month ago brought up the topic of life as an extension of high school. Some had quite a bit of fun with the idea, putting well-known radio personalities from their stations in stereotypical high school roles. Regular readers of this blog will probably not be surprised to find out that I argue that this concept is absurd, that life is not particularly like high school. However, I suspect many will be surprised at my reasoning--high school is in many ways a better place than the "real world" because of the sense of community there.

For all of the ills of high school school, there is a certain camaraderie amongst its disparate students. Cliques may not associate with one another on a regular basis, but faced with the prospect of associating with a hated clique from their own school or one from a sports rival school, the choice is easy. Sports have a nice unifying impact, as everyone agrees to cheer on their mascot and not somebody else's mascot.

There's plenty of other things to unify around. Displeasure with authority figures, whether an individual teacher or district policies implemented by the principal, create ample opportunities to create community. It's not all negative, either, as at the high-school level there are plenty of student-run events to look forward to and bring people together. Some will be left out, whether on purpose or by accident, but it's rare for that to result in genuine backlash. The popular people in high school tend to be the ones that cross various groups and bring them together; it's those coalitions that create support for getting elected to student government or the homecoming court. The real villains, when they exist, usually manage to get themselves expelled and don't remain around for long.

Contrast that with general society. While major league sports can have a powerful unifying influence, one rarely knows any of the players, so the effect is not nearly as deep emotionally. Furthermore there's no student pass to attend the games, so sports exacerbate economic divides rather than cut through them. While some get mileage out of railing against government, in republican forms of government, the people elect the government, so that is almost by definition a minority proposition in the long term.

Furthermore, while politicians certainly try to build coalitions in broader society, often the most effective campaign technique in the United States is to try to divide people and energize them in opposition to something to get them to vote. This has resulted in a fragmented society where people are taught to be afraid or at least antagonistic of the "other" and thus broad communities encompassing more than a slight majority are almost non-existent.

Perhaps I'm kind to the high school environment because I went to school with a group of people that even at the time, for as much as I hated to be there and never expressed this thought at the time, were recognizable as a fundamentally pretty decent group. I had a hard time arguing with the choices we made for student government or homecoming events; I might never be able to be them, but they were class acts who were going to do the roles well. The number of true jerks was remarkably low, and some of them were indeed removed way before graduation. There was a sense of community and quite a lot of general interpersonal respect all around the building.

So, no, life in society at large is not like that in high school--it's worse. It lacks broad communities and it lacks unifying tendencies. If I had read this article in high school, I would have found that prospect very depressing.

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