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Escaping The Teenage Wasteland

 “Adults should face the fact that they don't like adolescents,” wrote Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, shortly after the Columbine school shooting in 1999, “and that they have used high school to isolate the pubescent and hormonally active adolescent.” Botstein believes that, as a result of this “isolation,” high school has become an institution far too separated from the real world (in terms of social realities and responsibilities) to be useful in teaching students how to prepare for it. In essence, students waste away their time dealing with the “poor quality of recruitment and training for high school teachers” and navigating “the tyranny of peer groups” until, one day, isolation ends. Then they enter the “real world” of college or work, and discover they were ill prepared: “too many opportunities have been lost and too much time has been wasted.”

Botstein claims high school should end at 16, not 18. He has been instrumental in the creation of several “early colleges” that target high school sophomores and juniors. For those not inclined towards college, but rather towards vocational training, he proposes that “we might construct new kinds of institutions, each dedicated to one activity.”

Now, 17 years after Columbine, others have developed more flexible institutions that facilitate escape from “the tyranny of peer groups” and the “isolation” from the real world.

At Ukiah Independent Study Academy (UISA), an alternative K-12 school, students spend only an hour per week in school. In that hour, they meet one-on-one with their teacher, turn in and receive a week’s homework, and ask questions. Then, they teach themselves, or can choose courses either online or from the nearby college and high school to fulfill graduation requirements. If an hour a week isn’t enough, there are opportunities for additional tutoring, especially in math, but students are transferred out if they don’t have the self-motivation to complete their homework (five hours a week per class).

Those who want to learn skills through internships or work experience have access to all of the district high school’s internship opportunities through partial enrollment (although access can be limited) and can capitalize on UISA’s efforts help students find the niche internships or work experience they want. In addition, UISA students can take advantage of opportunities lost to traditional high-schoolers because of scheduling conflicts. “We had a student who was interested in beekeeping,” recalls Holly Rodgers, “and so was involved through a work environment in learning how to be a beekeeper.” Another, mentioned by Moises Gonzales, the secretary and registrar of UISA, is “working with his father in vineyard management.”

Elsewhere, one may find education in technical skills through a specialized high school curriculum. President Obama in his 2013 State of the Union Address pointed out that “Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges. So those German kids, they're ready for a job when they graduate high school.”

HowToGermany, a website designed to educate expatriates on life in Germany, breaks it down: “Although education is a function of the federal states, and there are differences from state to state, some generalizations are possible… From grades 1 through 4 children attend elementary school (Grundschule), where the subjects taught are the same for all. Then, after the 4th grade, they are separated according to their academic ability and the wishes of their families, and attend one of three different kinds of schools: Hauptschule, Realschule or Gymnasium.” Gymnasium is university-prep for the most academic students. Hauptschule has slower academic pacing with “vocational-oriented courses,” and prepares these students for “part-time enrollment in a vocational school combined with apprenticeship training until the age of 18.” Realschule is a mix of both.

In a May 2014 interview with USNews, the director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education at the University of Louisville spoke of German education positively: "The system works extraordinarily well. They have one of the lowest youth unemployment rates in the industrialized world, and going through an apprenticeship in no way prevents one from moving on to college." Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 2014 also reported encouraging data: “only 3% of adults attain a general upper secondary or post-secondary qualification as highest degree,” and “Germany has been more successful than most OECD countries in holding the line on unemployment during the economic crisis.” USNews also reported that, while the US has a youth unemployment rate of 16.2 percent and the EU an average of 23.9 percent, Germany shines at 7.7 percent.

Others have their doubts about the German system. Carly Berwick, writing for the Atlantic, explained: “Many of Germany’s 16 states, including Berlin and Saxony, recently decided to phase out the lowest-level secondary school (Hauptschule), in part because parents criticized the program as leading students directly to low-wage jobs.” Even so, all of the German states still feature some form of readily available vocational training as part of Realschule or comparable programs.

Here in the US, a similar, possibly German-inspired movement is developing. Perhaps the most famous school in the “practical skills” trend, the Brooklyn-based P-Tech, was acknowledged by President Obama in his 2013 state of the union address. As Obama noted, “students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate's degree in computers or engineering.” He described it as “a collaboration between New York Public Schools and City University of New York and IBM.”

According to the IBM Newsroom, schools designed like P-TECH are taking off in urban centers around the nation. In 2012, five started in Chicago, backed by IBM, Motorola, Verizon, and others, and since then the model has spread from Norwalk (Connecticut) to Australia.

Although Mendocino County is not home to any massive corporate employers, we do have a wealth of local businesses through which interested students may be able to learn valuable skills. The Mendocino County Human Resources Department has an Internship Program which advertises a wide variety of possible “categories,” from accounting to nursing and others.

Locally, the Anderson Valley Education Foundation connects high school students to local businesses (from farms to restaurants to small-engine repair shops) for internships.

While I never viewed my high school as a wasteland, I wanted to graduate after my junior year to get an early start on college, and by taking online college courses was able to get an expedited diploma through UISA. The graduation ceremony (UISA’s second) was a few months ago. I’ve been to several student graduations, but never one that emphasized each and every student’s individual choice and self-discipline as this one did, with teachers and students giving short speeches for each graduate. One of the volunteer student speakers commented on how nice it was that he wasn’t forced to meet his classmates until graduation; a tearful teacher described another student had used his time to take classes at the vocational college on auto-mechanics; student photography exhibits lined the walls. Some of the grads were planning on attending college. Others, working. A few had interest in military service.

The only constant was that all had set their own agendas and fashioned their work to their particular needs and desires. The freedom and independence these graduates celebrated is reminiscent of Pete Townshend’s lyrics about the happy farmer in a post-apocalyptic world — “Out here in the fields / I farm for my meals / I get my back into my living / I don’t need to fight / to prove I’m right / I don’t need to be forgiven” — from the song by The Who sometimes known by its chorus: “Teenage Wasteland.”

(John Ulysses Keevan-Lynch went to AV Elementary, is a former intern at the Anderson Valley Advertiser, and will be attending UCLA this fall.)


  1. Keith Bramstedt September 23, 2016

    Re: “Teenage Wasteland”… “I ‘farm’ for my meals”? Where did you get that? It’s I “fight” for my meals.

    • John Ulysses Keevan-Lynch September 28, 2016

      Re: Keith Bramstedt,
      Researching for my article, I became aware that there is some contention over the lyrics of The Who’s Baba O’Riley (also known as The Teenage Wasteland). Some sources say the lyrics are “I fight for my meals” (for example, Google Play: Music) while others claim “farm” (MusixMatch).
      But none of the possible sources for lyrics laid claims to hard evidence on Pete Townshend’s intentions, such as original sheet music or notes. When I listened to several versions available on youtube (Live In Kilburn, UK 1977 and Live in Hyde Park, 2015), Townshend seemed to distort his tone on that word, producing a sound more akin to “faw” or “fahr” than either fight or farm.
      Amidst this ambiguity, I decided to go with my best guess based on the context of the song. First, the juxtaposition of “I don’t need to fight” with “I fight for my meals” appeared awkward. Furthermore, the rest of the verse laid on praises of this simple, virtuous lifestyle, which is at odds with desperate, confrontational connotations I thought inherent in “fighting” for meals.
      So while neither “fight” nor “farm” distract from the overall theme of the quote, “farm” appeared to be the more likely intention, and was my choice.

  2. George Hollister September 24, 2016

    The problem with the current generation is not a failure of the education system, but a failure of parenting. Success in the work place starts with basics, largely missing, with those young folks currently looking for work. Being punctual, being committed, doing your best, doing what you are told, always trying to do better, getting along with your fellow workers, and being honest. These work skills are taught at home, and not in school. Without these basic work skills, workers are “unemployable”. And it does not matter what level of education the worker has. On the other hand, a worker with these basic work skills has more opportunity now than anytime I have seen in my lifetime, regardless of the level of education.

  3. George Hollister September 24, 2016

    I forgot to add to my list of work skills, being sober. Yea, don’t be drunk or high at work. Have your brain fully engaged.

  4. George Hollister September 24, 2016

    To some extent, in America, this has been been the case for a long time. Why did Crocker bring Chinese in to build the railroad? Because few else would consider doing the work. On the East side, it was Irish immigrants who did railroad building. Why did Chinese end up having lots of laundry businesses? Same answer. Why has agriculture been dependent on migrant workers? Same answer. Why is there a shortage of truck drivers? Why is there a shortage of workers in construction? Why do illegal immigrants find work so easily? Same answer, over and over. And it is not about the money, either. The money is there, but one has to get dirty, and tired, and sometimes do things that are dangerous.

    I remember one time I offered to give a neighbor with young children some toy trucks for the children to play with. The offer was rejected because the parent did not want the children to grow up wanting to do construction work. So playing in the dirt is a bad idea? Same can be said for factory work. How many parents hope their children will get a factory job? That is what makes no sense about the idea of bringing these jobs back to America. Who will take the work? Too many times welfare is an easier option. America is spoiled rotten. And that includes those who fit in the category of being “poor”.

    • Mark Scaramella September 24, 2016

      Actually, George, the Chinese basically brought themselves in. According to historian Stephen Ambrose in his excellent book about the construction of the transcontinental railroad, “Nothing Like It In The World,” a Chinese foreman suggested his Chinese countrymen for the difficult and dangerous explosives work because they had not only invented gunpowder but had much more experience with it than most Americans. Thousands of Chinese specialists set themselves the daunting task (which many Americans considered to be impossible) of sculpting the granite mountains of the Sierras and Rockies into railbeds with little instruction or supervision — as long as high quality Chinese food was supplied to the workers via the train from the west coast on a daily basis. Crocker paid the wages, but Crocker’s Superintendent Mr. James Strobridge, a mining engineer, made the arrangement with the Chinese and made himself famous for being an abusive taskmaster. Without Strobridge and the Chinese the railroad probably would not have been built. Much of the work was done by Chinese workers dangling from the tops of steep cliffs in boatswain’s baskets to drill and set the charges.

      • George Hollister September 25, 2016

        Good addition. What about the Irish workers East of the Rockies?

        • Mark Scaramella September 25, 2016

          The Irish didn’t have to deal with anywhere near the amount of explosives. Their challenge was booze, Indians, and the other ethnic groups that came together after the Civil War to lay tracks along the prairie. The creative financing of these two converging enterprises was a sight to behold and would make Enron jealous. Ambrose does a good job of describing it. A reasonably good dramatization of the construction of (parts of) the transcontinental railroad can be seen on AMC’s years-long series “Hell On Wheels” (the name they gave to the mobile collection of brothels, bars, and casinos that followed the tracks as they were put down).

      • BB Grace September 25, 2016

        Please pardon my butting in here Mr. Scaramella, but Professor Stephen Ambrose taught at University of New Orleans, confederate history, for which I admit a passion. Made my day. Thank you.

        I attended UNO in 1976, had a symester of confederate history; however, Prof. Ambrose was not my instructor.

  5. Hannah Catherine December 4, 2017

    This article is very well-written and highlights some faults in the current American education system. It is very enjoyable to read. As someone who is passionate about education reform, I strongly agree with the sentiments expressed in this article.

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