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Let’s Abolish High School

Although that’s the title of his commentary in the current issue of Education Week, Robert Epstein is not completely ready to abandon the concept.

In researching a new book on adolescence, Epstein discovered that the status of young people in society has changed drastically in a relatively short and recent period of time.

Over the past century or so, we have, through a growing set of restrictions, artificially extended childhood by perhaps a decade or more, and we have also completely isolated young people from adults, severing the “child-adult continuum” that has existed throughout history.

That rapid evolution in place of children and childhood is, of course, reflected in our system of education.

Our educational institutions today are cursed by at least four fatal legacies of the Industrial Revolution–ideas that may have been helpful a century ago but have no place in today’s world.

First, although cars can be assembled on demand, it’s absurd to teach people when they’re not ready to learn. As the brilliant German educator Kurt Hahn (the founder of Outward Bound) said, teaching people who are aren’t ready is like “pouring and pouring into a jug and never looking to see whether the lid is off.”

Second, although mass education was exciting in the era that invented mass production, it does a great disservice to the vast majority of students. People have radically different learning styles and abilities, and effective learning–learning that benefits all students–is necessarily individualized and self-paced. This is the elephant in the classroom from which no teacher can hide.

Third, although it’s efficient to cram all apparently essential knowledge into the first two decades of life, the main thing we teach most students with this approach is to hate school. In today’s fast-paced world, education needs to be spread out over a lifetime, and the main thing we need to teach our young people is to love the process of learning.

Finally, whereas that first compulsory-education law in Massachusetts was competency-based, the system that grew in its wake requires all young people to attend school, no matter what they know. Even worse, the system provides no incentives for students to master material quickly, and few or no meaningful options for young people who do [to] leave school.

While computers and networks are still not educational magic wands, they are as Epstein notes “rapidly evolving tools” that will allow young people to learn at their own pace rather than on the educational assembly line in which they now participate (not always willingly).

It may not be time to get rid of high school, but it is way past time to radically rethink the structure, goals, and processes of what we call school.

education, childhood, robert epstein


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  1. Yes, yes, yes and yes. For many of our students, the idea of grades and classrooms of same grade students does not do them justice. We are at the point when we need to look at creating self-directed learners who will need to have someone assist them as they develop their understanding. I don’t think we need to abolish highschool but we do need to radically rethink how we they function and the role of the people inside the building. Great post!

  2. Stephanie

    Great post!

    I believe high school should be abolished, and a combined work skills/learning skills program should take its place.

    High school destroys an adolescent’s ability to function in adult society. We have to destroy that system that destroys our children.

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