In the comments to Jason’s post on gay teen suicide, cruelty, and high school, R. Pointer posted a link (by way of David Friedman) to an old essay called “Why Nerds Are Unpopular.” The essay’s author, Paul Graham, posits that the typical high school is cruel because, functionally, it’s just a prison to keep kids in a building while their parents are away. I’m going to swipe from the end of the essay here, so go ahead and read the whole thing if you’re against essay spoilers:
“The real problem is the emptiness of school life. We won’t see solutions till adults realize that. . . . If life seems awful to kids, it’s neither because hormones are turning you all into monsters (as your parents believe), nor because life actually is awful (as you believe). It’s because the adults, who no longer have any economic use for you, have abandoned you to spend years cooped up together with nothing real to do. Any society of that type is awful to live in. You don’t have to look any further to explain why teenage kids are unhappy.”
Now, I think we’ve got to restrict this to a certain kind of large suburban school (does anyone here know anything about large rural schools?), but I think the point Graham makes about nothing in high school mattering is a good one. If we’re looking for ways for high schools not to be cruel, finding ways for students to do things where they’ll be valued for talents or virtues rather than ability to play the popularity game is a way to start. Actually, I would guess that any non-social-butterflies who remember high school fondly had some such group; for me, it was choir and cross-country, though in the latter pursuit it was my sunny demeanor and perseverance that helped the team rather than my actual running.
That’s the thing about life after high school: you’re either not locked up with people you don’t want to be locked up with, and if you are stuck with people you don’t like at work, at least “how good she is at her job” and “how well he works with other people” are things you judge with reference to an overarching goal. There’s no such recognized purpose in most high schools.