— In high school, I only cared about Lady Gaga and appearing unapproachable. It made no difference to me the social consequences of Reaganomics or the chemical formula for chloroform, but I memorized class material to make a desirable grade.
This was expected of me, I was capable, and so I performed.
But the facts I learned in accordance with state standards bear little relevance to my current academic work. So my answer to the question, “Did high school prepare you for college?” is, simply, no.
That’s not to say the four years were useless, just that, in practice, the goals set by hopeful administrators were not entirely met.
Most of the work I completed for my classes at Northwestern High School were merely exercises in hand dexterity, much akin to washing dishes or preparing the monthly bills on a Sunday afternoon. I keyed numbers into a calculator, or translated French words with a dictionary.
Not only do these trials not stimulate any significant cognitive processes -- critical thinking allegedly being of utmost value to educators everywhere -- I saw no practical application for the information I begrudgingly choked down.
Let’s not kid ourselves; I’m currently a social science major writing essays about folk music and feminism, topics I might never “use” in a professional sense of the word. I am, however, learning skills that will translate into any career path I choose: interpersonal communication and construction of a convincing argument, for example.
This is an efficient use of my time, money and energy.
High school courses should build the skills college freshmen need most. Effective time management could have raised my grade in my freshman-level math course. We also need to be taught how to study; that might sound like someone asking if you know how to floss -- an unspoken routine -- but coming out of high school, I was not prepared to take an exam in which I must elaborate on course concepts through essay questions. I was not familiar with what it meant to truly comprehend class material.
Nonetheless, there were a few high school classes I benefit from today. The best teachers I had at Northwestern expected more than we students believed we could produce.
My earliest assignment in ninth-grade biology was a research paper longer than anything I had written prior. I executed a project that included months of documentation, experimentation and public speaking, none of which I thought I was capable at the time. My biology teacher, Patty Zeck, was the best at her job, and that’s not hyperbole. Her coursework reflected the difficulty of an average class at the collegiate level, as if that were the state standard. Perhaps it should be.
In 11th grade English, teacher Mary Zika began to draft the map I use in my writing today. I learned less obvious but no less important grammar concepts, such as use of a semicolon and the crucial art of word choice. For example, “tired words” like “bad” and “cold” will leave your reader feeling the same. In addition, she ignited a passion for the material she taught. Yes, I actually finished “The Scarlet Letter.”
These two women are examples of the most valuable lesson I learned in high school: find something you love to do, and do it the best you can. This is the key to job satisfaction.
An education is not fed by spoonful from adult to child. It’s collaborative; it encourages a balanced dialogue between teacher and student. This requires relentless engagement from all parties.
As a teenager, I could not be bothered with the kind of work that goes into fully taking advantage of the resources presented to me. We cannot expect high school students to “geek out” over subjects such as American history or chemistry, which is why I propose we leave them all with the skills they need to succeed in whatever college major they choose.
I recognize not all high school graduates attend college, and the technical programs currently available might be preparing students for their respective careers. I can only speak from my own experience. Our schools can be doing more to prepare college freshmen.
Your tax dollars, but more importantly your kids, deserve better.
Jack Kovaleski, a junior at Indiana University Bloomington and president of the Folklore and Ethnomusicology Student Association, is a 2011 graduate of Northwestern High School.