Why are our high schools invisible?
By Jay Mathews,
Which better reflects who you are: your high school or your college?
For most Americans, the answer is high school. Half of us did not attend college. Many college graduates think, as I do, that our high schools are more in tune with our habits and tastes.
So why don’t we mention them? Why is it, in any detailed writing about a person, the college is often mentioned but the high school is not? The exceptions — like the San Diego Air and Space Museum identifying the Apollo 9 astronauts’ high schools (Western in D.C., Central Kalamazoo in Michigan and Manasquan in New Jersey) — are rare surprises.
High school defines us. It is an educational experience we nearly all share. Useful abilities, such as reading, writing, math and our own peculiar talents for the most part take root in high school, or don’t, to our sorrow. High school offers lessons in love, social dynamics, news and what we are most likely to enjoy in our adult lives, at work and play. Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, Calif., gave me more than my colleges, Occidental and Harvard.
High school dramas are staples of television and cinema. Far more people attend high school sporting events than those at colleges. High school teachers are far more likely to have an impact on the lives of students than college professors.
Yet we don’t act as if any of that high school stuff is important. In a lifetime of social gatherings, I cannot remember ever being asked where I went to high school. The college experiences, on the other hand, are frequently discussed.
I ask everyone where they went to high school. If you have been paying attention, you know this is an obsession of mine. I get odd looks. My wife sometimes feels the need to explain my fascination with high schools as a perverse by-product of my workaholism.
Why should my question be considered odd? If high school is vital to our lives and communities, why not talk about it?
Margaret Dunning, principal and chief strategy officer at Widmeyer Communications in the District, said not reporting people’s high schools may stem from the fact that “reporters are elitist; you all went to college.”
People are also more likely to know something about a stranger’s college than his or her high school, so it is the better conversational icebreaker. The big state universities have football and basketball teams covered often in the sports pages. Selective private colleges appear at the top of magazine ranking lists. Everyone knows their names.
The same cannot be said of even our most successful high schools. Consider the top 10 on the Washington Post’s High School Challenge rankings, based on participation in college-level tests. Do you know anything about the Science and Engineering Magnet and the School for the Talented and Gifted (both in Dallas)? Or Corbett Charter (Oregon), BASIS (Arizona), Stanton College Prep (Florida), Jefferson County IB (Alabama) and Suncoast Community High (Florida)? How about Signature (Indiana), the South Texas Academy of Medical Technology or City Honors (Buffalo)?
They are not famous. Before I started compiling that high school list 15 years ago, first for Newsweek and now for The Post, even I hadn’t heard of most of the top schools. The most famous — such as Bronx Science or Boston Latin or Andover or the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology — are rarely recognized outside of education circles.
That’s a shame. High schools are more important than colleges. We should talk about them more. In May, the 2012 version of my high school list will be published. U.S. News and Newsweek will have their own versions. Take a look.
If the publicists, bloggers, obit writers and celebrity journalists who write about interesting people would start mentioning their high schools, we might learn something about ourselves, and our country.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/jaymathews.