This is one of the few communities in America where a teen-ager who is asked what his father does for a living replies, "He designs bombs."
Los Alamos is no ordinary place for kids to grow up. Its first citizens were geniuses, the men who built the atomic bomb. Today, nestled in spendid isolation among the mesas and canyons, it is an enclave of American science's best and brightest, a place of concentrated brainpower and advanced degrees. When youngsters go off to school in the morning, a lot of the grown-ups go off to solve the problems of nuclear fusion, cancer and new weapons systems. g
Fron the perspective of academic grades and test scores, these conditions have produced some striking educational results. Students who might be at the top of their class elsewhere turn out only average at Los Alamos High. Nearly one out of 10 of last year's seniors was a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist -- an honor bestowed only on students whose test scores were in the top one-half percent in the state. To place in the top tenth of their class academicaly, youngsters have to score in the top 2 percent on national tests. As an example of the superior intellect of Los Alamos students, school officials cite an undergraduate who ranked 321st in an earlier class but scored in the top 1 percent on a national test.
In this year's senior class, there is a strong correlation between advanced parental degrees and the highest test scores. About one out of four of the community's 6,648 families boasts a doctorate degree. But 10 of the 12 new National Merit semifinalist have a mother or father with a PhD, and the fathers of the other two have master's degrees in physics.
These facts are grist for a longstanding and often bitter debate about the impact of genes, family background and environment on the educational success of young American. Academic achievement is one road to status and economic security in U.S. society. But if heredity and social background determine educational success for most people, what difference do schools make? Or are schools in fact the crucial factor that one compensate -- at least to some degree -- for the genetic roll of the dice and a disadvantaged childhood? And what of difficult-to-measure qualities such as determination, creativity, good judgment, courage and leadership? Are these any less important than test scores and academic grades in deciding who eventually gets ahead?
In the 1960s and 1970s social analysts who stressed the importance of genes in the success equation came under sharp attack from liberals, women and minorities. At the same time, sociologists such Harvard's Christopher Jencks argued that the roots of inequality were to be found in the unequal conditions in which children grow up. Jencks and others questioned whether merely improving the schools would make a difference in the absence of a broad redistribution of income and wealth in the society.
At the outset of the 1980s, however, the outlines of this debate have become more blurred as thinkers increasingly acknowledge that the determinants of success appear to be a complex mix of background, heredity, schooling and individual character.
"It certainly can't hurt to have the right parents," says Jencks in regard to the Los Alamos High case. "But you really can't say for sure whether these kids are smart because they have the right DNA or because their parents read to them a lot. If you were to say at a meeting of scholars that the variation between kids is due to heredity and the other half is due to environment you probably wouldn't get that much argument."
"Just as people inherit born structure and height they also inherit qualities [of intelligence]," says Harvard sociologist David Reisman. "But what they do they them and what the environment brings out is another matter. Beyond a certain threshold of intelligence are motivation and noncognitive qualities. Personally I look for the long-distance runner, or for the oboe player, for my classes."
Los Alamos High, for all the academic achievements of its students, reflects this mixed message about the educational importance of the right genes and the right environment. A look at this communtiy of 18,000 goes part way toward dispelling myths about heredity and environment being magic guarantors of success.
Los Alamos is a place where the daughter of one PhD is the star performer in her advanced physics class and also "likes to get up at 5 a.m. and watch conjunctions [of the stars]," But it is also a place where the son of another PhD says he plans to become a forest ranger. His dad, he adds, "thinks it's just great."
It is a community where some of the brightest kids meet one day a week after school to play war games on the computer and to challenge each other for mock power and influence in the game called Diplomacy, but where others slip away to the reservoir on Saturday night to smoke dope, drink beer and neck. And it is one in which the most studious kids are nicknamed "coneheads," after the anxiety-ridden superintellects in the television show "Saturday Night Live."
An indeterminate number of kids simply reject the pressure and the values of academic excellence and go off to find themselves or do their own thing. One of last year's National Merit semifinalists, suspended after a bout with drugs, is now working at a steady job in Albuquerque and not sure if he will go on to college. Another recent National Merit student, described by one of his former teachers as "brillant," was also suspended for disciplinary reasons. Before that he was writing a novel that the teacher said had the flare and style of "Catcher in the Rye." Now, according to another teacher, he is working as a disc jockey in Las Vegas.
Los Alamos is in some respects a typical high school community, considerably different from the outsider's stereotype of a sanctuary for mad scientists and serious, book-loving offspring. It is a white middle class bastion, and has its share of alcoholism and other afflictions of modern life. But isolation also seems to strengthen the ties of family and church. Even before the snow has arrived on the mountain peaks, families gathering at McDonald's were planning winter skiing trips and mothers were worrying whether the children could get by on last year's ski boots.
Yet beyond the Main Street, U.S.A., veneer of church steeples and golden arches, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory -- known here simply as "The Lab" -- has a pervasive influence over everything in the community, including the education of the youth.
"There are 12 to 16 years of post-secondary schooling sitting around the family dinner table in the evening. When you have that and then the travel that goes with it, some of it rubs off. The psychologists are telling us that it has an impact," says P. H. Barck, coordinator of the school system's research and evaluation division.
Pat Mendius, a Los Alamos High English teacher whose husband does not work at the laboratory, credits the school with nudging her three daughters toward academic and professional careers. "If we'd stayed in Farmington [in northwest New Mexico], the girls might have ended up as cheerleaders and married the local druggist. Here they saw role models and options for women," she says.
There is no doubt that the environment is conducive to academic learning. Los Alamos High, with its well-stocked library, its sports fields and grassy campus on which kids sprawl between classes, looks more like college than high school. Los Alamos has minuscule dropout rate and its discipline problems hark back to the 1950s, not the 1970s. A popular prank this year involves throwing playing cards to the ceiling to make them stick.
About three out of four seniors go on to college, a reflection of high parental expectations. Nationally the figure is only about two in four. In a small community inhabited by nearly 1,500 scientific PhDs trained to appreciate measurable results, children feel under unusual pressure to get good grades and high test scores. "If your dad is a PhD and went to a top university you feel pretty bad if you get a 'C,'" said one girl. "If you don't do well you feel like dirt," said another.
Yet there is concern that, as at other public high schools, there is a "silent majority" of average students who are being shortchanged. "The kids in the middle are left out even here," says teacher Tim Burns. A lab official who sent three children through the school -- none of whom went on to college -- agrees with this assessment.
"There are certainly some very smart kids here, but I was surprised that a lot of them couldn't think," remarks Burns. "My God, how do you get kids to think?"
The long-term results of Los Alamos' competitive environment are difficult to measure. School officials say recent surveys of graduates show that one-third are still in universities five years after leaving Los Alamos. However, sociologist Jencks suggests that 10 years after graduation the differences between "coneheads" and their peers may not be so great.
"They're programmed now to get PhDs and become physicists, but in most fields only a handful will be able to do really significant work. If you're not in that calss, if you're not a [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, there's going to be a time of sorrow about that."
Some students, rejecting the values of the adult community, seem to know this intuitively.
"I've noticed that at some of the parties my dad gives for people from the Lab there are a lot of flakes there," said the son of a physicist.
When asked to outline their plans for the future, some students paint a surprisingly dull picture:
Q. Why are you here?
A. To get a diploma.
Q. Why do you want one?
A. To get into college.
Q. Why are you going to college?
A. To get a good job.
Q. Is that all?
A. Yeah. I might even get a PhD and come back here. Then it would start all over again. (wry smile)
Given the monumental work under way at Los Alamos, such a flat vision of the future seems somewhat startling. The Lab, after all, operates at the forward edge of the modern world. Its weapons development programs feel the smallest shift in the pace of the arms race. Its work on fusion power could literally save humanity from running out of energy. And its work on particle beam treatment of cancer tumors could save countless lives.
Yet the community is isolated and one teacher spoke of "the special innocence" of Los Alamos youth. Teachers say that students often have trouble adjusting to college life and that a surprising number of Los Alamos graduates ultimately return to the mountain.
The school does not offer any special class in current events and leaves this to regular social studies classes. And a good many students say they are not interested in current affairs.
The isolation also affects the community in more basic ways. A few weeks ago a group of parents complained vociferously when it was announced that homosexuals might be invited to explain their views to students in a new after-school class in human sexuality. "I start shaking when I think of the way homosexuality is being accepted," said one mother. The class is continuing, but only 11 youngsters in a school of 1,100 attended the last meeting.
"There's a strong belief in a structured, orderly universe here," says social studies teacher Betty Aiello. "And there's a feeling that maybe the world is falling apart morally because we haven't adhered to this order."
One sign of the disorder is the drug problem. While officials do not believe that teen-age drug abuse is any worse than elsewhere, it probably is such that "at least 10 percent of the kids have a serious drug problem," according to Pat Tillery, who helped set up a Parents in Action chapter in Los Alamos after her son, the National Merit semifinalist now in Albuquerque, became heavily involved.
In her view, teachers and administrators have not forced the community to face the extent of the problem, in part out of worry about lawsuits from Los Alamos parents, who she describes as "pretty fearsome."
Such problems are, of course, not unique to Los Alamos. Drugs, kids who don't seem to want to perform, parents who are worried and confused -- these are all part of the national scene.