a Brief Personal History of American High Schools, 1957-2018

In the late 1960s, near the peak of my own revolutionary romanticism, when many of my comrades thought that the American Empire would soon implode, I joined a Weatherman action called “a jailbreak.” Most of us were college graduates, but we regarded schools as institutions that turned students into obedient citizens, eager consumers and agents of empire.

Some of us in Weatherman found plenty of ammunition for our actions, and others like it, in Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society in which he wrote that schools are the “worse places for getting an education” and that “school is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.” With arguments like those, many of us thought that we didn’t have to think for ourselves.

Chuck Berry’s 1957 anti-school anthem “School Days” had already planted the seeds of defiance in her heads and our bodies: “Close up your books,/get out of your seat/ Down the halls and into the street/ Up to the corner and ’round the bend/ Right to the juke joint, you go in.”

With Chuck Berry’s lyrics rocking us out of the cold war mind-set, we began to believe that schools were dumb, streets were cool, and that the jukebox was a font of information and knowledge. Later, Pink Floyd added to our repertoire in lyrics like, “We don’t need no education,/we don’t need no thought control,” which borrowed from George Orwell’s 1984.

In the summer of 1969, before the Chicago protest called…

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