At some point in our lives we have all thought about (or perhaps actively denied) the traumas of middle school—those three years when so little actually happened, but we felt like we’d been through a civil war with our peers, our health teachers and ourselves. Many claim middle school is a crucial academic period, but all we seem to be able to remember about it is the lunchroom stressors and two-week-long relationships.
There was a time when junior high didn’t exist, when we transitioned directly from the simple, elegant days of playgrounds and lunch-crusted lips to those of football games and the back seats of cars. Not surprisingly, this system came to an end around the same time people believed Prohibition and excessive consumer spending on credit seemed like good ideas. Junior high began in the molten core of the United States, where the values of democracy, freedom and intellectual thought were melded together—Columbus, Ohio. The first junior high school, founded in 1909, was seen as a potential solution to the 93 percent drop out rate that plagued the tenth grade. Academic administrators figured all they had to do was set aside three years to get students interested in learning.
Little did they know that when you put 400 tigers in a small cage together, they rarely study harder. It quickly became obvious that middle school was possibly one of the worst ideas of all time. As early as 1916, R.M. Trynon wrote in The Elementary School Journal that serious reforms needed to be made to the junior high system. Before the concept of junior high had gotten significant public recognition, it was being heavily criticized by the experts.
However, in the spirit of American democracy, nothing was really done about the problem until 1963, when William Alexander gave a speech at Cornell University suggesting that students needed school years allotted to personal development and “exploratory experiences.” His message struck a chord with the parents of the 60’s, who were concerned with their children’s psychological health and well-being above all else. It was at this point that middle schools (as separate schools and not two year prep-schools) became dominant in American education. Yet the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveals that 4th graders’ achievement in math and reading increased twice as much from 1978 to 2008 as 8th graders’ did in the same time period.
So why did middle schools prevail? How could they continue to quarantine tweens and children riddled with puberty? How can the Association for Middle Level Education call the middle grades “the pride of the American education system?” Are we really that far up shit’s creek?
It’s because they aren’t exactly unsuccessful either. Middle schools occupy a peculiar space where exceptions to the rule dominate. The teachers, students and administrators each fuck it up, but the system is somehow still functional. This theory could carry some merit if all the middle school success stories didn’t take place in charter schools and alternative settings. According to Peter Meyer for Educationnext usually these schools seem to “eschew the tenets of middle schoolism,” by promoting greater academic focus instead of the deep, life-altering introspection middle schoolers are prone to.
Yet for all this grand f*ck-uppery in the middle school system, isn’t it possible that we need those three torturous years? Isn’t it necessary to get all of those cringe-worthy moments, the “dates” wracked with silence, and the questionable fashion choices out of our systems? Isn’t it sort of nice to do it all at once, together, in the same poorly lit setting of our pre-teen years? It’s entirely possible that we need middle school to tell us what not to do, regardless of its academic shortcomings. Middle school is the strange uncle that hugs for far too long on Thanksgiving and eats the food off our plates without asking, but then gives us 500 bucks as a graduation present. As much as we want to hate it, middle school allows us to enter high school not just with better clothes, but the ability to effectively navigate our precarious social lives.
-Alex Claxton ’16 & Isabel Monaghan ’16