Web Extra

What was high school for, anyway?

Splash teacher Alexander Elnabli, AB'10, tries to answer.

Alexander Elnabli, AB'10, reflects on his experience teaching What was high school for, anyway? “No prerequisites,” read the course description, “but confusion about what to do or where to go after high school is highly recommended.” Elnabli's class was part of the 2009 Splash, an annual series of high-school enrichment classes, organized and taught entirely by College undergrads.


Good questions

Since my senior year of high school, I have thought a lot about education, my education, and what it is all for. What is often lacking in our education is the opportunity to reflect critically on the experience itself. Students really want to know the answer. Whether you are from a well-to-do private high school like the one I went to, or an underserved urban school, I think kids (not to mention adults) are always trying to figure out the point of all of this forced labor—even if they like a lot of it.

The problem for me is that most people we encounter—including most teachers—also have no idea how to answer that question. It is a dangerous question. The answer we are most likely to get is: you need to go to college to get a good job to get money and secure your future, etc. That is true, but it is all we hear, and it is rather unsatisfying. If it were a good answer, then it would compel kids to care about education, and I'm skeptical that it does. Why would you find the willpower to submit yourself to what is often a mediocre school experience over following a path of your own making?

I wanted to design a class that exposed the question openly and honestly so that we might find alternative, personally meaningful reasons to appreciate education. If we don't develop an ability to think about what we are doing in the present for its own value, then how will we appreciate whatever it is we worked so hard for twenty years from now? The futures we aspire for will just become another present means to another future end. It's just all too tenuous and complicated.

But no simple answers

For all of that, though, the classes offered a different challenge from what I had expected. I taught two sections. In the first, I had only three students and in the second, only one student. I should have had more according to the roster, but they didn't show up.

(This is one of the problems we've had with Splash in its early years, but every year has seen much greater retention rates. I suspect that this upcoming Splash is not going to see those same low numbers.)

The three kids in my first section all loved school and were eager to go to college. One of them even had a vision of education that was about developing as a human being and citizen of a world community. I was expecting kids who did not care much for high school.

So I struggled to help them raise the question, because they already had so many answers they believed in, some of which I really believed in too. However, we found other really significant points of reflection. The best part of our discussion was an opportunity for each of the kids to probe the other about the school he/she was attending. We happened to have one low-income student from an impacted high school, a private Catholic school student, and one from a well-known public school. Their school experiences were notably different and eye opening for one another and me. My final point in the class was about taking on our education as an opportunity to foster our ability to engage with every present experience with a deep sensitivity to all of the possibilities of what it could mean and where it could send us. We tried to keep it as concrete as possible, and the kids' personal stories made that easy.

In my second section, I had one girl from a well-to-do private school up north. We ended up going to a cafe to talk instead of “doing the class.” She was college-bound and quite convinced of the importance of having a successful future, and also did lots of extracurricular volunteering and things. I would have liked to help her think more deeply about her rather pre-packaged life plan (very familiar to me from where I went to school and my socio-economic status), but I couldn't manage to find a way in.

At the end of the day, what I feel that I learned from Splash is that the most important and difficult task in teaching is to raise the problem for students. No matter what we learn, from history to science or math, if we don't realize that there is something missing for us, we won't have any desire to discover it. I take that as a pretty good principle for students and teachers alike.

Read more about Splash:

In Deep Water
Why is this class being taught by robots?

Spies, Hittites, Talk Like Barack
A short list of cool classes taught at the 2009 Splash.