Our schools do not operate in a vacuum. Some of the catalysts for the lack of interest in schooling evident in many students fall outside the domain of our educational institutions. While addressing these concerns may not be the responsibility of public education, our schools can help to draw attention to, and increase awareness of, the effect of societal factors on students.
The percentage of high school students who work during the school year has increased dramatically in recent years. Some of them work because their families need the extra income, but in most cases they are working for “spending money,” to keep their wardrobe up-to-date, or to support a car. We live in a materialistic and consumption-oriented society. Billions of dollars are spent every year convincing us that we “need” things we don’t really need and that we need them right now, not at some point in the distant future. Furthermore, even the things we already own are considered to be “obsolete” the moment a newer version of the same product becomes available.
Teenagers are not immune to the effects of the barrage of advertising, much of it specifically directed at them, promoting the idea of having it all and having it now. Many teenagers are mortified at the thought of being forced to go to school in anything but the latest fashions. How can we expect a teenager to get by with a Nintendo 54, when a Sony Play Station offers superior graphics? And what good is a Play Station, once Play Station 2s are available? Every self-respecting teen wants his or her own car to drive and wants it to be nicer and newer than the cars the other kids at school are driving. After all, don’t we, as a society, compete with (and judge) each other on the basis of, the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the things we own, and the amount of money we earn? There was a time, a generation or two ago, when owning a new car and accumulating material possessions was typically deferred until one left school and began working full-time. That time has passed.
After World War II, to avoid having our economy lapse back into depression, we made a concerted effort to keep teenagers out of the job market. Keeping them in school longer helped to accomplish that goal. Now, while most parents and educators continue to encourage students to stay in school, some business owners are actively recruiting them to work during the school year. The fast-food industry, movie theaters, retail stores, and many other employers, rely on students working evenings and weekends. Students who work twenty or thirty hours per week (or more), while attending school full time, cannot possibly devote the amount of time and attention to schoolwork that is necessary to per- form at the level we claim to expect. Their lack of achievement in school often comes back to haunt them. Six or seven dollars an hour provides a lot of spending money for teens who are still living at home and not expected to contribute any of their wages to the family budget. Trying to live on that amount after you leave home is a completely different manner.
Play, as well as work, has contributed to a decline in the performance of students. School-age children and young adults today select from a cornucopia of entertainment options only recently available. Once upon a time there were three television networks dividing up the viewing day into programs designed to appeal to different age groups, with most of the programming aimed at children limited to a few hours each afternoon and Saturday mornings. Today, the number of channels seems to increase daily. Programming aimed at school-age viewers is available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and very little of it is educational. Playing video games, watching movies on videotape or DVDs, and listening to music on headphones, are also popular entertainment options. The Internet, which began as a research tool for universities, has evolved into a marketplace and a source of entertainment. Many school-age youngsters spend a considerable amount of time on-line. Little, if any, of that time is spent in educational activities.
An increase in recreational drug use has also contributed to the lackluster performance of some students. Smoking marijuana has been shown to have an adverse effect on memory. Altered states of consciousness typically impair the ability to concentrate. Drug use also affects the motivation to learn. Students who use drugs are less likely to attend school regularly or devote time to schoolwork outside of class. It is not merely a coincidence that scores on standardized tests began to decline at the very moment in our nation’s history when the use of marijuana and other mind-altering drugs became much more commonplace.
As a result of these enticing alternatives, most young people spend less time reading. People who don’t spend much time reading tend to be poor readers. Students who read poorly tend to have difficulty with schoolwork, since (despite our best efforts to accommodate “non-readers”) reading with comprehension is still the key to academic success. We are not likely to turn back the hands of time. On the other hand, our educational system, if it were operating more efficiently and providing students with a better education, could have a positive impact on our culture. We could help students consider the consequences of rampant material- ism, the use of mind-altering drugs, the over-valuation of being entertained, and the under-valuation of education.