Five Lessons We Learn In High School That Set Us Up For Failure

For a while, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do my next blog post about.  There are, on any given day, a number of issues that are on my mind and in the news, and sometimes I have no idea how to decide on a topic, or how to choose the right words to explain the issue.  But then I tripped over an article about high school dress codes and slut-shaming, and remembered a previous post about the “boys will be boys” mentality, and it hit me: a lot of our problems become normalized in high school.  Middle school and high school represent periods of our lives during which norms are internalized; we are taught to fulfill certain social roles during our adolescence, and we carry those lessons with us throughout our lives.  For this reason, I have chosen to highlight certain norms that we are taught to internalize during our teen years, some of which have previously been touched upon, and some of which are brand new.  They are as follows:

1. Girls need to alter their wardrobes because their clothes are distracting for boys.

If you haven’t read the ThinkProgress piece, you should check it out, because the authors are absolutely right about the ways in which school dress codes normalize slut-shaming and police women’s bodies in a way that is fundamentally harmful.  The authors of the post argue that these dress codes are ultimately based on the idea that men cannot control themselves when distracted by women’s bodies, and for this reason women should have to cover up.  It conforms to the idea that women’s bodies need to be policed and controlled for the benefit of men-~-and unlike with rape culture, they can’t even couch this in terms of self-defense or prudence.  It really is just a matter of bodies being “distracting”.

I actually think the analysis needs to be taken a step further.  These dress codes set up a system by which female students are directly punished for what they wear and how they present their bodies.  In particular, for being at all sexual.  This is, first of all, a double standard, as these rules do not apply to men.  Second, this normalizes the idea that women can and should be punished for the ways in which they are dressed.  It says that it is totally acceptable for society to regulate the ways in which women present themselves, while not holding men to parallel standards.  

2. Boys will be boys…

This is potentially the worst lesson we teach in high school.  Why?  Because it reinforces the idea that hypermasculinity is normal, and because it says that men should not be held accountable for their actions, simply because they are men.  When we let men slide on things when they are young, we fail to teach them the personal responsibility that we need them to have internalized by the time they reach adulthood.

I’ll talk about the impact on women in the second, but let’s just consider for a moment the impact this has on male students.  Plenty of young men in high school are bullied by other male students, often because they don’t conform to these norms of hypermasculinity.  Hypermasculinity shuns homosexuality, academia, and affiliation with the arts~-~which is why every movie about high school ever has a nerd or a marching band student getting beaten up by the football team.  These are men who are getting hurt by the cult of hypermasculinity promoted by patriarchy, and the perpetrators of this kind of abuse are written off with “boys will be boys”.  Even when they are punished, the use of this excuse allows people to fail to internalize that there is truly a problem.  The reality is, we need to stop making excuses and start holding people accountable.

3. …and girls should just deal with it.

Here’s where I’ll speak briefly about the impact on girls.  I’ve actually already done a post on this, but I think it’s worth revisiting.  “Boys will be boys” tends to extend to everything from teasing in the hallways to excuses for a guy picking on a girl because “he likes her” to writing off young men sexually pressuring young women into things they may not want or may not be ready for.  The normalization of this sets women up to accept abuse later in life, whether its with a romantic/sexual partner or if it’s sexual harassment at work.  Parents and educators alike need to stop writing off male harassment of women as “boys being boys” and starting treating it as harassment.  Now.  Thank you.

4. Certain statuses mean the rules don’t apply, or don’t apply in quite the same ways.

I think this issue probably got blown wide open with Steubenville, but it’s worth mentioning again.  Schools have a tendency for cracking down on certain students and going easier on other students.  First, students who are written off as “problem students” tend to get harsher punishments than the so-called “good students”, even for the same offenses.  This may make sense if you buy that repeat offenders need harsher punishments because the initial punishment obviously wasn’t enough deterrent, but the fact is, it still makes these students feel more disenfranchised.  Second, certain groups-~-especially student athletes-~-tend to get preferential treatment, especially if the school has a good sports program.  This sends the wrong message, and Steubenville highlighted all of the reasons why this is a harmful message to allow students to internalize.  But even more, this makes it very difficult for students who are harassed or harmed by students in these categories to report problems-~-again, we saw this with the backlash against the victim in the Steubenville case, and it needs to change.

5. There is no good way to report a problem, and you cannot handle it yourself.

Speaking of reporting, I’ll leave you with this problem.  When a student reports bullying or harassment, they risk social backlash, especially if the student they are reporting is popular.  Because any attempt to retaliate on one’s own is subject to punishment by the school, this is also not an option.  My high school’s rule was that if you were hit-~-if you were beaten up-~-you were not allowed to hit back, because you would ALSO be suspended.  You had to wait, and tell the vice principal.  I can tell you right now, if someone were hitting me, I’d be shoving them away from me, and to heck with the suspension, but the reality is, this leaves many students with no good means of recourse.

Sometimes reporting problems in HS feels like this.

Now take that problem and use it to focus on the issue of sexual harassment.  When sexual harassment occurs in high schools, a girl has to hope that a) the school will take her seriously if she reports, which they may well not, because “boys will be boys” and “he probably just likes her”, and b) that the school will then do something, and c) that there won’t be substantial backlash, which there may well be, especially if she dresses in a way that could be seen as “provocative”, because then she was “leading him on” or “just asking for it”.

In this way, we embed and internalize the rhetoric and mentality behind victim blaming, slut shaming, and rape culture, and teach girls from an early age that if something goes wrong, it is their fault, and they are not going to be helped.  These are not acceptable lessons to be promoting in our schools, and it’s time to start re-examining what it is that kids are getting from their education-~-because more than algebra, more than European history, these are the lessons that stay with us for life, and these are the lessons that shape our society.  It’s time to ask if this is really what we want to be teaching.


~ by Randi Saunders on May 8, 2013.

One Response to “Five Lessons We Learn In High School That Set Us Up For Failure”

  1. I’m sort of confused by your first point. Are you making the argument that women should be allowed to wear whatever they want at a public school or that the dress codes should be more lenient? The distinction is important because if you support the latter, then you are implicitly accepting that it is okay for patriarchs like myself to control what women wear in school. Though, all your arguments and analysis seem to suggest that you think women should be allowed to come to school naked because fuck the patriarchy.

    Would you agree that a line has to be drawn somewhere and if so, where would you draw that line and why?

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