Rebecca Solnit (on the lie of “the best years”)

I don’t always read out-of-date stuff. In fact, Discerning Reader, the April 2015 issue of Harper’s magazine just found its way into my grocery cart. This issue has pieces on the basketball exploitation of young Africans, a climate change travelogue, and the cover story on the virtues of solitude. I was already sold when I saw reference to an editorial piece by Rebecca Solnit called “Abolish High School!”

Now, high school is where I have spent more time than in any other venue, five (yes, 5) years as a student and nearly another 25 as one of the dreaded Creachers. (English Lit and Writ, some French, a little Phys. Ed., and about half again that much time invested in extracurricular madness.) I believe in public education, though its limitations and squareness aren’t lost on me. I was eager to read Solnit on abolition, and while there’s some element of over-idealistic assaults on windmills, she’s thoughtful, sincere and a wonderful wordsmith.

Somehow, she avoided high school completely, and didn’t miss it a bit. Much of her argument proceeds from the inevitable peer-hazing that happens when a narrow age-range of people are processed within a semi-industrial system of “efficiency”. Solnit figures she’d have been a prime target for ridicule and isolation, and wonders why we so blandly accept this personality-warping pain as a necessary element of growing up. This writer is a long way from boxed-in thinking.

Towards the conclusion, Solnit treats the opposite effect: what about the high school winners? Do they really? She wonders “about people who were treated as demigods at seventeen and never recovered”, and tells of a doctor friend who was so innocuous a figure in his high school constellation that his former classmates seem “baffled” at how he outpaced them professionally, “as though the qualities that made them popular [in high school] should have effortlessly floated them through life.” She then asks this question:

“What happens to people who are taught to believe in a teenage greatness that is based on achievements unlikely to matter in later life?”

Big boobs. Sexing the greatest numbers of low-self-esteem girls. Football. Basketball. Booze intake. Brainless flouting of authority. Best prom dress. Coolest car. Most abundant facial hair. Pecking orders, the goal being to be first among chickens. Yup. She ain’t lyin’.

Rebecca Solnit (1961-) is a San Francisco writer and activist, the author of 15 books including Men Explain Things to Me and, most recently, Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas. She is a contributing editor at Harper’s. Her own site is


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *