Why school? (interview with film critic Camille Paglia)(Interview) Ingrid Sischy.
Abstract: Paglia believes that the surge in school violence in the US can be correlated with the school system's suppression of masculinity and promotion of a sense of imprisonment. She strongly feels that schools have failed to address social issues that promote repression and apathy.
The massacre at Columbine High School in April - and the school shootings that have made headlines before and since - have focused the nation's attention on the state of our teens, in the frenzy to explain appetites for destruction, blame has been assigned far and wide: to popular culture, technology, absentee parents, negligent teachers. But what really is driving young people to violence? As part of our Interview special on teen culture old and new, we invited critic Camille Paglia to wrap her mind around today's high school experience.
INGRID SISCHY: Why do you think American suburban high schools have become such apocalyptic places?
CAMILLE PAGLIA: I have serious questions about whether public school education as we know it is helping people or twisting their psyches. It's an unnatural construct, and it's a relatively recent development in the history of the world. It's a cage for all kinds of natural hormonal energies that cannot get expressed, and I think the whole system should be smashed and we should begin over again. The explosions of violence that we've been seeing are occurring mainly in suburban schools because they are a world unto themselves. They don't have the reality of an urban environment nor its multiple types of people with different interests. In suburban and rural environments, the school has taken on way too much importance in young people's lives. It has become the ultimate symbol of a reality that you want to destroy if you can't get it to work your way.
People keep saying video games and movies caused the violence. It's absolutely the reverse. Part of the attraction young people have to violent video games is simply a reaction to their imprisoning school system and their namby-pamby suburban environments, which are completely homogenized from coast to coast. Video games are the only things that give young people a sensory experience. These young people are longing for something, and their entire world is that of popular culture and media. I'm not saying that's terrible. But for kids in these banal environments, popular culture has become this hallucinatory, atomized freak show. They live in a freak show in their minds. And the harsher and wilder the video games or the speed metal music, the more inspired the young people feel, because there's nothing else in the cultural environment to inspire them.
It used to be there were spiritual messages coming from popular music. The message my generation was getting from the music and the great foreign films of the '60s was about something bigger than the suburban nothingness of postwar American culture. The music of Jimi Hendrix or the Stones was all about connecting with something greater than yourself, and that sense is gone now. So I really understand this impulse toward the drama of guns and bomb threats. Because what else do young people have to look forward to? A great job? Public service?
When I think back to when I grew up, in the late '50s and early '60s, I realize I felt like a prisoner myself. I felt the same warehousing that I see these young people suffering from now. I've often said The Twilight Zone was the ultimate statement about that era because it showed the nice orderly surface of life being disrupted by subterranean, occult, or demonic forces. Only when I became an adult did I realize that our parents had been repressing the horrors of reality, trying to give us a better life than the ones they had. They lived through the Depression, World War II, the atom bomb, and they wanted to keep this elemental reality away from us. But it was still there: Everyone I knew had parents with some experience of war.
But these young people today have nothing. Nothing has happened to them in their lives. And when you have a situation like this, one of blankness and anomie and apathy, you get a recipe for the rise of fascism. Young men like the murderers at Columbine are drawn to Hitler because he had a mission. A huge, panoramic vision like Hitler's is attractive to them; it gives them some sense of what it is to be a man. But look at Hitler. Look at the Nazi leaders. They were mutants. None of them was a specimen of masculinity. But they were in love with the cult of manhood. And whenever there's a humiliation of men - as Germany suffered after World War I - you get this longing for the phallic, rigid, ejaculatory, gun-toting warrior.
So one of the biggest problems is that there has been a suppression of the masculine in our culture, and not just because feminism has been questioning it, but because there is no room in our service-sector economy for anything genuinely masculine. Now men and women do exactly the same kind of work; they are interchangeable in the office. You have to be like everybody else, and the training starts early. By sitting still in school you learn how to sit still in the office. Everything is repression, bringing you down, taking the rough edges off. Making sure you fit into that little square hole. We've been saying to young men who are at their hormonal height: "Sit in that chair. And if you can't sit perfectly still for an hour and a half, then there's something wrong with you." Ordinary, healthy male energy is treated as something that needs to be reformed, so there's all this massive doping with Ritalin. People say tobacco and alcohol are bad, but Ritalin is fine! I say, give them tobacco, give them liquor. These things are life enhancing, creativity enhancing. Great art has been created with both tobacco and liquor. But what we've got instead is widespread use of prescription chemicals. Shouldn't it tell us something that we need massive amounts of Ritalin to keep the kids in class?
When we look at history, it appears - alas - the only things that make men manly are encounters with war or with nature, situations where men can do things women can't. But in America young people have no sense of having to fight a war or to fight the elements. Young people in the suburbs have no sense of the enormity, the sublimity of nature. And no honor is paid to nature, except by the environmental movement, which treats nature like a victim. So the attraction young men have to guns is like a desperate longing for something conventionally masculine. There's a perverted sexual psychodrama here that the media has been ignoring. When you look at the lifestyle of those boys in Colorado, for example, you see a crisis of the masculine: Look at how they behaved, look at their home environments - everything was so nice, so generic! Even the infantile way white suburban teenagers have been dressing for the last decade has been a signal that something was wrong. In their pathetic attempt to imitate urban black kids - pants hanging down low, untied shoes, bulky T-shirts, baseball caps on backward - they are desexed clones.
Just after the massacre, I wrote about how the young people in Littleton spoke the exact same language and had the same cliques we've had since, I think, the late '30s. There are a few subcliques now, like the goths and so on, but essentially the hierarchy remains - with the athletes and the cheerleaders on top. There's an aristocratic impulse in human life that will always produce an elite, no matter what. The whole idea of egalitarianism was always just a phony utopian vision. There will always be people who are picked on, and there has been a lot of talk recently about the whole issue of gay-bashing among young men. Well, I have been saying for a long time that there's no way to eradicate homophobia among young men because it is an important stage in the development from boyhood to manhood. There is a moment when a boy has to leave his mother and turn away from things that are female. A girl has menstruation to tell her she's now a woman, but there's no such marker for a boy, and this applies to every culture in the history of the world that I have been able to look at.
So a boy needs to be accepted into the world of men. He has to bond with men. But the bonding has to be a partnership, and in order to demonstrate that it is not sexual, you denounce the homosexual. And sometimes the more likely that you are gay, the more dangerous you are toward other gay people, because people who need to gay-bash are the ones who are trying to beat down these impulses in themselves. And I think the atrocities at Columbine came from the same psychological quandaries in young men that also lead to gay-bashing. There is definitely a parallel between what happened to Matthew Shepard in Wyoming last year and what happened at Columbine. It's about facing masculinity, which is why it's total folly to say we need hate-crime legislation to deal with homophobia. There's no law in the world that's ever going to be able to legislate the turbulence inside a young man as he crosses that line between boyhood and manhood.
Testosterone is an agitator. The reason you don't see this kind of behavior among girls is because estrogen acts more like a tranquilizer. Girls become quiet, which has been misinterpreted by feminist propagandists as a loss of confidence. Excuse me! Something's happening to them. It's called estrogen. It makes your body develop, and it tranquilizes your brain. Of course, women have their own anxieties, but that's another subject. Anyway, the problem is that people are not willing to face the realities of masculinity. Instead we have all these therapists who go on Oprah saying, "We have to make young men more empathetic. We have to make them cry more, and then they won't pick up guns." This is a misunderstanding of what it is to be a man! These kids need to feel that they're men - the last thing they need is counseling. That doesn't do anything but maybe pacify them. It's not dealing with the larger issue.
And to blame technology is not correct. People want to blame the Internet or, again, they want to blame video games. These aren't the causes. It's the lack of alternatives. Years ago I began noticing how you could not tear boys away from their computer screens. The girls do it a little bit, but rarely are they the hackers, the ones who spend twelve hours a day trying to break into the military-industrial complex. This tiny artificial peephole into another, destruction-filled reality is a male thing. And the more masculinity sinks in prestige in our culture, the more people turn to media and technology to give them bigger and bigger images of destruction.
No, we have to look elsewhere - at the nuclear family, for instance. It is an unhealthy social unit. Never in history has the nuclear family been asked to bear the burden it now does, which is to raise children. It was the extended family that raised children of old, and one's identity was created through one's tribal background. Two parents cannot raise children, not in a complex culture like ours. And after school many kids are finding there's no one at home - and there are no neighbors who are trusted or grandparents who live nearby to watch the children. The kids are marooned, and they have no way of getting anywhere without a car. They depend on the soccer moms to ferry them around, but they're still under mom's control. They're ferried from bland homes in bland developments to bland schools to bland shopping malls, hopping from place to place in these big sport utility vehicles. It's horrible! So the moment they're old enough to get a driver's license, they're all over the place, killing themselves because they don't know how to drive. There's constant carnage everywhere. So you have this terrible, roofless culture in the suburbs that's based on the car. One of the major things young people in the suburbs need is a way of getting around that is not dependent on their parents or on having their own cars. We need a better mass-transit system for these kids - being on a bus is actually good for the young; it makes them look at other people.
There's something dangerously solipsistic about our young people. They know less and less about the world around them. They know less and less about history. Of course, that's my generation's influence: We wanted to give them an education that seemed relevant to their lives, but the end result is that their education is specious and empty. Everything harsh has been removed from their education because we haven't wanted to upset them. But I say, let education give them the horrors. so they don't have to get them from video games. Yes, they're taught about slavery and the Holocaust, but only in a very PC way. I've taught freshmen for so long that I understand exactly what they've learned and what they don't know. And I have gotten tremendous positive results from giving them an enormous sense of time, going all the way back, showing them ancient civilizations, archaeology. They love learning about the destruction of ancient cultures - that's just the kind of horror they need. Destruction is an important theme of human experience, and they don't get it from their education, which is increasingly happy talk now. If they study the Aztecs, they learn that the Aztecs were a wonderful people, never mind the slaughter and the living hearts being torn out of chests. The very things that would interest the kids are being sanitized out of their education. This is true in religion, too. Roman Catholicism used to be this very intimidating Latin ritual all about blood and guts and suffering, and you'd see statues of Jesus with blood coming out of his wounds. But now whenever a new Roman Catholic church is built, it looks like an airplane hangar or an office. Heaven forbid there should be any imagery of suffering or martyrdom. Those statues of Jesus on the cross with the guts spilling out have all been put in the cellar. They're considered vulgar and too ethnic.
So we need massive social change. I believe young people should be free at puberty to choose whether they want to fend for themselves or to remain in school. I say, let them leave school at fourteen if they want to. But they are denied any free choice. They are treated as wards of the state, as prisoners of their parents. We should go back to the idea of vocational training; we have to look more clearly at what these kids are going to do with their lives. And we have to end segregation by age in the classroom. In my experience, when you have a mix of ages in the classroom, you don't have the incredible paralysis that comes from sexual tension between boys and girls. They're hyperconscious of each other as sexual beings, and they're very concerned about their social status. If you can bring people of other ages in, then all that breaks down.
Through education we need to offer things that are truly useful, things that give young people perspective and vision and knowledge about the world. For heaven's sake, and I'm saying this as an atheist, teach them about the religions of the world, about ethnic cultures. Ethnicity - which gave people of my generation a real, vibrant sense of background - has faded. Young people are totally assimilated, which is a serious problem. I also think foreign languages should be taught much earlier. It's appalling the way you're never allowed to hear anyone speak a foreign language - whenever someone who speaks a foreign language comes on TV, you hear the voice-over immediately. Our kids don't know anything exists in the world besides themselves.
So, when young people say, "Let's destroy the school! Let's get guns and kill everybody!" it's like a desperate grasp for meaning in their lives. And it's a way to stand out, to be famous, which is an elemental human urge that goes back to ancient times. The man who destroyed the great Temple of Diana at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the world, burned it down to achieve fame. And there is an endless series of losers - like Lee Harvey Oswald and Mark David Chapman and the stalker who went after Reagan because he couldn't get to Jodie Foster - who sit in their rooms pondering the one act that will win them fame. It is an essential human impulse, and the way the media covered these recent events has fed into that, which is incredibly irresponsible. I think it was absolutely stupid that after Columbine the newsmagazines put the young men's picture on the covers. All that's doing is reinforcing the idea that if you can't achieve good, you will at least achieve fame by becoming a great criminal. The cover stories on the murderers at Columbine guaranteed that there would be copycat killings because the boys were shown in such a glamorous way. When I saw the magazines I thought, This is the way to package a murderer. Of course we want to know what the murderers look like, but it's also telling all the other kids: "These boys look just like you."
RELATED ARTICLE: THE INSIDER OUTSIDER
For an entire era, author S. E. Hinton was the queen of adolescent angst. Her novels - including The Outsiders (1967), That Was Then, This Is Now (1971), Rumble Rsh (1975), and Tex (1979) - were stories of lost teenagers struggling against confusion, isolation, and each other's cruelty. Together, they created a genre of literature that gave voice to a disenfranchised section of society. These books (and the films made of them) still have the power to affect young readers all over the world, as testified by the letters Hinton continues to receive.
HELEN EISENBACH: You were sixteen when you wrote The Outsiders. Was the novel a result of your own high school experience?
S. E. HINTON: In a way. I wrote all my books from the perspective of a teenage boy. I didn't identify with the female culture. I was a tomboy - I played football, my close friends were guys - and in those days society was so regimented that what I was doing was just outlandish. Fortunately, I was born without the need-to-belong gene, the gene that says you have to be in a little group to feel secure. I was so aggravated by all that, and that's one reason I wrote the book. I also wrote it because I wanted to read a book that dealt realistically with teen life as I saw it. If you weren't ready for adult books, all you could read was Mary Jane Goes to the Prom, which bore no resemblance to what I saw going on.
HE: Do you think kids today are having essentially the same high school experience you did?
SEH: Yes, unfortunately. Thirty years ago I was saying clique cruelty can lead to violence and death. The difference is now the kids have got firepower. I have a fifteen-year-old son, and I told him, "I know you'd never be involved in violent actions like those boys [in Littleton, Colorado] were, but I hope to God you're never involved in driving somebody to do that."
HE: Do you think there's more instability among kids now than in the past?
SEH: We're probably just more aware of it. Now that everything is in your face ten minutes after it happens, it may seem like more is happening than actually is.
HE: How relevant is The Outsiders today?
SEH: It floors me what that book seems to have done for people. I get letters from kids who say it made them think twice about what they're doing to other people. Or that it gives them reason to hang on. But I couldn't write that book now. I'd ruin it if I tried. I'm not as idealistic as I was then.
RELATED ARTICLE: THE CLUED IN DIRECTOR
Director Amy Heckerling's films include two high school comedy classics. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) was a bracingly rude and more audaciously real portrait of teenage America than had ever been seen before. Clueless (1995) was a frothy comedy of contemporary teen mating rituals, via Jane Austen's Emma, that spawned the current trend of high school flicks based on literary classics, namely 10 Things I Hate About You, She's All That, Cruel Intentions, and O.
HELEN EISENBACH: Why have you chosen high school teenagers as subjects for your films?
AMY HECKERLING: I don't think it was as much a choice as a personal handicap. Some people are adolescents forever.
HE: Are you?
AH: Not in a good way, but at least I've made a living out of it. I've always felt alienated. I love rock 'n' roll.
HE: Did you feel like an outcast in high school?
AH: All teenagers are outcasts.
HE: Why do they believe there are other teenagers who aren't?
AH: You can't think the world is having a big party you weren't invited to unless you believe other people were invited.
HE: DO you think teenagers today are having a very different experience from yours?
AH: In some ways. When I was growing up during the Vietnam and Watergate years, the older people wanted a war and the younger people didn't. There was the feeling you couldn't trust people with experience because they were evil, so there was a wider generation gap. I don't think young people today are as divided from older people. Of course, there will always be a generation gap because the point of being a teenager is to rebel.
HE: But isn't there the same mistrust today?
AH: Yes, but the width of the gap in the late '60s and early '70s made that a particularly bad time. When the older generation represents something you definitely don't want to be, you get like me - a little stuck in adolescence.
HE: How do you feel about our present attempt to blame teen violence on popular culture?
AH: I can't make heads or tails out of what happened in [Littleton] Colorado. I don't know if that kind of violence is caused by easy access to weapons or by the horrible ideas teenagers are able to copy from the media. But I think we as filmmakers have a responsibility to put out things that are positive. I have never tried to make the most realistic high school movies - it's quite possible that Kids  is a lot more realistic than Clueless - but I am trying to create something that will entertain people.
HE: Would you ever do a dark, nihilistic teen picture?
AH: No. There's enough misery in teenagers' lives.
RELATED ARTICLE: Greil Marcus's High School Hit Parade
The classics - Jerry Lee Lewis's "High School Confidential." Gary U.S. Bond's "School Is Out," Alice Cooper's "School's Out," the Ramones' "Rock 'n' Roll High School" - aren't. They're stiff and contrived and they come off as sales pitches. The stuff below is pure Charlie Brown, as in the Coasters' 1959 hit of the same name. The song takes stuttering steps - "Who walks in the classroom cool and slow?" - but it moves, it might go anywhere, including where it has already been: "Fee fee fi fi fo fo fum / I smell smoke in the auditorium." And people thought he was only kidding. He thought he was only kidding.
1. BRATMOBILE: "COOL SCHOOL"
From Pottymouth (1992. Kill Rock Stars). Proof that there is nothing like female teenage disdain - that it's a whole language.
2. SAM COOKE: "WONDERFUL WORLD"
(1960, Keen). Dedicated to one of the most important of all high school activities: daydreaming in class.
3. FIRESIGN THEATER: DON'T CRUSH THAT DWARF, HAND ME THE PLIERS
(1970, Columbia). A comedy album that lets you listen in on the greatest '50s teen movie never made, High School Madness. which kicks off with a pep rally. The nervous principal's trying to give a speech, but this weird beatnik voice from the back bleachers keeps interrupting: "In addressing the assembly this morning" - "Fuck you!" - "I am recalling the words of the founder" - "Who cares?" - "We think that is a wise guy, uh, a fair rule to be guided by" - "What is reality?" - "And we're not afraid of it, are we!'" - "Eat it!" - "You bet!" - "Eat it raw!" - "That's the spirit! Rah rah rah!"
4. CHUCK BERRY: "SCHOOL DAY"
(1957, Chess). You feel a whole population entering a building as if it's prison, trudging feet in the heavy bass; you feel a nation snap its fingers when three o'clock rolls around. But the day never does quite burn off. the jerk behind you kicking your chair, the teacher never knowing how mean she looks - and then there's tomorrow.
5. JULIE BROWN: "THE HOMECOMING QUEEN'S GOT A GUN"
From the Goddess in Progress EP (1984, Rhino). Valley girl crime report. "She was the perfect girl-next-door, except she lived at our house," says her mother. Of course, "Lately she had been listening to a lot of that new-wave type of music . . ."
6. NADA SURF: "POPULAR"
(1996, Elektra). While the BMOC tells himself he's great as if he's terrified someone will find out he isn't, the kid everyone dumps on mutters hysterically about sucking up to the BMOC as if it'll actually help. Or, as Amy Beth Graves reported for the Associated Press on May 10, "a fourteen-year-old Pennsylvania girl was suspended for telling a teacher in a class conversation on the Littleton shootings that she could understand how someone who is teased endlessly could snap."
7. BOOMTOWN RATS: "I DON'T LIKE MONDAYS"
(1979, Columbia). For the day sixteen-yearold Brenda Spencer of San Diego shot up her school: elegant, stirring, and not funny. "I wish I still had a tape of my friend's band from Bozeman," Sarah Vowell said when I called around for song titles for this list. "[He was] a boy from Littleton who wrote a local hit circa 1986 called 'Columbine,' all about Columbine High. I can't remember any of the words, but it was damn dark, I can tell you that."
8. NIRVANA AND SAMUEL BAYER, DIRECTOR: VIDEO FOR "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT"
(1991, DGC). Good song. And the video features the oldest, sexiest, and most tattooed pom-pom girls in the history of the high school gym.
9. VULGAR BOATMEN: YOU AND YOUR SISTER
(1989, Record Collect). There's a profound wonderment in moving through the halls, the classrooms, the parties, down the roads, all without having a clue; it took Boatmen Robert Ray and Dale Lawrence until their forties to get the ambience right.
10. BEACH BOYS: "BE TRUE TO YOUR SCHOOL"
(1963, Capitol), Pomp, drama, and detail: "Got my decal in back." This was on the radio a few months after I left high school and it sounded so good it made me wish I hadn't - because there were moments at school basketball games when it really did feel just like this.
RELATED ARTICLE: Emily Jenkins's Top Ten Books About High School
It must be admitted that Nancy Drew mysteries and Archie comics probably have a greater influence on our collective fantasies about high school than do any of the books listed here (including those that acquired iconic status when they were turned into movies). Through their longevity and sheer volume, the tales of the perky sleuth with her cute little roadster and the redheaded doofus with two girlfriends remain our dominant literary representations of those painfully awkward adolescent years. But high school isn't all proms and football games, as these reads will show. High school, more often, is hell.
1. ROBERT CORMIER: THE CHOCOLATE WAR
(1974, currently published by Laurel-Leaf). A Catholic boys' day school becomes a political battleground when one student refuses to sell chocolate in a schoolwide fundraising effort. First, Jerry becomes a hero, then a pariah. Cormier's children's classic makes literal what we've all suspected might be true: High school is run by a Mafia-like secret society, and nearly everyone but you is a member.
2. STEPHEN KING: CARRIE
(1974, Signet). In the opening scene, awkward, innocent Carrie gets her first period in the locker-room shower, making her fresh meat for a crew of vicious cheerleader types When she is elected prom queen and then doused with pig's blood as part of a nasty prank, her talekinetic powers allow her to vent the rage within. For anyone who was ever a geek in high school, the horrormeister's first novel offers the ultimate revenge fantasy
3. ANONYMOUS: GO ASK ALICE
(1971, Aladdin). How to get accepted by the popular crowd? Take drugs, of course. The narrator of this possibly fictional diary classic starts with acid at a peer-pressure party, feels like queen of the lunch room on regular diet of uppers, and spirals into an abyss of addiction.
4. DAVID FOSTER WALLACE: INFINITE JEST
(1996, Little, Brown). The students of Enfield Tennis Academy, a private boarding school for those with hard-hitting forehand, search (along with the inhabitants of a halfway house) for the master copy of a movie so entertaining, it will kill its viewers. Wallace's enormous tome tackles the world - and the microcosm of privileged prep school society.
5. EVAN HUNTER: BLACKBOARD JUNGLE
(1954, Simon & Schuster). This indictment of teacher training colleges and the New York City school system takes shape as a semiautobiographical novel in which a hopeful, earnest teacher tries to reach his illiterate vocational school students. Powerful and political. Hunter's is the only book on this list that is really about education.
6. BEL KAUFMAN: UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE
(1964. HarperCollins). Like Blackboard Jungle and LouAnne Johnson's Dangerous Minds (a.k.a. My Posse Don't Do Homework), this is the story of an idealistic and committed teacher in a metropolitan school - only Kaufman's touch is light, and her successes very small-scale. Reading these wry vignettes is like watching reruns of Welcome Back, Kotter.
7. CAMERON CROWE: FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH: A TRUE STORY
(1981, Simon & Schuster). Years before he directed Singles and Jerry Maguire, Crowe went undercover among a bunch of horny, weed-smoking teenagers, The result was this book about high school society that reached cult status in movie form, although few of its fans know that stoned surfer dude Jeff Spicoli was a real person.
8. MURIEL SPARK: THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE
(1961, HarperCollins). A sextet of Edinburgh girls worship their unconventional teacher, Miss Brodie, who makes favorites of them and lectures them about her personal life and liberal philosophies. Then sexual jealousy convinces one of them to betray her. Spark's novel captures the rivalry between mentor and pupil - and the curious heartache of the homosocial crush.
9. JIM RICHARDSON: HIGH SCHOOL USA
(1979. St. Martins). In the late '70s, Richardson spent a couple of years documenting a group of students in a small-town American school. The text is almost all quotation - solhallway gossip, cheerleading, school dances, and holiday pranks are treated with the utmost seriousness. And the photographs rock: Everyone sports superflat hair and sweat socks pulled up to their knees.
10. J.D. SALINGER: THE CATCHER IN THE RYE
(1951, Little, Brown). Holden Caulfield is expelled from Pencey Prep in chapter one, but the memory of his all-boys academy shadows him throughout the story. His failure to apply himself in school is like his failure to connect with other people - inexplicable and tragic, since both his mind and his heart are itchy for stimulation. Salinger's is the ultimate portrait of high school angst.