On the shame of liking high school

It’s not actually true that I liked high school, I’m just wearing a mask. If I was going to recap high school in a paragraph, I would say that it was intellectually and socially frustrating. Interestingly the social frustration of a gifted student, which teachers worry endlessly about, proved to be relatively transient. Most people grow up, grow out and become adults. There is a limited correlation with high school social success. My own intellectual frustration was much nastier, because the ease with which I slid through high school caused several minor crashes at university, some of which I may never recover from.

Actually, I loathed high school. My reaction to leaving was very uncomplicated: I was thrilled to get out. And I still am thrilled to be out. Every time I meet a “you know, it’s true what they say, you don’t believe it at the time, but it really is the best time of your life” person I feel like the conversation’s over. I was miserable most of the time.

I haven’t tried to systematically understand why I had so much trouble with high school, but that’s been OK up until now because Paul Graham has been doing it for me. Except now, he’s getting it wrong.

So here’s a secret: I hated high school, but I loved English class.

Paul Graham’s social essays tend to start from a simplified premise which you can pick up easily from his The Age of Essays article: he’s writing for people like himself. He hated English class and likes writing essays. He wants to explain to you why you hated English class and why you’d like writing essays. He doesn’t make many concessions to readers who are different from him (and he probably sees this as a virtue). If you were a clever bored iconoclast busting to get out into the world and do some stuff, then Graham’s talking to you. If you liked pulling Dickens to pieces, then you were part of the problem that held Graham’s audience back all these years.

I suppose we cogs in the aging machinery can console ourselves safe in the knowledge that for once literature nerds are part of the big boring mainstream holding the world back, rather than a little shallow sidestream holding the mainstream back.

I feel the need to respond to Graham though, precisely because I agree with so much of his article, and yet don’t fit inside it. The essay art form is only tied to the study of literature by academic accident, although probably not exactly of the sort he describes. (There seems to be an unexplained gulf between his uncritical dismissal of the study of modern literature and his uncritical acceptance of the core place history has as part of the ideal intellectual toolkit.) The essay is a useful tool outside that realm. And the essay in particular, and writing in general, is a good way to draw interesting conclusions from a solid set of premises.

And now that I’ve had this explained to me, I’m meant to understand why I didn’t like English class. Except that I did. Oh, the cognitive dissonance.

The answer lies in Graham’s essay too, oddly. It’s possible to build an interesting ediface out of a lot of things, he points out. The art of the essay is in some sense that of being able to sketch the structure, and also that of shining a torch from an unexpected angle while doing so. Well, you can do this with programming techniques, or ice cream sales, or you can do it with literature.

And the connection between literature and composition is not merely that they both have to do with writing, and composition teachers might as well write about literature since the mathematicians have already cornered geometry, it is that literature too is a complex enough structure that we can build it up in our minds into something solid enough to have an inside.

I liked English class because I liked taking novels apart and putting them back together. I like essay writing more generally because I like taking other things apart and putting them back together. I like doing this to some things more than others, so I can even understand why some potential essay writers don’t like English class. But I don’t think Graham understands why they might like it.

Moving in geek circles has been an interesting experience for me in this respect. In person my friends’ view of school varies widely: some liked it; some hated it; some would have hated it except for their friends, their teachers, or their drama club. But the party line says that we ought to have hated it, and not only hated it, but found it beneath us. (OK, that’s unfair, the slashdot line is indiscriminate: everything is beneath us.)

I care about this mainly because I’m tired of feeling defensive about my intellectual hoover: I find a lot of stuff interesting. I even found stuff in the high school curriculum interesting. It made me happy. So why am I part of the problem?

It’s a shame Graham’s essay pushes the line that “everything is potentially interesting, except for the stuff that the system teaches you, that stuff is crap.” I think everything’s potentially interesting. I’d love to persuade more people of that, but convincing them that the entire world except for themselves is trying to kill interest off is not exactly the right way to make the point.