July 8, 2011

Fewer rites of passage, dead field trip edition

For about two years off-and-on I've been detailing the decline in rites of passage during eras of helicopter parenting, so I don't know how this one escaped notice -- school field trips.

This LA Times article shows that even by the mid-2000s they were being taken away, before the recession made the gutting deeper. It also says some museum that opened in 1998 saw falling attendance for several years until they changed the experience to dovetail with the No Child Left Behind standards, which allowed them to re-brand it as even more educational (which field trips are not supposed to be).

Here is a 2006 NYT article about field trips for gifted students getting less funding as well. Really, though, if that money is going to trips like the one profiled in the article -- a weepy journey to Ellis Island, headed by some teacher who needs to get a life but has been indoctrinating her charges about immigration -- then BFD. Again, field trips aren't supposed to involve learning, let alone propaganda.

British schools are taking fewer geography-related trips in part because of safety concerns. I'll bet the same has been going on here too. I've looked through the history of American "outdoor education" (as it was called when I did it in 1992), and it shows the same response to the trend in the crime rate that everything else does -- rising through the '80s and early '90s, then dying off afterward. Now those companies make most of their money by selling corporate / leadership retreats instead of camping trips lasting from 3 to 7 days for sixth graders. But that's for another post.

Once the recession made budget-cutting even more necessary, the WSJ reported that field trips really got hammered. All the bullshit diversity training for education employees? Still in. By the way, look how domesticated the wild field trip has become -- some examples from this article include going to see a play (which will now be going to see a movie) and sitting in on a State Senate session. How much more passive could it get?

And there appears to be no end in sight to scrapping field trips (source):

According to a recent report by the American Association of School Administrators, a staggering 51 percent of schools nationwide reported eliminating field trips for the 2010-2011 school year, a dramatic increase from 11 percent just two years ago.

During middle school, the most looked-forward-to field trip was the end-of-the-year trek to Hershey Park. That would have been 1993 through '95. There was no pretense of making it educational. Remembering further back, there were field trips to the zoo in middle school, and also elementary school, plus the odd trip to a hands-on science museum. Even by the mid-to-late '90s in high school, the only field trips we took were not school-wide -- just the kids in physics class would go to the Air and Space Museum or Hershey Park, and even then we had a bunch of context-relevant word problems to solve. That seems to be the turning point when field trips had to focus on educational value, and now they can't even manage that since they're all getting cut.

The point of the field trip is to strengthen the social bonds and trust among the kids. In the highly structured and regulated world of the school, they can only do this during breaks in between class instruction -- at lunch mostly, but also before and after school in the parking lot, chatting between classes, or in the less structured classes like art, gym, tech ed, and so on.

During the field trip, though, they get to enjoy the relative lack of structure the whole day and in the company of their entire grade, not just a 20-person gym class. They're wandering around figuring out what to do by themselves, thus having to trust their group / clique members more than they would the teacher who gives orders. When they meet another group, again they're figuring out how to socialize across clique boundaries without adult guidance. It's like one really long lunch period, and set in a more demanding environment than the cafeteria.

It even had a little bit of the feel of a school dance, where a group of boys coincidentally bumps into a group of girls -- who they were totally not following for the past 10 minutes -- and gets in some practice talking to chicks when adults aren't hovering around. And with it being out in the open and in broad daylight, there's not the intense sexually charged pressure of a dance. You weren't going to pair off with anyone. (Although I do recall on the bus ride home once a girl giving her boyfriend a handjob, him getting called to the front of the bus and turning around to zip up first. Seventh graders were still somewhat crazy back then.)

There was a lot more camaraderie between groups, unless they were polar opposites (like the dork squad and the preppy girls), compared to the anonymity of rushing through the hallways in school or even in the cafeteria. During the field trip, both groups are excited and want to share what's been going on. Plus both of them have the feeling of not belonging to the zoo, theme park, or whatever, so when they encounter another one of their own, it's a relief.

The transformation of the field trip from a community-bonding rite of passage into a lame attempt at providing greater educational depth to whatever they're learning about is one of the more disgusting ways by which helicopter parents have prevented young people from growing close to one another, right behind locking them indoors, and the practice of play dates. With the shift to "helps them learn better," the community emphasis is gone, since the intelligence they're talking about is an individual property.

I continue to be fascinated by these changes because they were so abrupt, so extreme, and so profound in their broader effects. People born just 7 years after me seem to come from a different world. From the time I started observing them in the mid-2000s, first as a tutor who they were buddy-buddy with, and later within their social circle when I began grad school, Millennials have never struck me as people who had really tight and lasting friendships when they were pre-adults or even in college. It's not just the separation of boys from girls, which I've gone over enough before, but among boys and among girls too.

Boys' friendships with each other now are so shallow, and it's no surprise since they haven't gone through any heavy shit together -- not even navigating their way around a (non-educational) field trip! They're more what I would call acquaintances than friends, let alone close friends. And no, teaming up in Halo, Call of Duty, SOCOM, etc., does not count as a rite of passage, going through trouble together, getting their back, and so on. Since those are all fake interactions, no one is ever really in danger, no one ever really needs to protect a friend, and they are not trusting someone else to take care of them.

Girls are never good at making or keeping lots of friends, so I don't know how much further that could have sunk during the past 20 years. Still, my impression is that their friendships -- with people who usually turn out to be frenemies -- are even more distant and superficial than during the days of talking all day together on the phone, hitting up the mall together for hours, and cruising around with nowhere in particular to go. Now these are more like play-date activities that they schedule for themselves every once in awhile ("shopping date!!!"), rather than an assumed part of daily life.

All the non-weenie parents and other adults who socialize young people need to flock to one state and just take it over. Somewhere in the mountain or plains states, where the starting conditions would be best. Enough of just going along with the majority trend toward cutting out your kid's brain and throwing it in a preservation vat, forcing them to have no life while growing up, and keeping them away from any activity that would build trust between them and their peers, which would require putting them at some risk -- you don't need to rely on or trust others when there's no risky situation that you need to get through.


  1. I was born in the mid-80s, and from my recollection field trips always had at least a figleaf of educational purpose (physics students going to an amusement park and having to do some calculations about rollercoasters was fairly transparent). The idea of school taking time out to do something with no pretense of education just seems strange to me. Kids can socialize in their own time without taxes paying teachers to do something other than educate.

  2. "Kids can socialize in their own time without taxes paying teachers to do something other than educate."

    It's not just socializing. It's something that puts the entire grade (not just your own clique) on the same wavelength -- "All right, we're going to HERSHEY PARRRK!!!!"

    It's not quite at the school dance level of carnivalesque, but the across-group mixing is a lot greater than in school.

    And it makes kids feel like they're part of a larger community that cares at least somewhat, rather than not at all, about its need to belong.

    Kids cannot socialize like that in their own time because it would cost them too much, and it would be impossible to coordinate the time and place for the entire grade.

    A middle or high school can scale that stuff up and make it happen. Even the Boy Scouts, a church, or other community institution, couldn't get all the kids in the entire grade together.

    Lacking all this stuff, kids are not going to care about their community, and social capital will keep falling just because penny-pinching helicopter parents only want the teachers to make their individual kid more educated, and nuts to all that community-building junk.

  3. The importance of forming birth-year (straddling the Gregorian calendar for schools) as a cohesive social group really didn't occur to me. I know there are some African cultures where it's important, but they just seem like some exotic oddity to me. I tend to think of schooling as training/preparation for adulthood where there is no official stratification by age. College resembles this more in its assortment of courses by level of advancement (homeschooling can have a miniature version of this individualized instruction, while tracking in primary schools is a hybrid), and small-town one-room schoolhouses have no choice but to lump different ages together. Robin Hanson discussed age-group communities vs family-oriented childrearing here, linking it to the east-west dimension on the World Values Survey although you disagreed.

  4. Well it doesn't have to be right down to the birth-year. I just mean some kind of big-but-not-too-big youth community that feels cohesive.

    I agree that school should train kids for grown-up world, but surely a large part of that is making sure they trust others and want to be around others enough to work in largish non-kin groups, rather than narrowly focusing on their own advancement and well-being.

    The last time helicopter parents stunted their kids' growth, we got a workforce of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Now we have an article every other week about how socially retarded young people are when they enter the workforce.

    We didn't hear that for people born to anti-helicopter parents. The yuppies, for example, everyone complained were too bold and too socially savvy.

    But it looks like the business culture, and the society as a whole, works best when incoming workers are from the Alex P. Keaton half of the spectrum.

  5. I'm pro gray-suit. Hippies can get bent.

    The usual complaint I hear about the young nowadays is that they don't want to work, everything mundane seems below them.

  6. What do you think of the homeschooling movement?


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