High School Hierarchies Suck

Ah skepticism. How else would we prevent ourselves from falling victim to quacks and charlatans, astrologers and psychics, hoaxers and scammers?

But there are other things the virtues of criticially questioning things can be applied to. For example, long-held traditions considered to be socially acceptable. I speak of something pertinent, it seems, to all teenagers: freshmen hostility.

I am now a sophomore in high school, and I’ve moved up only slightly on the hierarchy that is the high school caste system. As is to be expected I get a lot of rubbish from other students just because they feel like being rude, but it’s nothing like the hostility I was given last year as a freshman.

I was tall at the time so I wasn’t recognized as a lowly ninth grader most of the time and could avoid most of the verbal and physical flogging, but if I wore the “freshmen T-shirt” which has my graduation year of 2011 on it, things would change.

“Oh, hello freshman” I’d be greeted with a snooty snear.

“It’s almost like the freshmen want to be beat up” somebody said to their friend, loud enough so I could hear.

Seniors still threaten to “beat you down” if you don’t respect their “coolness”.

At football games “go home freshmen” is still chanted, and freshmen aren’t allowed to (or at least supposed to) sit with the upper classmen.

There’s even a tradition, disturbingly, of throwing plastic forks and knives at the freshmen.

It is thankfully quite clear that not all upperclassmen behave in this way to freshmen. I had loads of upperclassmen friends who didn’t care what grade-level I was. It would be absurd for me to say “all upperclassmen are arrogant bullies” and then say that upperclassmen shouldn’t say “all freshmen are stupid fools”. When I say refer to upperclassmen in this post, I mean the actions of some upperclassmen, not all.

Though not all upperclassmen are jerks, however, a lot of them do participate in anti-freshmen hostility and you know who you are. I’m sorry to say that there has even been a touch of anti-freshmenism on this blog, and I really hate to point a finger at a fellow ‘lil skepchick, but it has happened. I’m concerned with the action, not pointing fingers, so if you don’t commit the actions I’m writing about don’t feel like I’m talking at you directly.

Of course the best thing you can do if you’re a freshman is to not let it get to you, to ignore it, unless it’s a physical threat in which case you should tell your dean. For the most part, this doesn’t do much damage… but there is still no justification to act like elitist¹ jerks to somebody just for being at a lower grade level.

Just because somebody’s older and has been in high school longer doesn’t make them better than the younglings. It definitely does not mean that you have accomplished more.

When I ask upperclassmen why they’re jerks to freshmen I usually hear something along the lines of:

Freshmen are annoying, they’re stupid, (insert anecdote here about a freshman), blah blah blah blah blah.

Racism in this country used to be many times more rampant than it is today. Blacks were addressed with degrading terms like “boy” and a lot of other nasty words and racial slurs that I won’t repeat here. They weren’t allowed to sit with whites on a bus or train. They were lynched (hung) just for being a black.

Ask a racist person why they don’t like blacks and they’ll probably give you a reason similar to:

“They’re uppity, they’re annoying, they’re stupid, (insert anecdote here about a black person), blah blah blah.”

Anti-freshmenism doesn’t go as extreme (at least I have yet to hear about seniors hanging freshmen students) but there are a lot of similarities here which I don’t think should be ignored. It comes down to stereotypes, grouping people together and passing judgment based on some irrelevant trait.

Undoubtedly there are some annoying black people, and undoubtedly there are just as many annoying white people. Undoubtedly there are some annoying freshmen, and undoubtedly there are some brilliant freshmen. You judge people based on their actions², not their grade level.

To throw in my own little anecdote of how not all freshmen are stereotypically dumb and annoying, when I was a freshman I first started blogging. I had dinner with Richard Dawkins and bowled him over. I had my fifteen minutes of fame on Phil Plait’s blog. If half of those upperclassmen who were being slug-faced bullies could testify to impressing two of their intellectual heroes… wait. The majority of them can’t. They’re being elitists just because they’ve gone through three more years of high school, not necessarily because they’ve accomplished more.

One last thing…

“But it’s traditional! And we went through the same thing! It’s just an initiation…”

Even more rubbish. It’s traditional³ in certain parts of the world to perform female circumcision, a bloody, painful proceedure that forever takes away the girl’s ability to enjoy sex.

So you went through the same thing. So did I. But what have the new freshmen done to you? Even if they had done something to you Jesus taught us to forgive. I’m not a Christian, but it’s a good lesson we need to pay more attention to.

And as for it being an initiation, can somebody please show me a good peer-reviewed research study that included a control showing that freshmen who got beat up did better academically somehow? For all I know, it might, but until you prove it don’t let the burden of proof you have failed to meet squish you under its weight.

There is nothing whatsoever justified about this sort of behaviour. But look, I seriously doubt the problem could be erradicated forever but at least some of us might get our awareness raised to this sort of thing and stop doing it. When something’s the norm it’s hard to realize that it might not be right, but once we realize it somebody has to put their foot down and say “I’m not going to do this anymore.”

Why can’t we just get along?

¹I’m an elitist in some ways. I recently got into Phi Theta Kappa, an honour society for two-year colleges. I’ve been taking community college classes and doing well in them. And yet there are people I interact with who don’t know stuff like why the American revolution was fought. That doesn’t give me a justification to be a jerk to them.
I like elitism because some people have more expertise than other people and those who don’t possess this expertise because they were unwilling to put any effort into learning need to come to admit the fact that they’re not as knowledgeable. That, however, does not mean they can’t still gain this expertise if they put effort into it and maybe get a little bit of help from elitists themselves.
²Unfortunately when you know the person has committed an action which falls into a perceived stereotype they will ignore the fact that they have done something wrong and go on about how not all people who are so-and-so act like so-and-so and yadda yadda yadda. Just because I’m pointing out you acted like the stereotype doesn’t make the stereotype right, but it doesn’t make your actions irrelevant. You know who you are.
³It should also be noted that they don’t neccessarily use tradition as their justification for doing it. It’s often just the will of Allah.
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  1. unkempt&overcaffeinated
    September 18, 2008 at 7:26 pm —

    As a freshman (aka freshmeat) I’m with you on the fact that we shouldn’ t be judged by grade. On the first day I was scared out of my pants of the seniors, and the teachers didn’t help. The seniors all wore crowns which helped me cuz I knew not to talk to them…but now, just a month into the school year, I’ve only had one senior make fun of me as a freshman, and it was jokingly, not mean.

    I lucked out, huh?

  2. Joy Wang
    September 18, 2008 at 8:02 pm —

    Ramen to your post title. As a freshman, I’m sort of surprised that I haven’t been getting the anti-freshmenism, but I do know people who have been on the receiving end of that nonsense. I dunno why I haven’t been experiencing it, especially because about half of my classes are with upperclassmen, compared to maybe only PE+one elective (which adds up to a total of one period/day; PE and elective #1 are alternate day courses) for most freshmen. Quirky.

    Congrats on getting into Phi Theta Kappa–at age fif(six)teen!

  3. SteveT
    September 19, 2008 at 9:33 am —

    I suppose you could look on the bright side and remember that, while that sort of freshman hazing used to also occur in college/university, it has largely ceased to exist there. (Except for the Greek system, and why would anyone who reads this blog want to join one of those?)

    Let me also applaud the efforts of schools throughout the US, ineffective as they might be, to eliminate bullying and hazing in the K-12 system. I think the kind of freshman hazing you refer to here is just another example of that kind of bullying behavior, and unfortunately it still has a veneer of social acceptability. Things do seem to slowly be getting better on that score, so there’s hope for us yet. There was no such thing as an anti-bullying agenda when I was a tyke.

    In the meantime, recognize that for the intelligentsia (I include skeptics in this group), high school is often something you just have to survive. Think of it as a sort of minimum security prison that allows you to sleep at home at night while you grow old enough to be (more-or-less) mature enough to go to college. If you’re lucky and can surround yourself with a few like-minded friends, you can manage to ignore the rest of the rabble. Learn as much as you can from your classes, and then head off to college and leave most of the rabble behind.

    Remember, unlike high school, most of the people in college have made an active choice to be there. I found that it made a huge difference. As you get older, you’ll discover (if you haven’t already) that there are lots of people for whom high school was the best four years of their lives. Frankly, I find that sad.

  4. September 19, 2008 at 11:22 am —

    As Steve said, you should be heartened to know that that sort of thing doesn’t really happen at universities. In fact, I’m a grad student and one of my very best friends just finished her undergrad program. I’m 6 years older than she, and oddly I feel that we are the same age (I feel the same about my friends who are 5 or 6 years older than me). Nobody really cares how old you are in college. 🙂

  5. vreify
    September 19, 2008 at 3:03 pm —

    College really is better, but I know that’s not a consolation at all. When I was in high school I couldn’t wait to get out–and it seemed to take FOREVER AND EVER.

  6. Dread Polack
    September 19, 2008 at 4:01 pm —

    When I was in high school, we had about 1000 students, and nearly half of them were freshmen. Alienating that many people, and then further subdividing into the obligatory cliques of high-school usually meant only having 2 or 3 friends, so we left freshmen hazing to a couple of sarcastic wise-cracks and moved on. When I was a senior, I ate lunch with a bunch of sophomores. Nobody gave me crap about that. Actually, but my senior year, we pretty much gave up on all of that- it was pretty surreal, actually to be treated respectfully by people who ignored you for the last 12 years. I consider myself lucky in that respect.

  7. September 20, 2008 at 1:40 am —

    Jeez, amen to that. I am a senior right now, but I have always hated the stupid senority arrogance thingy. Firstly, it makes them look stupid in my eyes. Secondly, I have never seen a reason for bothering people just because they are having a fresh start in a place.

  8. September 20, 2008 at 1:43 am —

    Oh, and what is that phi delta pi epsilon zeta “now I know my Greek abc” thingy?

  9. Jeffrey
    September 20, 2008 at 7:22 pm —

    From what I’ve seen at my school (a large state university with high research activity), the Greek system is basically a bunch of large, single-gender student clubs that aren’t about anything and charge large sums of money. There are also honor societies with Greek-letter names, such as Phi Theta Kappa (mentioned above); I’m a member of it myself, and the induction for it just involved eating cake and holding some candles and flowers.

    Personally, I never attended high school (combination of home schooling and early college classes). So far, I haven’t seen anything that makes me regret that…

  10. September 21, 2008 at 3:54 pm —

    Except for the Greek system, and why would anyone who reads this blog want to join one of those?

    As an alumnus of Tau Epsilon Phi, Xi Chapter (MIT’s version of Animal House crossed with Real Genius) I feel vaguely irritated by that.

  11. SteveT
    September 21, 2008 at 11:06 pm —

    Come on, Blake, you know as well as I do that frats like yours are by far the exception and not the rule. In the two colleges/universities I attended prior to grad school, the frats were little more than centers of drunken hooliganism that provided members with easy access to large quantities of alcohol and drugs. Whatever positive attributes they may have possessed were far outweighed by their promotion of socially reprehensible behavior.

    Of course, I never tried to join one, so maybe I was just unaware of all the uplifting activities that happened when their members were sober.

    Sorry if I seem a tad bit negative about the Greek system (frats primarily), but I saw more than one guy’s college career ruined by getting involved in a fraternity. They might well have failed on their own, but being in the frat certainly didn’t help them.

  12. September 21, 2008 at 11:10 pm —

    I would say that I participated in that, but it would be unfair to myself, since there’s not a social group or individual I was exposed to for more than a few moments I didn’t razz on when I was in high school, so it was really an equal opportunity kind of thing. I think the fact that I was dating a freshman my senior year made it relatively clear that there was no true malice behind the words. (Before anyone gets all uppity about age differentials, I graduated at 17, so it’s at least a year less separation that you were probably thinking.)

  13. September 22, 2008 at 1:16 pm —

    Thank you for responding to my anecdote with more anecdotes.

  14. SteveT
    September 22, 2008 at 2:06 pm —

    Blake: You’re quite welcome! I always try to back up my gross generalizations with meaningless anecdotal observations. How else could I maintain the “truthiness” of my statements? 😉

  15. September 22, 2008 at 2:59 pm —

    So… Let me get this straight. The Greek thingys are just a bunch of club about nothing that people charge a sum of money to get in…? And what purpose might joining some mindless fraternity be…? Unless it is not meaningless and I just don’t get it. Probably I just don’t get it.

  16. Jeffrey
    September 23, 2008 at 12:18 am —

    Well, there’s the ‘honor of joining a nationally recognized’ blah blah whatever. Okay, I don’t get it either. Possibly low-cost housing; it wouldn’t be cost-effective in my case with the joining fees, but possibly for student starting as freshmen it could be.

  17. Shivierie
    September 23, 2008 at 4:25 pm —

    OK, changing the subject of the comments, I haven’t been a freshman for more than a month, and the only people I’ve found rude/annoying are my fellow classmates and some sophomores who were being teenage boys when I was running in P.E.
    It doesn’t change the fact that freshman year has seemed to go on for forever.

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