What Were American High Schools Like In 1984?

Oct 9, 2019

In 1984, Keva Rosenfeld took a documentary crew into Torrance High School in Los Angeles County and spent a year in the surfy, sunlit cultural trenches. Torrance was a model for the school depicted in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the campus has been used for a half dozen teen flicks you’re better off not remembering. What Rosenfeld found was not terribly interesting at the time, and shortly after All American High was publicly shown, the reels were set aside and then lost for three decades.

When the reels were discovered again just a few years ago, they proved far more interesting. Rosenfeld was consulted and a few featured students from the original doc were tracked down and interviewed once more. The new footage was edited and All American High: Revisited was released in 2015. 

Much of Rosenfeld’s original footage was shown with commentary from Rikki Rauhala, a Finnish exchange student who found American school’s baffling, comical, and quite shallow when compared with the schools in which she grew up. Thirty years later, Rikki’s incredulous and (sometimes) joyous commentary mirrors the classical educator’s sentiment that American high schools— but especially the ones in California— are other-worldly.  

Over the last five years, a great many of the articles I have written for CiRCE have been ghost co-authored by my best friend Jon Paul Pope, to whom I dedicated How To Be Unlucky. Some of my best ideas are hammered out, refined, and clarified over the phone with Jon Paul, but I also borrow and steal from his original ideas, as well. The preacherly quality I often adopt behind the lectern is something I learned entirely from Jon Paul, whose father is a well-known and respect Southern Baptist minister. Pope is presently employed at Regent Preparatory in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

I recently asked my friend if he would watch All American High: Revisited and engage me in a little light conversation about the documentary. You need not have seen the documentary to enjoy the conversation we had, which went as follows: 

Gibbs: For my money, the most fascinating part of All American High: Revisited was the marriage class students took. A mock wedding ceremony was performed where student couples practiced saying traditional wedding vows to one another, students were given a budget to plan out their monthly spending, had to hash through issues of child-rearing, personal time, what kind of house could or should be purchased, and so forth. They also had to work through the financial cost of divorce. As a classical educator, what was going through your head while you watched those scenes in the documentary?

Pope: That scene was incredible. The faculty member acting as mock officiant of the wedding explained that the word “mock” here in no way means “making light of,” the whole time wearing a giant red sandwich board heart complete with Cupid’s arrow.

But leaving that bit of cognitive dissonance aside, the whole thing seemed to train kids only in how to make vows one has no intention of keeping. It ultimately exemplified the ham-fisted manner educators often have of trying to prepare students for adult life by means of simulation. Instead of equipping young people with virtues as tools to face any kind of adversity, teachers might argue for the exposure of students to “real world scenarios.” Something similar happens in the documentary when in a more serious class, students are asked to weigh in on something as complex as nuclear disarmament. The assumption is that morality and politics can be taught in the same manner as the driver’s ed lab, whose fake steering wheels and big screen projection make a nostalgic appearance in the documentary.

Gibbs: American public schools were far more interested in play back in the 1970s and 1980s. I do not mean play for children, but for older teenagers. High school sophomores and juniors were given dolls to treat like infants so they could see what kind of time commitment was required of parents. Today, teenagers aren't given dolls, but condoms. I will grant the mock wedding ceremony depicted in All American High: Revisited  left a lot to be desired, and that training students to be virtuous is far more difficult than showing students "how hard marriage can be." Still, the first thing which occurred to me when viewing those mock weddings was, "You couldn't do that kind of thing today" because the risk of awkwardness would rule it out. Modern students are positively terrified of awkwardness. 

Pope: Commentary was given by both kids and teachers, and most poignantly by the Finnish exchange student, that the primary goal of the student body at Torrance High was to “have a good time.” This affected everything from tardy policies (see the scene where a teacher makes late students sing pop songs of his choosing to the class), to academics, and of course, social expectations and allowances. In adulthood, former students looking back testified that their years in high school were largely a pursuit of hedonism. Some of the teachers seemed desperate to “make learning fun” as an accommodation. I’ve been that student, and shamefully, I’ve been that teacher at times. But the teachers I’ve learned the most from didn’t try to be more like “chilled-out entertainers,” a la David Brent. A kind of play in the classroom is good, but play that is chaste. Difficult balance, that.

Gibbs: When I saw teachers attempting to "making learning fun" back in 1984, I immediately wondered, "How long has this been going on?" I suspect that elementary school teachers have more luck "making learning fun," but when I see sophomore chemistry or history teachers trying to "make learning fun," they always look like the Michelin Man trying to run very fast on a greased treadmill. It's typically so pointless, so banal, so not-fun. It always comes off as pandering. "You're not mature enough to handle real learning, so we're going to throw some training wheels on this sucker and dress you in a wig." I speak in the same tone and diction to 7th graders as I do 12th graders and full-grown adults at conferences. Of course, most responsible adults understand that while having fun is fine and all, it's simply not very important. Attempts to "make learning fun" usually just make learning trivial, because teenagers absolutely know that having fun isn't important. Teenagers are also fairly sensitive to being treated like little kids, and so, in "All American High," the teacher who makes late students sing little songs is wasting time, treating his classroom like a kindergarten, and giving his students even more reasons to not take his class seriously. All those students know that when you show up late for a board meeting at a Fortune 500 company, no one makes you sing a little song. 

Pope: A distinct quality of All-American High was the very limited interaction students had in the film with adults. The only conversations between teens and grownups recorded were quick classroom moments, or when some adult would tell kids to get together for a picture or go find a shirt and tie for graduation. The filmmakers seemed concerned exclusively with the peer relationships of high schoolers.

Whether the social aspect of high school in the eighties was exaggerated by the filmmakers’ style of embedded journalism or not, it was clear that the mission and philosophy of Torrance High gave a wide berth to the social needs of teenagers to have fun at parties and create hierarchies of popularity by staging multiple elections for offices and courts. One of the fascinating observations (and there were several) made by young Rikki was that in Finland, school was strictly a place of study; students socialized elsewhere. She was genuinely shocked that American students’ entire lives seem to revolve around their schools.

Young people are drawn to ephemera, of course. But when schools make more room for ephemera than for things that last, it is a waste of money.

Gibbs: So the Torrance High teachers believed school ought to be fun, and the students agreed that school ought to be fun, but simply had a very different idea of what fun is. Either way, the interviews that were conducted thirty years after the fact prove an interesting point: having fun just doesn't create a lasting bond between people. Does the fact the school installed a video arcade in a science classroom need additional comment?

Pope: I am speechless on the arcade.

While we are talking about teens just wanting to have fun, in Revisited there was a comment made by one of the kids who grew up to become a preschool director. After watching the 80s footage of herself and her classmates acting foolishly and saying foolish things, she made the claim that, developmentally, teenagers are basically the same as toddlers. What do you make of this pronouncement?

Gibbs: I took a developmental psych class in college and was largely incredulous of what I heard. The prof offered a several week-long survey of child developmental theories of the 20th century, then finished it all off with, "But recent studies show..." Having heard about a dozen exploded theories, we were supposed to take the last one very seriously. "Check, please."

Pope: I heard the usual excusal of teenage behavior by the now grown former students in Revisited. A lot of “kids will be kids” type of talk. The comment from the child psychologist was just a more sophisticated attempt to deny seventeen-year-olds moral agency. Such theories as hers, though, fly in the face of the received wisdom of every traditional culture I can think of

There was some contrition, though. One former student whose personal and professional life seemed barely held together confessed that he wasted most of his time in high school. Another former student who had become a cop seemed genuinely embarrassed of his past and had spent most of his adult life distancing himself from his teenage passions.

Gibbs: Seeing the students go from 18 years old to 48 years old in a single cut was fascinating. There really is no telling how someone will ultimately turn out. I should add that, as a conservative and a traditionalist, this fact is surprising to me. "You never know how people are going to turn out" strikes me as such a progressive sentiment. It seems so naive. It seems like the kind of pleasant thing which people insist on saying even though, in their hearts, they know that irresponsible teenagers turn into irresponsible adults. But it's simply not true. Responsible students sometimes go off the tracks. Slackers sometimes get their acts together. And when I say "sometimes," I don't mean, "once every blue moon." Why are people so unpredictable? Why are people so unpredictable, and yet Lenny Belardo's claim, "Man is like God. He never changes," rings true? 

Pope: Man is also like God insofar as he is a mystery. For the single best treatment of this, see Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos.

As a teacher, it is prudent to approach a student as a mystery, not a known. “Homer, we can know; Dante, we can know; Shakespeare, we can know. But thou art a mystery.” The classical educator does not think he knows what kids “these days” are into. Nor does he assume to prepare his students for an inevitable career or social path. He is primarily concerned with eternal verities, and therefore he swings for the fences with patient hope.

Gibbs: If your students watched All American High, what would they find most intriguing or perplexing?

Pope: I think some of my students would be impressed with the boy who organizes parties complete with bouncers, cover charges, and kegs. That little fella is kind of a boss.

What they might find the most perplexing, or even unsettling, is how easily students of ‘84 abandon themselves to public emotional displays. All of the jumping up and down and big group hugs at the announcement of homecoming court members would strike my students as very odd. Over the top, really. Same with the completely unironic gyrating happening at school dances. Rikki’s own daughter can’t help but laugh at this as she looks on in 2015.  

Overall, the most lasting impression the film might make on my students is how, bizarrely, the teens of Torrance High appear to run the show, both at school and at home. My students are definitely unused to such a culture, though every year, spirit week gives them a little taste of what that might feel like.

Gibbs: So, Torrance High School is where many scenes from 90210 were filmed, not to mention a bevy of really high-class films, like Not Another Teen Movie and She's All That. With that in mind, are the early 80s shenanigans depicted in All American High: Revisited  much crazier than the shenanigans which occur today in public schools in flyover states? Has the whole country been Torranced?

Pope: How fascinating. But that filming history makes so much sense. Remember when one former student, now an adult, mentioned that Torrance was "the real Fast Times at Ridgemont High?" I attended a very large and well-to-do public high school in the suburbs of Northwest Houston in the late nineties. We had a reputation for being something like the 90210 of Texas. But our fast and loose school culture was still not quite the apotheosis that was presented in All American High. Torrance High in 1984 doesn't seem like a typical example of an American public school. Rather it is something more. It is an icon; it is as "all American" as the New York Yankees.

Gibbs: All American High: Revisited opens with a prologue which asks viewers to consider the world "before cell phones" and social media. As someone who loathes social media (largely because I am enthralled by it), I cannot help thinking of the 1980s as the last era in which people were somewhat sane. I look back on the world before Facebook in a way which is probably similar to the way most French Catholics of the early 19th century looked back on the world before 1789. Where did you see All American High: Revisited offer a picture of pre-internet madness? 

Pope: Though I am liable to say this kind of thing, it is myopic to claim digital natives are more prone to shallowness than their analog forebears. All American High shows teens of the eighties obsessing over shopping malls, popularity contests, fake romances, superficial friendships, and wild parties. Even video games show up. “Party naked” was a popular saying at Torrance High in 1984, scrawled on cardboard signs to lift up at opportune moments (like the school picture) and yelled randomly at assemblies.  “Party naked” was like a meme that teenagers today might share on Instagram or TikTok.

Though little has changed in how interested young people are in banality, what has changed is how much time it is possible to spend on such things and the overall volume of it. A person can now share literally hundreds of high-definition memes in the same time it would have taken to make a dinky cardboard sign in 1984. At Torrance High, you had to join a flesh and blood club and go to a designated room if you wanted to play a video game. Now you don’t ever really have to stop playing.

Did it make a difference that the shallow interests of eighties youth were largely unmediated by screens? Perhaps teenagers then were more prone to sincerity and generally more willing to be vulnerable in face-to-face society. Some current students might cringe at the public outbursts and irony-free mannerisms of the teenagers in the 1984 film. Earlier you mentioned how “positively terrified of awkwardness” students are today, and I completely agree with that. The young people in All American High seemed basically game for a lot more than many current students. Teenagers raised on a steady diet of internet memes have a hair trigger cringe reflex, and they avoid it like the plague. In the eighties of the documentary, the greatest fear was being unpopular. Today, it’s being “cringy.” Perhaps because a single moment of awkwardness could be captured and frozen forever, then duplicated and distributed all over the world. 

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs is an author, lecturer, and teacher of classical literature at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of How To Be Unlucky, Something They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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