Happy Birthday Brad Hamilton!

Back when Emmeline Zhao and I were running RealClearEducation we’d start each weekday with a newsletter tip sheet on the stories of the day and also a little ‘on this date’ item. Here’s one from seven years ago I’m reprinting because Fast Times at Ridgemont High is such a seminal film. Sure, you can argue parts didn’t age well but that’s because things sometimes don’t age well. Cameron Crowe captured a moment in youth culture authentically and through the real work of going undercover at a California high school. Amy Heckerling brought it to life. And, for too many kids high school sucks. We should talk about that, too.

Good morning, it’s Wednesday May 21. This morning at RealClearEducation we have news, commentary, analysis, and reports from the top of the education world. The school lunch fight is heating up as GOP lawmakers and First Lady Michelle Obama go head-to-head on healthy rules for school food. The Agriculture Department decided Tuesday that it will let some schools delay for two years a requirement on adding more whole grains to school meals. As we do each weekday we’ll update the site throughout the day with new content – on our main page as well as sidebars that focus on specific parts of the education sector in depth.

It’s Judge Reinhold’s birthday today. The actor was born on this date in 1957 in Delaware. He spent some of his childhood in Virginia and was a student at Mary Washington College for a while. Reinhold’s known for leading roles in Beverly Hills Cop and an acclaimed role as the “close talker” on Seinfeld. But for Americans of a certain age he’ll always be best recalled as high school senior Brad Hamilton in Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

That film had a who’s who of future movie talent in addition to Reinhold: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Forrest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, Nicholas Cage (who appeared under his true name, Nicholas Coppola), and, of course, Phoebe Cates. Ray Walston, who perhaps is best known as a Broadway song and dance performer, is unforgettable as Mr. Hand. “What are you, people? On dope?” The film was based on Cameron Crowe’s book, which he wrote while posing undercover as a student at a California high school in 1979.

Fast Times works because it’s at once ridiculous and also a dead-on encapsulation of high school angst. It veers between the absurd, Sean Penn’s over-the-top Jeff Spicoli who lives only for “tasty waves” and “a cool buzz” to the serious, sexual pressure and teenage pregnancy. Hanging over it all is the palpable sense that despite the pressure and immediacy, real responsibility and stakes lie in wait just around the corner. Crowe stirred that mix just right and the film is as much sociology as it is entertainment. That’s why young people responded to the film even if critics didn’t.

The American high school experience is many things to different people. For some it truly is glory days, for others an important formative period, and for some a period of alienation and difficulty. It’s why we would do well to remember that the stereotypical experience at the comprehensive high school is foreign to many kids. The isolation can be particularly acute in rural communities where a single high school is the focus of so much. With some notable exceptions, overall school systems in all communities generally do a lousy job for the students who need or want something else besides the mainstream. High schools are a part of the American education experience long overdue for more customization.

Technology provides some avenues. Badging and competency-based education can make the high school experience more flexible. But fundamentally, policymakers and educators have to adopt a mindset that there is nothing sacred about the four-year traditional high school experience and students can succeed and thrive with different models.

We’re supposed to reinvent ourselves anyway. As Jeff Spicoli said in Fast Times,

“What Jefferson was saying was, Hey! You know, we left this England place ’cause it was bogus; so if we don’t get some cool rules ourselves – pronto – we’ll just be bogus too! Get it?”