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The Virtues of Large Schools

Julia C. Lipman

It’s hard to keep track of all the fingers of blame being pointed in the wake of the Columbine shooting. Guns, the absence of guns, goths, absentee parents, and the cruelty of peers have variously been cited. Of all the proposed solutions to what appears to be a national problem, there’s one that sticks out to me as just plain wrong. Columbine High School had 1800 students, leading some to conclude that smaller schools are an answer to tragedies like this. That would be a mistake.

There are some advantages to smaller schools. In a small school, everyone knows each other. Principals are familiar with the personalities and needs of all their students; large schools often have only one principal. “The larger the school, the easier it is to get ‘lost,’” an editorial in a Mississippi newspaper argues. The same argument has been put forth by other observers, seemingly envisioning the one-room schoolhouse of long ago. But if it’s isolation and ostracism that we’re trying to fight, smaller schools are the wrong answer.

In a small school, there aren’t usually a lot of exclusive cliques. There is one exclusive clique. It’s the clique of everyone who’s known each other since kindergarten, everyone who isn’t shy, unathletic, or otherwise different. A small school seems friendly and comfortable to those in the clique; it can be an incomparably stifling experience to those who aren’t, especially students new to a district.

A “Trenchcoat Mafia” would have a tough time forming at a smaller school. Just gathering that many alienated students together would be difficult. But it’s not clear that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were even closely affiliated with them in the first place; according to some observers, they had only recently become associated with the group, and their association was somewhat superficial.

There are other groups that would have a hard time forming at smaller schools too. How about math teams and public service organizations? Or art societies and drama groups? Smaller schools don’t have the resources to support the number of activities that larger schools do. And how many students have been able to deal with alienation and anger by discovering an interest or a talent to pursue, and a group of peers who share that interest? Sure, if athletics is your talent, you’ll be able to pursue it no matter what size school you attend. But a lot of alienated students are alienated precisely because they don’t excel at athletics. Some observers have suggested de-emphasizing sports to avoid such alienation. Whether or not that’s a good solution, smaller schools would have exactly the opposite effect, by lacking resources to fund anything that’s perceived as a “frill” -- and insufficient numbers of students to justify such activities.

If we’re going to ask why the Columbine shootings happened at a large school, we may as well ask why recent school shootings are taking place largely in rural areas, and never in big cities. Do smallness and familiarity really preclude random violence? Some commentators have suggested that the homogeneous consumer culture -- the “mollification of America”-- in a suburb like Littleton have created an atmosphere of anonymity that makes random violence possible, even probable, by creating kids who have no “sense of place.” While an increasing Gap and Starbucks density can’t have had a positive effect on disaffected youth, going to a small school can give an isolated student more “sense of place” than anyone could ever want.

Nerds need other nerds to associate with. “The bigger a school, the more likely that strong ‘identity’ cliques will be formed,” the Mississippi editorial argues. Identity cliques seem to describe groups who don’t otherwise fit in. Apparently, we can’t have that; better to keep these kids isolated where they may be miserable, but they won’t get into trouble.

Many of us at MIT have read the “Hellmouth High” article at, which printed comments from students who felt isolated or ostracized at their schools, and the misguided reaction from some adults. “Jocks knock me down in the hallway. They steal my notes, call me a geek and a fag and a freak,” wrote one. “Sometimes, I do feel a lot of real pure rage. And I feel better when I go online,” said another. “Identity cliques”--alienated students banding together -- were not the problem at Columbine. Alienation itself was one of the problems, though. And in smaller schools, going online may be the only release for these alienated students.