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The Problem With Pep

In Nirvana’s iconic music video for their hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the legendary alternative-rock band plays, in a cynical reflection of “school spirit,” inside a dark and dusty gymnasium filled with overenthusiastic cheerleaders and a crowd of apathetic high schoolers. Over the course of the song, the crowd devolves into anarchy, rebelling against the oppressive adults of their world, and even the elderly janitor gets in on the action. After the October 11th Dons pep rally, I understand why these images are so resonant. As we filtered into the crowded and loud gymnasium, and sat on uncomfortable bleachers for over forty minutes, the rose-colored glasses I have had since coming to Santa Barbara High School are beginning to slip. This, my first and hopefully only pep rally, raised many concerns for me about ASB’s role in our school, and our administration’s endorsement of it. More than anything, it shocked me that we can be required to attend these frivolous pep rallies which waste precious education hours, and, in the end, serve to brainwash students.

Whether or not pep rallies are fun or of high quality, they are not why students come to school and not why California law mandates that students come to school. School is not about school spirit. School is about education. As it is, Santa Barbara High School’s teachers have a hard enough time making it through their curriculum, especially in AP classes with College Board mandated subjects. Between Pre-ACT and PSAT testing, and assemblies throughout the year, unnecessary pep rallies do not also need to contribute to the burden of stress shared by teachers and students, especially when the main events are dodgeball games and dance-offs. 

For me, the most concerning aspect of pep rallies is that they are mandatory. Generally, students in public school are there because they have to be there, and when entire schedules are rearranged for ASB’s passion projects, all students are also required to attend, with just as much gravity as any of their academic classes. In fact, at the rally as students began to leave early, they were threatened by ASB members with unexcused truancies. Truancies exist to ensure students don’t miss valuable education hours, not pep rallies. I sincerely appreciate the opportunity for cheer, dance, Madrigals, and marching band to share their talents with the rest of the school, but it should not be mandatory. I am a part of theater, and I too want to be able to share what I love and what I work hard on with the world, but no one is required to come and see our shows. Let’s work together with ASB to create more engaging, but voluntary events, where the achievements of our sports teams and performers can be truly showcased and appreciated without being drowned out by the noise of the crowd and degraded by life-size cow statues.

Beyond the bright lights, olive and gold necklaces, and DJ Hecktik, there is a much more sinister effect of these pep rallies. Pep rallies are a form of indoctrination which use the exact same propaganda techniques as authoritarian governments throughout history. Indoctrination that we are Dons and we should hate Royals. Football rivalries seem fairly innocent, but when this sort of reasoning is implanted in our head, it extends to all of our thinking. This is the same type of thinking that causes soldiers in the military to hate other people because of superficial differences. Dons vs. Royals ends up translating to Republicans vs. Democrats, Christianity vs. Islam, Us vs. Them. This is tribalism: rather than using critical thinking to define our beliefs we are taught to associate with the in-group and despise the out-group. This also soon becomes nationalism. The American government loves this thinking because it is essential to propping up the military and quashing dissent. I am sure President Trump would love to thank ASB for doing his job for him. School should not be teaching us which team to support, but how to use critical thinking to decide for ourselves.

Pep rallies are an outdated propaganda technique targeted at impressionable minds, and a waste of law-mandated teaching hours. But here’s the kicker: our pep rallies are ineffective. They don’t increase school spirit overall. They only serve to deepen people’s pre-existing beliefs about ASB, sports teams, and Santa Barbara High School in general. If ASB wants to matter, instead of spending money on pep rallies, we could be installing air conditioning and heating in our classrooms. Instead of planning these frivolous events, ASB could vouch for the real issues in the student-administration relationship at this school such as our ability to participate in protests like the Climate Strike. School spirit is a valuable tool which can give students and staff a shared sense of belonging and even increase academic performance, but mandatory pep rallies are not the solution. If ASB truly wants to increase school spirit for everyone, there is really only one thing they can do: create a better school. I urge ASB to end pep rallies or make them optional events.


  • Emerson Steady, a senior, is honored to be Editor-in-Chief and write for The Forge for his third year. Working with The Forge's team of talented writers and covering the artists, athletes, clubs, and academics at our school has deeply connected Emerson to the SBHS community. In addition to journalism, he is very active in theatre at Santa Barbara High School and beyond. He writes music, and his dream is to write and compose for musical theatre.

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