Let's give adolescents a chance to grow up

  • Article by: TED KOLDERIE
  • Updated: October 12, 2013 - 4:30 PM

Society has invented an in-between where little is truly expected of teens. What if we turned them loose to achieve?


Michelle Kumata/Seattle Times/MCT

Photo: Michelle Kumata, Seattle Times

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I’d had no focus myself on the institution of adolescence — “the artificial extension of childhood past puberty” — until I heard Shelton White from Harvard talk about it. I’d been slow to see its implications. Some things, a friend used to say, are “too obvious.”

A century ago, in the interest of “child welfare,” America created what became this “separate society for the young.” Today some, like Mark Bauerlein, an Emory University English professor, think it has produced “The Dumbest Generation” (as he titled his book in 2008): teenagers obsessed with their digital devices, disinclined to read and almost unable to write.

Robert Epstein, a Harvard-educated psychologist whose “Teen 2.0” lays out the case against adolescence, does not disagree about the moronic behavior of some teens.

But he says adolescence “infantilizes” young people. Deny them serious responsibilities, keep them out of real work, give them virtually no contact with adults, tell them they have no function except to be schooled (and marketed to): Why wouldn’t they behave as they do?

So, to the implications. Is this old reform now blocking the country’s effort to improve the skills and knowledge of its young people, and contributing to the difficulty young people have getting started in life? Is it possible this country could be getting enormously more than it is from its young people by treating more of them more like adults?

In the past, you were an adult at puberty. Up to 1905, about 40 percent of American 16-year-olds were “at work,” about the same percentage that were in school. Some of that work was exploitive and dangerous, in mines and factories. Soon the pattern began to change, rapidly after 1930. Today about 90 percent of 16-year-olds are in school. The world of work is closed until young people get credentials.

To absorb those millions of teenagers, America vastly expanded high school. Yet high school today is a huge problem. As the years pass, students’ engagement sags. Though not everyone’s aptitudes are verbal/conceptual/abstract, today only academic success is rewarded.

Secondary vocational schools have been closed. Conventional education policy is deeply vested in the notion that success comes from standards, not from motivation. A popular notion now is to keep students in school even longer. This year Minnesota’s Legislature extended the legal leaving-age from 16 to 17.

In the 30 years I’ve been working in education policy, I’ve heard almost nobody talk about either aptitudes or adolescence. I’ve decided that’s probably because the institution of school is so deeply complicit in that “artificial extension of childhood” — in the insistence that education rather than experience is now the way up.

“Our high schools used to be filled with children,” Mary Lee Fitzgerald, a former commissioner of education in New Jersey said in 1999. “Today they’re filled with people who are essentially adults — being treated still as children.”

Rising to the occasion

It was not always like this. When challenged, young people have done astonishingly “adult” things.

Paul Johnson, a British popular historian, wrote in “The Birth of the Modern” about boys from terribly disadvantaged backgrounds and with almost no formal education who went to work early and succeeded because they were able to rise as fast as their abilities would take them.

• Michael Faraday, the scientist and inventor of the electric motor, “was born poor, the son of a Yorkshire blacksmith. He had no education other than a few years at a school for the poor, but as a bookbinder’s apprentice he read the works he bound …”

• Jonathan Otley, the geologist, “had no education apart from village schooling and set up as a basket-maker.”

• James Nasmyth, the engineer, “started as an apprentice coach painter. His son James, inventor of the steam hammer, made a brass cannon at the age of nine.”

• Henry Maudslay, “perhaps the greatest of all the machine-tool inventors, began work at 12 as a powder-monkey in a cartridge works.”

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