It's hard to absorb a new idea. So it will take time for us all to see the problem that "adolescence" has become.

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."

• Matthew Murray, "the great engine designer, began as a kitchen boy and butler. Richard Roberts, brilliant inventor of power looms, was a shoemaker's son, had virtually no education and began as a quarry laborer. John Kennedy, the first great builder of iron ships, was another poor Scot who received no schooling except in summer and started as a carpenter's boy."

• In "Longitude," Dava Sobel tells the story of John Harrison, who solved "the greatest scientific problem of his time," enabling ships to know their east/west location by inventing a clock that would carry the true time from the home port to anywhere in the world. Harrison had no formal education and no apprenticeship to any watchmaker.

• In "The Maritime History of Massachusetts" Samuel Eliot Morison writes about Mary Patten, wife of the captain of a clipper ship. "In 1858 on a voyage around Cape Horn, her husband fell ill. The first mate was in irons for insubordination; the second mate was ignorant of navigation. Mrs. Patten had made herself mistress of the art of navigation during a previous voyage. She took command and for 52 days navigated the ship of 1800 tons, tending her husband the while, and took both safely into San Francisco." She was 19.

• Nadia Popova died last July. She started flying at 15, and when the Germans invaded Russia, she joined a squadron of young women who flew flimsy plywood planes that bombed German encampments at night. She flew 852 missions; on one night alone, 18.

In his history of the Battle of Britain, Michael Korda writes that by late summer 1940, more and more of those flying the British Spitfires and Hurricanes were, in our terms, high school seniors.

• Laura Dekker was sailing single-handed in Holland at 6. At 13, she decided to sail alone around the world. The authorities had a fit. But her parents agreed. She set off at 14 in a 38-foot ketch, stopped along the way and returned safely at 16.

Today we see this kind of accomplishment mostly in fields adults can't master or don't themselves want to enter: sports, entertainment, digital electronics. (Google for "youth accomplishment" and "student competitions" to see for yourself.)

People often think children we see "going faster" are "gifted." Kim Gibbons, the reading expert for the St. Croix River Education District, says people sometimes comment about her "gifted" children. "They're not gifted," she says. "They just learned to read early."

The lockdown

The advent of adolescence brought prohibitions. If you're not an adult, you can't do adult things: be employed full time, inherit property, vote, seek or refuse medical treatment, sign contracts, file lawsuits, marry without parental consent.

In the 1960s, the restrictions tightened. With prosperity, the old ethic of self-denial gave way to a spirit of self-fulfillment. A new youth culture appeared — the music, the clothes, the drugs, the sex. Adults, disliking this teenage behavior, tried to control it. That bred resentment, generating still more restrictions. Curfews. Can't drive. Can't drink. "No entry except with adult." Blocked access to the Internet. Criminalized sex under 18. No cigarettes. Dress codes. "Parental Consent Required." And in school came metal detectors, video surveillance, armed guards, no hoods and "No Cellphones!" One insurance company still campaigns to raise the driving age to 18.

This has made young people arguably the most discriminated-against class of people in our society. And nobody sees it. Good folk who would die rather than utter a racial or ethnic slur think nothing of referring to young adults as "kids."

The alternative

What if exceptional talents are still there in young people, suppressed by the institution of adolescence? We'd want to release that reservoir of talent. How?

We'd begin by changing school to let young people advance as fast and as far as their efforts and abilities will take them, in every field.

In traditional school, students are sorted by age and "instructed" as a group. Most students move a grade a year, however much (or little) they've learned.

If learning were personalized, those who needed more time would get more time and would learn more. Those who could go faster would go faster and would learn more. That's competency-based progression. Seventh-graders play varsity tennis if they're good enough. Why can't some seventh-graders be doing "varsity math"?

Finland, much praised for its students' success, ends compulsory education at 16. Students move to "upper secondary," almost half of these into vocational school that leads on to postsecondary "polytechnics."

Accelerating learning would have positive economics as well. Minnesota has about 75,000 juniors and 75,000 seniors; it spends about $10,000 on each. Multiply 10,000 by 150,000 and you get a rather large number. And that's per year.

Actually, Minnesota has been doing this, if only gradually. In 1985, a "postsecondary option" was Rep. Connie Levi's condition for supporting Gov. Rudy Perpich's open enrollment. PSEO passed, letting juniors and seniors enroll full time or part time in any Minnesota college or university. That in turn has stimulated high schools to bring college into the schools.

The examples are interesting.

• In 2009, while finishing eighth grade (at 13), Caleb Kumar earned an associate of arts degree from North Hennepin Community College. At 15, for developing an algorithm to automate the diagnosis of bladder cancer, he received a $25,000 scholarship from the Davidson Institute for Talent Development.

• In 1998, Rob and Ryan Weber, twins, got an AA degree from North Hennepin through PSEO just before graduating from Osseo Senior High. They'd already been starting computer software businesses. Today, NativeX — started in 2000 with older brother Aaron — has more than 160 employees and offices in Sartell, Minn., Minneapolis and San Francisco.

To set youthful talent free, we would also enlarge the role of nonschool learning organizations: the science museums and art galleries and organizations like 4-H. We'd open new opportunities for work, and would credit and respect what young people learn from work. Firms hiring young people value these skills.

Young people can work outside school hours. Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire-Hathaway now owns the Hill railroads once headquartered in St. Paul, was keeping accounts for his first business at age 11. Elmer Andersen, Minnesota's former governor, felt he succeeded partly because he got lots of life experiences early.

Finally, we could pick up Epstein's idea to make adultness competency-based rather than age-based — letting young people "test out" of the restrictions of adolescence. He's developed an assessment, given thousands of times, which he says establishes that between 15 and 85, the probability of people displaying adultness/maturity/responsibility is independent of age.

Treating teens more like adults clearly is the kind of idea, or paradigm change, that is not absorbed quickly. But it would be worth seeing how teenagers respond: People often do live up to what's expected of them.

Ted Kolderie works on public-service redesign, and on the redesign of K-12 education, with the Center for Policy Studies. He has been a reporter and editorial writer with the Star Tribune, executive director of the Citizens League and a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.