27 April 2010

Making adolescence obsolescent

Chuck Colson recently published two BreakPoint commentaries that have a bearing on secondary education: South Hadley Hellions: The Fruit of Sin and Savagery in South Hadley: Where Are the Adults? The event that prompted these commentaries was the tragic bullying and suicide of Phoebe Prince in a west Massachusetts community. I was struck by Colson’s words here:

American teenagers operate in what has been called a “parallel culture” that operates free of adult interference. American high schools have been described as places where “individuals of the same age group define each other’s world.” As we saw in South Hadley, instead of challenging these definitions, or even the kind of cruelty endured by kids like Phoebe Prince, teachers and administrators often adopt a hands-off approach. This is politically correct, to respect personal autonomy. Look what it leads to. Every once in a while, events like those in South Hadley or the school shootings a decade ago cause us to examine some aspect of this “parallel culture,” but the “parallel culture” remains.

I myself wonder whether the problem is more deep-seated than even Colson lets on. Public secondary schools have existed for a few generations in North America, and they have indeed fostered a powerful adolescent subculture with its own (frequently twisted) mores and social expectations. This subculture came into its own in the unprecedented prosperity of the postwar era and we are living with the consequences of this 65 years later.

After I had read Colson, a friend pointed me to a powerful essay by Mardi Keyes: Who Invented Adolescence? Keyes, whose husband Dick directs the Northborough, Massachusetts, chapter of l’Abri Fellowship, points to the current tendency to focus lopsidedly on sexual maturity as the watershed in the maturation process – something that began as early as the turn of the last century with psychologist G. Stanley Hall. After this time, age-segregated education became increasingly commonplace, with peer groups being formed nearly exclusively of those born within a few months of each other. Gone was the casual contact with one’s elders once characteristic of ordinary life in especially rural communities. No longer were young people apprenticed to adults from whom they would learn a trade. Now they were shepherded into schools and left to form their own culture with its juvenile mores and expectations that were increasingly distanced from the realities of adult life.

An entire youth subculture began to be created with its own niche market to which a multi-billion-dollar industry was happy to cater. By the the mid-1950s, when Catcher in the Rye, Rebel Without a Cause and other books and films were popularizing the notion of teen angst, the entire culture had been reshaped by those who were intended to be the recipients of the newer and more progressive shaping processes.

What would normative maturation, free from the distortions of the contemporary youth culture, look like? Here’s Keyes:

My husband, Dick, has developed some material on the human life cycle from a biblical perspective which I’d like to use here. God made humankind, male and female, in His image, and blessed us with the responsibility of exercising stewardship and dominion over His creation, while trusting or depending in Him. The two dynamics of trust (dependency) and dominion (creativity, mastery, competency, initiative) are intrinsic to what it means to be human beings – image bearers of God. They are both human needs and responsibilities.

The Fall (human sin) has distorted both these dynamics so that trust too easily becomes overdependence, and dominion becomes domination.

The whole human life cycle can be understood in terms of the shifting dynamics of dependency and dominion. Each of us enters life in a state of total dependency. Human growth involves growth in dominion – acquiring mastery, competency, and independence. And it begins right away.

This biblical notion of growth in dominion resonates even with young people themselves, as shown by twin brothers Brett and Alex Harris, who, with barely two decades under their belt, have managed to write two books on the subject. Home-schooled as children, they are spearheading “a teenage rebellion against the low expectations of an ungodly culture.”

As an educator, I suppose I could be said to have a vested interest in the existence of schools and universities. Though my wife and I are heavily involved in our daughter’s education, we do not home-school her. All the same, some of the best students I have taught at Redeemer have indeed been home-schooled. They have a natural curiosity about the subjects of their studies, and they are almost entirely unaware of a generation gap, relating as easily to older adults as to their peers. They are a pleasure to mentor.

Yet schools are not going to go away, and I would make no argument for their abolition – except perhaps tongue-in-cheek. Given this reality, are there ways in which we can reshape the educational process to mitigate age segregation and end – yes, end! – the youth culture as a distinctive parallel subculture? For if we fail to do so, we will continue to live in a society bearing the marks of perpetual immaturity, to the detriment of everyone.

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