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The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager

by Thomas Hine

      Elementary schools prepare students for middle schools, which prepare students for high schools, which prepare students for colleges, which prove, allegedly, which peacocks have the best tails--and all designed by “experts” and politicians who cannot stand books with logical arguments—learnin’—but nevertheless deliver cant about how important education is. Does anyone see a problem here?


Thomas Hine does.


     Why do the results of opinion polls place so much importance on the value of a college education when the experiences of students are cycles of cram and forget? Employers want credentials from the credentials industrial complex because the credentials are correlated with other, more valuable, traits--maturity, perseverance, intelligence, enthusiasm, flexibility, and reliability. The credentials, however, do not cause those traits.


     If most individuals in this country had graduate degrees, it might create more harms than benefits. We might have millions of hostile, underemployed derelicts with high, unstable self-esteem, the sort of thing Roy Baumeister maintains leads to many evils.


Most jobs, educationally, require little more than literacy and on the job training.


Research suggests many educational activities do not improve overall income or economically benefit the moderately educated. Some individuals--nurses, doctors, lawyers, engineers--may need college educations. But many jobs once done by high school grads and dropouts are now done by college grads. High school grads and dropouts reside further down. In "Dropping Out? Problem or Symptom," a longitudinal study done at the University of Michigan, Delbert S. Elliot and Harwin L. Ross, suggest that dropping out does not cause bad things.


Other factors cause bad things--factors dropouts have whether they drop out or not.


For teens, school is often a custodial institution that serves to sort the better job candidates from the worse, a long, boring resume enhancer that features the wonderful character building technique of cram and forget.


      Hine explains that the small differences in lifetime income among high school drop outs and high school graduates is due to employer unwillingness to hire drop outs. His explanation is inadequate. The bigger reasons drop outs earn less is they have worse personalities, characters, genes, and environmental histories.


     Delivering an absorbing history of teenagers, Hine claims that maturity over a century ago was primarily determined by behavior and physical strength, not chronological age. Twelve-year-olds and 18-year-olds often did the same tasks. Many served rigid apprenticeships until one found one’s calling, often with cruel or incompetent masters. Some apprenticeships (read: indentured servitudes) even began in infancy for orphans.


     “Youth,” Hine writes, “should be a time for learning that one’s decisions have consequences.” The young should experiment and grow from their mistakes and successes.


     While many practices were deplorable, Hine suggests that at least one idea should be revived. Teenagers should be treated in accordance with their individual development, not as animals to be branded with an age and herded off. Now students are legally required to attend school, where they are legally required to watch Channel One. Whose idea of liberty is this? This is worse than some forms of child labor.


Teenage life became less diverse, though diversity is a favorite buzzword. In the past, a sixteen-year-old could be a doctor, student, farmer, worker or wage-slave. Now we judge maturity by age, and leaders expect teenagers to conform with others their age. Deferred responsibility benefits some but not others. Teenagers' main roles now are as consumers and style setters. “Money plays a paradoxical role for teenagers. If they are in the mainstream workforce, they’re not teenagers. But if they don’t have any money, no youth culture emerges.” He notes: “The purpose of high school was largely to indoctrinate youth with middle-class standards. But by separating young people... universal high school education gave teenagers the chance to set standards of their own.”


We protect teenagers from the world of work, whether they want to be or not, yet teenagers are rarely protected from adult vices. In fact, practicing adult vices is a way teenagers prove their status. For their part, adults encourage the cultural belief that teenage is synonymous with incompetent.


Hine throws out poorly reasoned conclusions on many side issues, and he uses abysmal statistics. But he concludes “to be [fully] human, you must become the hero of your own life.” We have not been helping teenagers become heroes. Recommended.


J.T. Fournier, last updated July 7, 2009


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