The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager
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
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
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