Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The End of Adolescence

Adolescence as an idea and as an experience grew out of the more general elevation of childhood as an ideal throughout the Western world. By the closing decades of the 19th century, nations defined the quality of their cultures by the treatment of their children. As Julia Lathrop, the first director of the United States Children’s Bureau, the first and only agency exclusively devoted to the wellbeing of children, observed in its second annual report, children’s welfare ‘tests the public spirit and democracy of a community’.

Progressive societies cared for their children by emphasising play and schooling; parents were expected to shelter and protect their children’s innocence by keeping them from paid work and the wrong kinds of knowledge; while health, protection and education became the governing principles of child life. These institutional developments were accompanied by a new children’s literature that elevated children’s fantasy and dwelled on its special qualities. The stories of Beatrix Potter, L Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll celebrated the wonderland of childhood through pastoral imagining and lands of oz.

The United States went further. In addition to the conventional scope of childhood from birth through to age 12 – a period when children’s dependency was widely taken for granted – Americans moved the goalposts of childhood as a democratic ideal by extending protections to cover the teen years. The reasons for this embrace of ‘adolescence’ are numerous. As the US economy grew, it relied on a complex immigrant population whose young people were potentially problematic as workers and citizens. To protect them from degrading work, and society from the problems that they could create by idling on the streets, the sheltering umbrella of adolescence became a means to extend their socialisation as children into later years. The concept of adolescence also stimulated Americans to create institutions that could guide adolescents during this later period of childhood; and, as they did so, adolescence became a potent category.

With the concept of adolescence, American parents, especially those in the middle class, could predict the staging of their children’s maturation. But adolescence soon became a vision of normal development that was applicable to all youth – its bridging character (connecting childhood and adulthood) giving young Americans a structured way to prepare for mating and work. In the 21st century, the bridge is sagging at both ends as the innocence of childhood has become more difficult to protect, and adulthood is long delayed. While adolescence once helped frame many matters regarding the teen years, it is no longer an adequate way to understand what is happening to the youth population. And it no longer offers a roadmap for how they can be expected to mature.

In 1904, the psychologist G Stanley Hall enshrined the term ‘adolescence’ in two tomes dense with physiological, psychological and behavioural descriptions that were self-consciously ‘scientific’. These became the touchstone of most discussions about adolescence for the next several decades. As a visible eruption toward adulthood, puberty is recognised in all societies as a turning point, since it marks new strength in the individual’s body and the manifestation of sexual energy. But in the US, it became the basis for elaborate and consequential intellectual reflections, and for the creation of new institutions that came to define adolescence. Though the physical expression of puberty is often associated with a ritual process, there was nothing in puberty that required the particular cultural practices that grew around it in the US as the century progressed. As the anthropologist Margaret Mead argued in the 1920s, American adolescence was a product of the particular drives of American life.

Rather than simply being a turning point leading to sexual maturity and a sign of adulthood, Hall proposed that adolescence was a critical stage of development with a variety of special attributes all of its own. Dorothy Ross, Hall’s biographer, describes him as drawing on earlier romantic notions when he portrayed adolescents as spiritual and dreamy as well as full of unfocused energy. But he also associated them with the new science of evolution that early in the century enveloped a variety of theoretical perspectives in a scientific aura. Hall believed that adolescence mirrored a critical stage in the history of human development, through which human ancestors moved as they developed their full capacities. In this way, he endowed adolescence with great significance since it connected the individual life course to larger evolutionary purposes: at once a personal transition and an expression of human history, adolescence became an elemental experience. Rather than a short juncture, it was a highway of multiple transformations.

Hall’s book would provide intellectual cover for the two most significant institutions that Americans were creating for adolescents: the juvenile court and the democratic high school. (...)

On a much grander scale than the juvenile court, the publicly financed comprehensive high school became possibly the most distinctly American invention of the 20th century. As a democratic institution for all, not just a select few who had previously attended academies, it incorporated the visions of adolescence as a critically important period of personal development, and eventually came to define that period of life for the majority of Americans. In its creation, educators opened doors of educational opportunity while supervising rambunctious young people in an environment that was social as well as instructional. As the influential educational reformer Elbert Fretwell noted in 1931 about the growing extra-curricular realm that was essential to the new vision of US secondary schooling: ‘There must be joy, zest, active, positive, creative activity, and a faith that right is mighty and that it will prevail.’

In order to accommodate the needs of a great variety of students – vastly compounded by the many different sources of immigration – the US high school moved rapidly from being the site of education in subjects such as algebra and Latin (the basis for most instruction in the 19th century US and elsewhere in the West) to becoming an institution where adolescents could learn vocational and business skills, and join sports teams, musical productions, language clubs and cooking classes. In Extra-Curricular Activities in the High School (1925), Charles R Foster concluded: ‘Instead of frowning, as in olden days, upon the desire of the young to act upon their own initiative, we have learned that only upon these varied instincts can be laid the surest basis for healthy growth … The school democracy must be animated by the spirit of cooperation, the spirit of freely working together for the positive good of the whole.’ School reformers set out to use the ‘cooperative’ spirit of peer groups and the diverse interests and energy of individuals to create the comprehensive US high school of the 20th century.

Educators opened wide the doors of the high school because they were intent on keeping students there for as long as possible. Eager to engage the attention of immigrant youth, urban high schools made many adjustments to the curriculum as well as to the social environment. Because second-generation immigrants needed to learn a new way of life, keeping them in school longer was one of the major aims of the transformed high school. They succeeded beyond all possible expectations. By the early 1930s, half of all US youth between 14 and 17 was in school; by 1940, it was 79 per cent: astonishing figures when compared with the single-digit attendance at more elite and academically focused institutions in the rest of the Western world.

High schools brought young people together into an adolescent world that helped to obscure where they came from and emphasised who they were as an age group, increasingly known as teenagers. It was in the high schools of the US that adolescence found its home. And while extended schooling increased their dependence for longer periods of times, it was also here that young people created their own new culture. While its content – its clothing styles, leisure habits and lingo – would change over time, the common culture of teenagers provided the basic vocabulary that young people everywhere could recognise and identify with. Whether soda-fountain dates or school hops, jazz or rock’n’roll, rolled stockings or bobby sox, ponytails or duck-tail hairstyles – it defined the commonalities and cohesiveness of youth. By mid-century, high school was understood to be a ‘normal’ experience and the great majority of youth (of all backgrounds) were graduating from high schools, now a basic part of growing up in the US. It was ‘closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of’, as the novelist Kurt Vonnegut concluded in an article for Esquire in 1970.

With their distinctive music and clothing styles, US adolescents had also become the envy of young people around the world, according to Jon Savage in Teenage (2007). They embodied not just a stage of life, but a state of privilege – the privilege not to work, the right to be supported for long periods of study, the possibility of future success. US adolescents basked in the wealth of their society, while for the rest of the world the US promise was personified by its adolescents. Neither the country’s high schools nor its adolescents were easily imitated elsewhere because both rested on the unique prosperity of the 20th-century US economy and the country’s growing cultural power. It was an expensive proposition that was supported even at the depth of the Great Depression. But it paid off in the skills of a population who graduated from school, not educated in Latin and Greek texts (the norm in lycĂ©es and gymnasia elsewhere), but where the majority were sufficiently proficient in mathematics, English and rudimentary science to make for an unusually literate and skilled population.

by Paula S Fass, Aeon | Read more:
Image: Bruce Dale/National Geographic/Getty