September 23, 2012

Teenage Rebellion as a Failure of Society

Historians have noticed that the concept of teenage rebellion is a modern invention. Young adults often (but not always) have a tendency to be horny and impulsive, but the flagrant and sometimes violent rejection of authority associated with teenagers is a stereotype unique to modern culture. Many adults incorrectly assume this means we have gotten "too soft" and need to bring back spanking, paddles, and other harsher methods of punishment. As any respectable young adult will tell you, that isn't the answer, and in fact highlights the underlying issue of ageism that is creating an aloof, frustrated, and repressed youth.

The problem is that adults refuse to take children seriously. Until puberty, kids are often aware of this, but most simply don't care (and sometimes take advantage of it). As they develop into young adults, however, this begins to clash with their own aspirations. They want to be in control of their own lives, because they're trying to figure out what they want their lives to be. They want to explore the world and decide where to stand and what to avoid. Instead, they are locked inside a school for 6-7 hours and spoon-fed buckets of irrelevant information, which they must then regurgitate on a battery of tests that have no relation to reality. They are not given meaningful opportunities to prove themselves as functional members of society. Instead, they are explicitly forbidden from participating in the adult world until the arbitrary age of 18, regardless of how mature or immature they are. They are told that they can't be an adult not because of their behavior, but simply because they aren't old enough. The high school dropout and the valedictorian get to be adults at exactly the same time - 18.

Our refusal to let young adults prove how mature they can be is doubly ironic in the context of a faltering global economy in desperate need of innovative new technologies to create jobs. Teenagers are unrestricted by concepts of impossibility, and free from the consequences of failed experiments. They don't have to worry about acquiring government funding or getting published in a peer-reviewed journal. They just want to make cool things, and that is exactly what we need. So obviously, to improve student performance in schools, our politicians tie school funding to test scores. You can't legislate innovation, you can only inspire it. Filling in those stupid scantron forms is not conducive to creative thinking. Our hyper-emphasis on test scores has succeeded only in ensuring that the only students who get into college are ones that are good at taking tests, not inventing things.

Young adults are entirely capable of being mature, responsible members of society if we just give them the chance to be adults instead of using a impartial age barrier that serves only to segregate them from the rest of society. They are doomed to be treated as second-class citizens not because they are behaving badly, but because they aren't old enough. Physical labor and repetitive jobs are being replaced by automated machines, and these jobs aren't coming back. The new economy isn't run by office drones that follow instructions like robots, but by technological pioneers that change the world. You can't institutionalize creativity, or put it on a test. You can't measure imagination or grade ingenuity.

So what do we do? We cut funding for creative art programs and increase standardized testing. Our attempts to save our educational system are only ensuring its imminent demise as it prepares kids to live in a world that no longer exists.

The most valuable commodity in this new economy will be your imagination - the one thing computers can't do. Maybe if we actually treated young adults like real people, their creativity could become the driving force of economic prosperity.

1 comment:

  1. reminds me of the native american indian tribes who had very culturally important ceremonies for when a boy became a man, and iirc it was based more on behavior outcomes than strictly age. there were certain rites that had to be performed.

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