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. 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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  7. Found your blog through Newgrounds - very thoughtful post that mirrors a lot of my own experiences, as does many of your other blog posts. We should talk more offline. (and sorry for so many delete and re-posts lol - kept spotting typos).

    I'm of the same age, followed a roughly similar path through school, and also thought that young adults in general were fully capable if given the chance. I've since graduated and moved to the SF Bay Area though; you'd be surprised just how many new college grads actually cannot think freely and critically. I'm sure you must have seen at least a few headlines pointing out some of the absurdity in Silicon Valley now. (Having lived here for 6 years now, I'd say the media actually understates how nonsensical some of the thinking around here is, but that's for another discussion.) That's not to say we should box people up even more when they're younger though, just that I can see where some of the prejudice is coming from (though it can be argued that it's a self-fulfilling prophecy from treating people like drones in the first place).

    Speaking on just my own experience in the SF Bay Area though, my thoughts are not so much that the issue is a prejudice against age as much as the issue is an overemphasis on credentials, test scores, and numbers in general. The problems with education today are what I personally see more as part of an overall lack of critical and creative thinking in society - too much data driven. People just want to look at some threshold, do an if-greater-then condition, and be done. If you look at some of the most talented programmers, as an example, many actually do not have a formal degree in Computer Science or are self taught; recruiting based on numbers like we do now would never find them and actually weed them out. On the other side of things, I've met engineers from Ivy League schools who can barely code but get the job nonetheless from great marks in school; some cannot build a program from scratch at all unless you give them the skeleton to fill in the details on, which is arguably the bulk of the work. I've come across engineers from firms as prestigious as Google who would not even dare explore restaurants without some external confirmation of their decisions; there's actual fear in their eyes at the thought of going somewhere that doesn't have enough Yelp reviews, fear of the uncertainty and making any decision not backed with numbers. Of course, this is flawed thinking, lots of appeal to majority, authority, and other fallacies, but the sad part is a lot of our peers who do this most likely are not even aware of what things like logical fallacies are (in a non-math context). If you've read books like "City and the Stars" or "Childhood's End", it is getting quite close to that at least in some pockets of the country.

    I agree with the comment that you can only inspire innovation. It's not just that you can't legislate it, it's that to some degree you really can't teach it either. You can only create the opportunities for the students to teach themselves. What I've come to notice is that many of the most thoughtful and talented people I meet did not actually have much support when they were younger; they had to largely direct themselves. To build on your points, it's not that we necessarily need more punishment or that we're too lax, it's that we need to back off - provide the opportunities but not hand hold or micromanage every step of the way. It's not that we want to let people fail, it's that we need to let the chips fall where they may; not everyone will be a doctor but it doesn't mean they won't lead just as fulfilling of a life. There would be less people doing things because the system told them to and more people pushing forward on their own motivations. To build on the programmer example - more programmers at heart and less programmers in name only.