Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

RE: Let’s End Adolescence

Posted by Michael Dickens on September 6, 2009

I have received a request to respond to this article by Newt Gingrich. There is an article and a video; I will not be responding to the video, as it is too hard to quote.

It’s time to declare the end of adolescence. As a social institution, it’s been a failure.

I disagree with adolescence as a social institution. It is an age. Physiologically, socially, mentally, and emotionally, adolescents are different from children and from adults. But I will temporarily accept adolescence as a social institution for the sake of convenience.

So where’s your proof?

The proof is all around us:

Oh! Well then!

19% of eighth graders, 36% of tenth graders, and 47% of twelfth graders say they have used illegal drugs, according to a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan. One of every four girls has a sexually transmitted disease, suggests a recent study for the Centers for Disease Control. A methamphetamine epidemic among the young is destroying lives, families, and communities. And American students are learning at a frighteningly slower rate than Chinese and Indian students.

First, that’s not proof. That’s evidence. (Shh, don’t tell anyone but . . . Newt Gingrich doesn’t understand how science works. Shocker, I know.) Second, it’s not even very good evidence. Not only is this a beautiful example of the correlation fallacy, but there isn’t even anything to compare it to. The only comparison we have is to before the “adolescent” mindset existed. For that you have to go back a few hundred years. Back then, meth had not been invented yet, marijuana was not widely available, and the AIDS string hadn’t sprung up. But even so, I’d bet you that a lot more adolescents were having sex three hundred years ago than are now. And they NEVER used condoms or birth control pills. Ever.

And that last bit — about Chinese and Indian students — is just nonsensical. It is unsubstantiated, and it’s unclear what “slower” even means in this context, much less “frighteningly”. How much is “frighteningly”? And anyway, you can’t say that the concept of adolescence is a failure and also say that Chinese and Indian students are great learners, since both of those countries use the same adolescent system. Chinese children are required to go to school for at least nine years, and usually go to school from age six to 18. Sounds pretty similar to American education, huh? India also uses a very similar system. You can’t have it both ways: either adolescence is a failure, in which case Indian and Chinese education is a failure, or Chinese and Indian education is good, in which case adolescence is only a failure in certain countries. I personally do not agree that either viewpoint is correct: adolescence is not such a bad concept, but our education system is somewhat dated.

The solution is dramatic and unavoidable: We have to end adolescence as a social experiment. We tried it. It failed. It’s time to move on.

It didn’t exactly fail. It could certainly be better, and could do with reform, but it definitely did not fail.

Returning to an earlier, more successful model of children rapidly assuming the roles and responsibilities of adults would yield enormous benefit to society.

That would not work in the modern world. You can’t just *become* an engineer or a surgeon. It takes years of study. You probably don’t need to know American History, but like I said, we could do with some reform. Don’t just scrap the whole education thing, though.

Prior to the 19th century, it’s fair to say that adolescence did not exist. Instead, there was virtually universal acceptance that puberty marked the transition from childhood to young adulthood.

Yep. Back then they didn’t know that the brain isn’t even fully developed until the mid-twenties. Not to say that adolescents are stupid. Actually, the part of the brain capable of rational reasoning really starts developing around age twelve. And I agree that adolescents could certainly assume more social responsibility. And they should be allowed to vote.

Whether with the Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah ceremony of the Jewish faith or confirmation in the Catholic Church or any hundreds of rites of passage in societies around the planet, it was understood you were either a child or a young adult.

There isn’t just a switch. Growth into adulthood is a continuum, and should be treated as such. Responsibility should increase slowly as the child becomes more mature.

In the U.S., this principle of direct transition from the world of childhood play to the world of adult work was clearly established at the time of the Revolutionary War. Benjamin Franklin was an example of this kind of young adulthood. At age 13, Franklin finished school in Boston, was apprenticed to his brother, a printer and publisher, and moved immediately into adulthood.

I doubt he would have been able to become a neuropsychologist by age 13. Times have changed. We should not go back in time; instead, we need to move forward. Right now, our education system is stuck in the fifties. Don’t get it stuck in the seventeen hundred fifties.

There are some more examples of famous “American heroes” who got started in their teens. The same logic still applies to them, so there’s no need to respond to that part.

It is true that life expectancy was shorter in those days and the need to get on with being an adult could be argued.

Um, straw man?

Nevertheless, early adulthood, early responsibility, and early achievement were the norm before the institution of adolescence emerged as a system for delaying adulthood and trapping young people into wasting years of their lives.

My life certainly doesn’t feel wasted. It is not the responsibility of adults to give me things to do. I keep myself busy by writing keyboard optimization algorithms and making fun of Ann Coulter. That’s my responsibility. Everyone is in charge of his or her own education: if your life is being wasted, it’s no one’s fault but your own.

To regain those benefits, we must develop accelerated learning systems that peg the rate of academic progress to the student’s pace and ability to absorb the material, making education more efficient.

This, I agree with. Education should be faster and more efficient. How to do that exactly is a tricky problem, but this is not the time for that discussion. Or is it?

Adolescence was invented in the 19th century to enable middle-class families to keep their children out of sweatshops.

Not actually true. By “adolescence” I assume you mean “public education”. Education was started as a response to the Industrial Revolution, in order to more efficiently create factory workers. Later it adapted for the world wars and for the Cold War: for example, the reason for all that algebra and calculus is so that students can become really good at making rockets.

But it has degenerated into a process of enforced boredom and age segregation that has produced one of the most destructive social arrangements in human history: consigning 13-year-old males to learning from 15-year-old males.

Not very good? Yes. Flawed? Yes. Destructive? That seems rather extreme.

The costs of this social experiment have been horrendous. For the poor who most need to make money, learn seriously, and accumulate resources, adolescence has helped crush their future. By trapping poor people in bad schools, with no work opportunities and no culture of responsibility, we have left them in poverty, in gangs, in drugs, and in irresponsible sexual activity.

Abolishing secondary education altogether would not help. They would still be in impoverished communities. The author has completely failed to make the connection between secondary education and poverty/gangs/drugs/sex/everything bad that could possibly happen ever.

As a result, we have ruined several generations of poor people who might have made it if we had provided a different model of being young.

You know what would really solve the problem of poverty? Communism. But I’ll bet Newt has some sort of irrational repulsion to communism. At the same time, though, he seems to be advocating it.

And for too many middle-class and wealthier young Americans, adolescence has been an excuse to delay work, family, and achievement—and thus contribute less to their own well-being and that of their communities.

Okay, drop out of school when you’re 13. Now you don’t know any sort of higher learning. You don’t know the prerequisites necessary for college, and if you can’t go to college you can’t learn the skills you really need to be successful. Education may be terrible or whatever, but YOU HAVE TO LEARN STUFF.

It’s time to change this—to shift to serious work, learning, and responsibility at age 13 instead of age 30. In other words, replace adolescence with young adulthood. But hastening that transition requires integrating learning into life and work.

Really? You have a solution? I’m listening.

Fortunately, innovations in technology and in financial incentives to learn offer hope.

I’m still listening.

The Information Age makes it possible for young people to learn much faster than our current failed bureaucracies and obsolete curriculums permit. New systems such as Curriki, founded by Sun Microsystems (JAVA) and now an independent nonprofit, allow a community of teachers and learners to collaborate via the Internet to create quality educational materials for free—giving every American access to learning 24 hours a day.

Well I suppose that’s good. It’s not really the same as being in a classroom with other students and teachers to bounce off of. But this is still a good start. By the way, Sun Microsystems rocks. They created what is very likely the most awesome standard library ever built. And I just checked out Curriki: they have a pretty cool lesson plan database.

And experiments such as the one my daughter, Jackie Cushman, is running in Atlanta—where poor children are paid the equivalent of working in a fast-food restaurant to study and do their homework—are examples of a more dynamic future.

How is it sustainable to get paid for doing homework? That’s not an actual product. What would be cool is for students to do actual work on real-life projects. And they can. For example, OpenOffice, an alternative to Microsoft Office, is open source and anyone can contribute.

In math and science learning, which are among the most important indicators of future prosperity and strength, America lags far behind such emerging powers as China and India.

As I said, China and India use the same models of education as we do.

Studying to compete with Asian counterparts in the world market is going to keep U.S. teens busier than anyone ever imagined.

Wait, I thought we were going to scrap secondary education altogether. Now we’re focusing on it even more? I’m confused.

This will require year-round learning, with mentors available online, rather than our traditional bureaucratic model of education.

I don’t think that “online mentors” are really necessary to keep up with India and China. But still, it’s a cool idea. I love the internets.

But we must go further, toward a dynamic, real-world blueprint for learning.

I’m listening.

Indeed, going to school should be a money-making profession if you are good at it and work hard. That would revolutionize our poorest neighborhoods and boost our competitiveness.

Yeah, but if you’re not actually producing anything, how can you make money? Would the school pay you? That would require increased taxes and redistribution of wealth. Socialism!!1!!!!

The fact is, most young people want to be challenged and given real responsibility.

And you know this, because you’re a young person. Oh wait, you’re 66.

They want to be treated like young men and women, not old children.

I would agree with that.

So consider this simple proposal: High school students who can graduate a year early get the 12th year’s cost of schooling as an automatic scholarship to any college or technical school they want to attend. If they graduate two years early, they get two years of scholarships. At no added cost to taxpayers, we would give students an incentive to study as hard as they can and maximize the speed at which they learn.

Now that’s actually a pretty cool idea. It’s clever and cost-efficient. I like it. That solution alone will not be enough to “cure” our education system, but it’s a start.

Once we decide to engage young people in real life, doing real work, earning real money, and thereby acquiring real responsibility, we can transform being young in America. And our nation will become more competitive in the process.

That was a terrible ending. Since when is the point to be competitive? Life is a nonzero sum game.


One Response to “RE: Let’s End Adolescence”

  1. Ricky said

    So consider this simple proposal: High school students who can graduate a year early get the 12th year’s cost of schooling as an automatic scholarship to any college or technical school they want to attend. If they graduate two years early, they get two years of scholarships. At no added cost to taxpayers, we would give students an incentive to study as hard as they can and maximize the speed at which they learn.


    except where it count most to get a scholarship the money spent to get adolescents public school education is a whole lot less per student than in a place where it’s likely one or more likely both of your parents can help cover the cost of attending higher education. So although that kind of gold rush sounds appealing it’s a pretty cruel joke like most education.

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