Myth of Adolescence (Part 1)
The trained elephant of India is a perfect picture of the power of psychological captivity. Tamed and utilized for its enormous strength, the great beast stands nearly 10 feet tall and weighs up to 5 tons when fully grown. Its tasks may include uprooting full-grown trees, hauling great boulders, and carrying enormous loads on its shoulders. And yet, when the day’s work is done and this powerful beast must be kept from wandering off during the night, its owner simply takes a piece of twine, attaches it to a small branch embedded in the ground, and ties it around the elephant’s right hind leg. Reason dictates that the elephant can easily snap the twine or pull the twig from ground, and yet the owner does not worry, fully confident that when morning comes he will find the animal exactly where he left him. And he does.
I’ll admit that upon first hearing of this practice, I couldn’t decide which was harder to believe: that the owner was confident, or that his confidence proved justified. A beast that can uproot trees is suddenly unable to pull up a twig? What is it about the piece of twine and the small branch that allows them to subdue all of the elephant’s power? I soon discovered that it had little to do with the twine around the elephant’s ankle, and everything to do with invisible shackles around its mind.
My contention is simple: The young adults of our generation are the elephant. Our twine is the 20th century concept of adolescence. Our twig is societal expectations. We stand restrained as a hurting world burns around us. Yet our twine and twig are of a recent origin. Young adults of the past were not so encumbered.
David Farragut, the U.S. Navy’s first admiral, became a midshipman on the warship Essex at the age of 10. At the age of 12, a mere boy by modern standards, Farragut was given command of his first ship, sailing a capture vessel, crew, and prisoners, back to the U.S. after a successful battle. Young David was given responsibility at an early age, and he rose to the occasion.
The father of our country, George Washington, though never thought to be particularly bright by his peers, began to master geometry, trigonometry, and surveying when he would have been a 5th or 6th grader in our day and ceased his formal education at 14 years of age. At the age of 16 he was named official surveyor for Culpepper County, Virginia. For the next three years, Washington earned nearly $100,000 a year (in modern purchasing power). By the age of 21, he had leveraged his knowledge of the surrounding land, along with his income, to acquire 2,300 acres of prime Virginian land.
These examples astound us in our day and age, but this is because we view life through an extra social category called ‘adolescence’, a category that would have been completely foreign to men and women just 100 years ago. Prior to the late 1800s there were only 3 categories of age: childhood, adulthood, and old age. It was only with the coming of the early labor movement with its progressive child labor laws, coupled with new compulsory schooling laws, that a new category, called adolescence, was invented. Coined by G. Stanley Hall, who is often considered the father of American psychology, ‘adolescence’ identified the artificial zone between childhood and adulthood when young people ceased to be children, but were no longer permitted by law to assume the normal responsibilities of adulthood, such as entering into a trade or finding gainful employment. Consequently, marriage and family had to be delayed as well, and so we invented ‘the teenager’, an unfortunate creature who had all the yearnings and capabilities of an adult, but none of the freedoms or responsibilities.
Teenage life became a 4-year sentence of continuing primary education and relative idleness known as ‘high school’ (four years of schooling which would later be repeated in the first two years of college). Abolished by law were the young Farraguts and young Washingtons, who couldn’t spare the time to be children any longer than necessary. Cultivated instead was the culture we know today, where young people are allowed, encouraged, and even forced to remain quasi-children for much longer than necessary.
The effect of this seismic shift in America’s philosophy of education is not limited to students in the public schools. As homeschoolers we may feel as though we have escaped the danger, but an honest evaluation proves that, as a whole, we also fall short of realizing our potential. After reading the examples of great men of our country’s past, we should recognize that there is no reason why a 13 to 18 year old cannot behave as a responsible adult. History proves it is possible. Diverse cultures confirm its validity. The only thing holding young people back in America today is the twine of this perpetual recess called adolescence and the twig of lowered social expectations. We expect immaturity and irresponsibility, from ourselves and from one another, and that is exactly what we get.
[Go to Part Two...]