Adolescence is a comparatively recent social construct. Whilst the ancient Greek philosophers had a little to say about the transition between childhood and adulthood, this phase transition really only became accepted in the nineteenth century.
The concept of adolescence has played a critical part in the emergence of
Idealistically, Western society saw a child as a latent human being with seemingly endless possibilities. But over time more people came to recognise those possibilities were not endless but constrained by the child’s biological inheritance and their socialisation.
(Our local university has the catchcry, “Be what you want to be.” I have protested that this is unrealistic, pointing out that if I had wanted to be an Olympic basketballer I was at least 30cm too short!)
But to be an adult was to acquire an “identity”. An adult needed to know who he was, what he believed in and the fundamental values he might share with other human beings. Adolescence in this respect funnelled and sorted our propensities and ambitions children coalesced in the end to some sort of secure platform of identity.
Adolescence was the essential phase we all had to endure to narrow down those myriad possibilities to become grounded in cogent beliefs and values, habits and attitudes, to transform us into adults.
Human spirituality compels us to find meaning and purpose in our lives. In the 18th century more rapid social changes caused the attempt to find one’s place in the world more difficult and put into question many prevailing customs and beliefs that had hitherto provided meaning to human existence.
The emerging concept of adolescence is often attributed to the French philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau. In his discussion of the emotional upheavals brought on by puberty he wrote of:
…..the child who is moody and erratic, and has a more or less strong aversion toward parental authority.
He further observed:
It does not want to be led anymore. It does not want to have anything to do with adults. It is unreasonable, and mutinous. In short, it is unmanageable.
There are a number of interesting developments arising from the general adoption of this notion of “adolescence”.
To begin with it stimulated interest in what psychologists now call “personal adjustment”. As I intimated earlier, adolescence was equated with the experience of an individual being forced to relinquish the freedoms and low expectations of being a child and “adjust” to the higher expectation and increased responsibilities of adulthood. Personal adjustment has since taken on a broader definition which relates more to the psychological maturity of the individual.
Secondly, since the notion of adolescence was first proposed the expected duration of this phase of development has considerably increased. Even in my own lifetime this has changed considerably. When I was at school probably something like 50% of my contemporaries left school at age fourteen and found employment as juniors in the local retail outlets or apprentices in engineering firms, Queensland Rail or local utilities.
Now this was beneficial to most of these young people. They were out earning a living in the adult world. They were productive members of society, earning a wage, paying their taxes and learning useful practical skills. Most of them made a successful transition into adulthood at this early age and became comfortable with who they were and their place in society.
(Two of my brothers took the option of early apprenticeships and like many of their generation had successful careers as a result.)
But over subsequent years, for whatever reason, leaving school early has been discouraged. This in itself has prevented young people from taking a meaningful place in society and hence has prolonged the period of their adolescence. There is an implicit assumption that conventional education is necessary ro guide the young person to adulthood.
Educators and public commentators have ambivalent opinions about the purpose of education. Some, obviously dominated by the business lobby, believe the prime aim of education is to prepare young people for the world of work, providing them with basic literacy, numeracy and vocational skills to be useful as an employee. Others believe education has a broader function. They want our children to have wide exposure to literature and the Arts, to understand personal relationships, to appreciate our history, to promote their personal intellectual and psychological development and so on. It is obviously impossible to meet all these demands through the formal education system.
Unfortunately, in recent years where the left have overtaken our schools and universities our young people in their adolescence are being taught to comply with the diktats of identity politics and adherence to the dubious notions of “wokeness”. So not only are we extending the period of adolescence of these young people we are facilitating their being brainwashed with anti-conservative principles.
One of my major concerns about the education system is that it places far too much weight on academic learning whereas we know many of our most important skills are learnt experientially.
(I have two university degrees but willingly concede that most of the learning I have acquired in my nearly eight decades that I most value didn’t come from my formal education.)
Governments, urged on by the teachers’ unions, have sought to have more and more of our young people complete high school (resulting, as those unions desire, in the employment of more teachers) and then if possible go on to university. In some jurisdictions schools are rewarded for their retention rates, irrespective of the academic achievements of their students during their tenure. This inspires schools to be innovative in keeping children in schools but not to be innovative in promoting learning. How can that possibly benefit our youth?
As a consequence of this we have a whole lot of young people trapped in schools who don’t want to be there. Many of them, particularly boys, are disruptive, interfering with the learning opportunities of those students around them who actually want to learn in a conventional sense. The recalcitrant students are not learning anything of consequence and these are largely wasted years for them.
I know I am a reactionary, but I suspect we got it better 50 years ago.
In those simpler times, as I related above, children with little academic ability left school early and found employment. They worked as juniors in shops, took on apprenticeships or whatever. Mind you those were times of full employment and when non-skilled labour was still in high demand. But the point is that those not academically inclined were not clogging up the education system but out making a contribution. This was really a win-win situation. Not only were the schools better off but those young people who left and gained employment felt much better about themselves being useful and competent at their work, a psychological state they were most unlikely to achieve in school.
I have been active in the education sector for many years. I have spoken at national conferences of educators on such issues as the future of work and employers expectations of education. I have chaired the board of an indigenous school. I have been a member of a university council. I have led university research groups. I have been involved in initiatives trying to ensure young people obtained employment. I mention this to assure you that not only do I have a great interest in education but that I also have some reasonable knowledge in this field.
Nearly thirty years ago I was approached by some teachers from a local high school complaining about how disruptive some disengaged boys were in their classes. I was chair of the local Commerce Queensland Regional Council at the time. I asked the teachers to help me facilitate a program for these recalcitrant boys. This was difficult in itself because the Education Department had strict limits to the time students could be withdrawn from school. (This of course reflected the prevailing ethos that the only solution to educational problems must be resolved by schooling, notwithstanding the fact that schooling can often be the source of the problem!)
But eventually we won approval to take these boys out of school for a day per week. A number of the employers who belonged to Commerce Queensland volunteered to take the boys into their workplaces and give them useful things to do. The outcome was a revelation. Firstly the employers reported no problems with these so-called “difficult” boys. They said they were mostly willing workers and made a useful contribution in the workplace. What’s more a number of the boys were offered employment by these employers as a result of our little project.
As well the teachers reported that the behaviour of the boys improved when in school. Many of the boys had poor attendance histories but they never missed turning up for the days they were allowed to work in the local businesses.
There are a lot of lessons to be taken from this little experiment. Suffice is to say that for many young people school is detested because their likelihood of success and the subsequent affirmation of self-worth is minimal. And many young people who won’t do well at school will still succeed if they are given opportunities to learn experientially.
Learning in many schools is rendered less effective by the poor behaviour of students. In many dysfunctional families it seems as if parents have forsaken their proper parental duties including teaching children how to behave properly and this (considerable) burden is shouldered off onto teachers. Many studies have shown that, in poorly performed schools, teachers spend disproportionate time trying to control the behaviour of recalcitrant children rather than teaching. In the absence of proper parental care at home teachers are becoming defacto parents. What’s more in many cases where teachers try to intervene to improve the behaviour of children their authority is weakened by parents siding with their aberrant children.
Moving on to our universities, there are another range of issues.
Firstly, teaching in universities takes a back seat role to research. Our best scholars are lured into research at the expense of lecturing. What’s more many of those relegated to lecturing, although they might know their subject matter well, have poor teaching skills and find difficulty in imparting their knowledge to students. I believe we would be better off if universities were better at imparting knowledge and gave that a higher priority.
Additionally universities (and schools also for that matter) have been captured by the left wing intelligentsia and students at a very susceptible age are submerged in so-called progressive propaganda.
University degrees have been devalued in recent times because of a desire to ensure that most students graduate. This invidious trend has been spurred by universities in particular whose business model revolves around attracting foreign students. Students who can barely speak English are somehow assisted to do enough to graduate.
Leaving aside the issue of what we expect from education, students in universities (just as in schools) are often not engaged by their courses and question the relevance of a lot of the subject matter.
One young woman I know commenced a university degree in Education with the hope of becoming a teacher. When I asked her how her studies were going, she frowned and said, “Not very well.”
“What seems to be the problem?” I asked.
“After two months of lectures,” she replied, “We have yet to learn anything about teaching techniques and how to impart knowledge to students.”
“Then what have you been lectured about?”
“Mostly about diversity,” she responded.
Now, I know I have told you that this is an essay about adolescence and you might complain that I have devoted a considerable part of it to education. But if you take the conventional view that adolescence is the emotional and psychological bridging between childhood and adulthood it is hard to argue that a child’s education does not have particular influence in this transition.
Educational institutions have often been motivated to teach more than the traditional “three R’s”.
The economic historian, Stephen Davies, dates the modern form of the school to 1806. In that year Napoleon defeated Prussia which humiliated its residents. Under the influence of its leading intellectual, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Prussia devised a program of rigorous, compulsory education, the main aim of which was to train young men to be obedient in battle so that they would not desert when under stress. These Prussian schools developed many of the pedagogical techniques which were soon assumed by schools in other European countries.
And as well, before education was taken up as a responsibility of government, churches were running religious schools that were motivated not only to teach basic literacy and numeracy but also to reinforce the religious beliefs of young people. Religious schools still play a large part in our education system and while they still play a part in the propagation of religious beliefs they don’t have the coercive power they had in the past.
But as I wrote in a previous essay, children in our schools are being assaulted by the progressive dogma of the left who have in turn fashioned the curriculum to be hostile to European history, critical of Western liberal democracies and promoting identity politics and “woke” virtue signalling at the expense of traditional conservative values. They are successfully winning over the hearts and minds of our adolescents.
They have expanded the term of adolescence by keeping our youth longer in education and have prevented our young people being exposed to broader society where they might learn more traditional values.
It also disturbs me that much of what I read about adolescence tends to portray this phase transition as something problematic and stressful. Let me state categorically that wasn’t the case for me and my close friends. It was indeed a pleasant time of my life and theirs as well as far as I could tell.
I am sure my progression into adulthood was facilitated by the secure family life I enjoyed. My parents and my siblings were generally supportive and normally helpful. Whilst I was starting to form my own opinions which sometimes differed from those of my parents, I was never demeaned or belittled for not agreeing with them. My father, who had strong political views with which I would often disagree, still sought out my opinion on difficult issues.
My friends and I also often disagreed about politics and religion in particular but we could debate these things with no animosity. Whilst my father was an unskilled manual labourer and some of my friends came from better-off families we were never disturbed by issues of class.
Though we were not well off it took me some decades to realise that I was still privileged. I was privileged because I belonged to an intact, nuclear family whose parents loved one another. Both of them averred that family meant more to them than anything else.
I will not deny that some of my peers struggled with adolescence. I knew a couple of young fellows who committed suicide at a young age. There were a few that I knew who were in constant trouble with the police.
But today things seem to be much worse. The incidence of mental illness in adolescents has never been higher. Eating disorders, particularly amongst girls, are burgeoning. In addition in today’s woke society issues of gender are rampant suggesting that adolescents are insecure with respect to their identity at least with respect to their sexuality.
No doubt part of the explanation for current adolescent struggles has been the impact of social media, which is something my generation didn’t have to contend with. But I suspect the issues I mentioned above re schooling and family support still play a big part in this important transition.