Thursday, July 26, 2007

Attaining Adulthood

An article in the April/May issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND, "The Myth of the Teen Brain," offers a thought-provoking rebuttal to the popular belief that the "incompletely developed" brains of teenagers predispose them to immature, impulsive behavior and that adolescent turmoil is an inevitable developmental stage in human growth. The author of this article, Robert Epstein, who has written a book called THE CASE AGAINST ADOLESCENCE, maintains that imaging studies of teenage brains, which purportedly demonstrate a neurological basis for irresponsible behavior in adolescence, don't actually prove what they are claimed to prove. Observed phenomena in brain wiring and chemistry can be the result as well as (or instead of) the cause of environmental factors. Epstein believes the roots of the behaviors that lead people to perceive teenagers as immature and incompetent arise from social rather than neurological sources. He points out that young people in many other societies don't display the same types of "adolescent" behavior (but when exposed to American culture, they often begin to do so). He also cites the findings of historians that "through most of recorded history the teen years were a relatively peaceful time of transition to adulthood. Teens were not trying to break away from adults; rather, they were learning to *become* adults." Teenagers in Western society today, by contrast, have no useful role to play. Stereotypical teenage turmoil results from the "artificial extension of childhood" past puberty. Studies show that teens are as competent as adults "across a wide range of adult abilities." Moreover, in some areas they're superior to adults. For example, as we aging boomers can testify, visual acuity, memory, and the ability to learn new things rapidly. These abilities make evolutionary sense, according to Epstein, because mammals begin to bear young shortly after puberty. If human teenagers hadn't been able to take care of themselves and their offspring competently, the human species would have died out long before the industrial age.

A similar thesis about the roots of teenage angst is proposed in the online article "Why Nerds Are Unpopular." (Google that phrase and read the whole thing. It's fascinating.) The author of this essay begins by asking why intelligence seems to make kids an object of persecution by their peers in high school, but he eventually moves on to the larger issue of what high school is for and the whole issue of how our culture deals with adolescents. Teenagers can't be turned loose to support themselves in a highly technological society, so the "artificial extension of childhood" inevitably ensues. Most American young people, as this author puts it, grow up in an environment "as artificial as a Twinkie," with no function for its form to follow. By contrast, prior to the twentieth century, teenagers were capable of making a genuine contribution to the economic well-being of the family (and, in the working-class level of society, required to do so). In our contemporary U.S. culture (aside from the rare computer-savant prodigies) nobody can earn a living wage without eighteen or more years of school. The only jobs open to most teens are minimum-wage positions in retail and fast food (the latter, as Epstein puts it, having developed specifically to take advantage of this pool of cheap, disposable labor).

Epstein's arguments about the ability of teenagers to learn quickly remind me of the "First Year" phenomenon in Jacqueline's Sime~Gen universe. Young Simes immediately after changeover (which coincides with puberty) have an amazing ability to absorb new knowledge and skills, including language, which for ordinary human beings becomes almost impossible to learn fluently after early childhood. It has been hinted that newly established Gens may also have some of that "First Year" learning capacity. It's easy for readers to forget, when reading HOUSE OF ZEOR and the other books in the series, that most of the "adult" Simes and Gens in the stories are teenagers!

In writing stories of human settlement on distant worlds, we should keep in mind that in a frontier society, young people just past puberty have to take on adult responsibilities. Many of them will marry at that age and start families while they have youthful health and energy, especially if the new colony has a desperate need to increase its population of workers. As Isaac Asimov points out in one of his essays, in preindustrial cultures a boy became a man when he grew a beard, and a girl turned into a woman when she became capable of getting pregnant. (As generations of lovelorn teens have reminded their parents, Juliet was fourteen.) And what about our aliens? Suppose we modeled an intelligent alien species on Terran creatures (many insects, for example) that live only a short time after breeding. They would have to cram all their "adult" living into the life stage we'd ordinarily think of as adolescence.


  1. Great column, Margaret!

    This is why I hate the stereotype of teenagers. They already have to deal with so much crap. Have you stepped inside a public high school lately? I took a couple of college extension classes held at a high school, a fairly new one. Alaska spends a lot of money on education. I challenge any adult to walk into a high school with an open mind. Consider the surroundings. The one I walked into looked like some kind of prison with white brick walls. Many classrooms had no windows. The decor consisted of generic posters related to whatever subject was to be taught in that room. During school hours, teens are herded from one class to the next. If they're extremely lucky, one of their many teachers *might* notice them as worthy individuals rather than a large herd of obnoxious idiots which must be endured. No wonder teens shuffle themselves into cliques to try sorting it all out!

    Anyone whose read anything on by Maria Montessori will understand why this environment alone drives teens to the brink.

    Of course, it's ideal if parents realize the value of their own children, take pride in their role in parenting, and are actively involved in their daily lives. Other than that, there are gifted teachers, selfless mentors, and AUTHORS who take an interest in empowering the next generation. We need more of them.

  2. I'm just so thankful that all our kids graduated from public school before the worst of the present trend toward treating all students as potential terrorists got under way. Those perniciously brain-dead "zero tolerance" rules, for instance.

  3. Margaret:

    What a neat treat to find you writing on the very subject Jean Lorrah and I have been discussing -- the current crop of teens are growing up in such a DIFFERENT world that it makes them more different from us than we were from our parents.

    The rate of change in civilization has increased due to both science and technology.

    But it has long, long been thought that modern civilization extends the childhood artificially and thus creates stress that shouldn't be there. How would you feel if you were suddenly treated like a teenager again?

    Of course, today teens have computers and TV's in their bedrooms, and cell phones to carry around. That really changes the paradigm.

    On Kimber An's note on school architecture -- I agree that the buildings are depressingly like prisons and the regimen is dehumanizing.

    However, so are many MANY work environments.

    At the Heinlein Centennial, I had to pass by an office complex at the window level (via a connecting tube between hotels on the second floor level) and found myself standing and studying the work carrels and the futile but desperate attempt of people to personalize their work spaces.

    Our schools, complete with "potential terrorist" treatment, prepare kids for the modern workplace.

    When the workplace changes, so will the school-place.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg