High school with (or without) ashtrays...

>> Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Things change. Not exactly a novel observation, I'll grant, but sometimes you have to start with the obvious. Still, let's be more specific: childhood has changed. It used to be that childhood functionally ended in the mid-teens with most people at that point going off into a trade (if they hadn't already--e.g. in the 18th Century you could evidently enlist in the British Navy as young as the age of nine) and getting married. The conventional wisdom is that lifespans were shorter then, which is true up to a point--actually, if you made it to your thirties or forties, you could reasonably expect to go on until you were in your sixties or seventies; the sense that lives were shorter comes at least partly from the fact that childhood mortality rates drag down average figures for life expectancy (could be all those nine-year-olds in the Navy... sorry, couldn't stop the snark).

These days, we keep kids in school by law until they're sixteen, and stagger out the perks and penalties of adulthood out through the ages sixteen to twenty-one: driving, voting, drinking--even joining the Navy, since it keeps coming up. It's not unusual to hear this lamented, but the reality check on this is that the human brain isn't an adult brain until its early twenties, with the prefrontal lobe (responsible for duties such as foresight and planning and understanding consequence) remaining in a plastic, unfixed state until early adulthood (c.f. this interview with Jay Giedd at NIMH). This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's ever attempted to get a teenager to give a coherent answer to the question, "What the Hell were you thinking?" In other words, extended childhood isn't so much a "luxury" as it is an acceptance of reality that brings our expectations in line with our biology. Yes, people used to be thrust into the world when they were fourteen or fifteen, expected to work and have and raise kids--but unless you're postulating that human brain development was fundamentally different a hundred years ago, the reality is not that these kids were more mature at that age and adulthood began earlier; the reality is that a hundred years ago children were expected to work and have kids at ages when their brains were works-in-progress. I actually find it to be a wonder that things worked out as well as they did insofar as the human race survived, but then perhaps the innate immaturity of human beings placed in roles of responsibility before their brains were fully functional goes some way in explaining why life was harder, uglier and more violent.

The notion that humans are children until their early twenties is radical but biologically grounded; but such a statement also isn't to say that older children shouldn't be given any responsibility at all. Indeed, just as a five-year-old is capable of exercising more responsibility with less supervision than a thirteen-month-old, so it's reasonable to assume that a nineteen-year-old ought to be more independent and responsible than a sixteen-year-old. The notion that the nineteen-year-old is still, at least in many respects, a child isn't to say that he should be stuck in a diaper and given a pacie. But I think it's also reasonable to say that a nineteen-year-old shouldn't necessarily be dropped off in the figurative wilderness with a knife and a piece of string and left to his own devices. Sure, the parts of the nineteen-year-old's brain concerned with physical and linguistic development may be in good shape, but remember: the parts of his brain involved with appreciating the consequences of his own actions (and the actions of others) remain, well, kind of retarded, to put it bluntly. The young man (or older boy) is sort of a moron, at least in some respects, which is why he's apt to do something stupid or to get himself in over his head. Indeed, this is a dangerous age precisely because some parts of his brain are well developed while others are basically broken.

A sensible society that takes heed of this--perhaps unconsciously and by accident--might well decide that the sensible thing to do with these man-children (and women-children: I've been using the male example, but girls are hardly better) is to find some place for them where they get a few "adult" options and responsibilities while continuing to live in a somewhat structured environment without the full range of adult responsibilities or freedoms. Of course, even a sensible society rarely engages in thought-out, long-term advance planning. No, what usually happens is that some social institution originally designed for some other purpose gets jury-rigged into a new role, perhaps over time and accidentally. Thus, a social institution originally intended to protect the body politic or a social institution designed to preserve and extend knowledge might become a culture's transition ground for children becoming adults. Just to cite, you know, two completely off-the-cuff possibilities... oh, wait.

I can't really speak to the military experience as a formative experience for kidults; had the draft been instituted in the late eighties, when I myself was a mentally-defective manchild lurching uncertainly towards adulthood, I would have been a conscientious objector or, barring that, in jail (I resolved I wouldn't flee the country to flee a draft--perhaps an example of possessing an unfinished frontal lobe, I don't know). But I can speak to the college experience, something I entered into when my ambitious plans of "making it on my own" worked out about as well as you might expect most eighteen-year-old idiots' plans to.

No doubt there are some ambitious souls who go to college to learn useful skills or a trade. More power to them. And, of course, this accounting doesn't apply to the "non-trads": those who return to college as actual bona-fide adults. But, I suspect, for most kids college isn't a place where you go to learn about the "life of the mind" or to learn a "useful" field. Rather, I think that for most kids college is the place you attend for grades thirteen through sixteen, which is why large numbers of the children entering college as freshmen seem a bit confused about why they're even there. There's a line, I believe, from the recently late John Hughes' She's Having A Baby in which a character describes college as "high school with ashtrays"; I don't believe there's been a more apt description of the contemporary university experience, at least there wasn't until they banned smoking on most college campuses. Now, I suppose, it's just high school, except some of the kids can actually purchase alcohol legally.

Let me be explicit, if you haven't figured out the cut of my jib yet: I think this is understandable, expected, and good, or at least as good as it gets. I think society has implicitly taken this into account in the fact that a college degree has replaced the high school diploma and postgraduate degrees have effectively replaced the college education as the mark of the dedicated few who wish to become experts, professionals and the elite in their fields. I said "as good as it gets" a moment ago because you can argue that a better solution would be to extend high school to age twenty-one and I wouldn't argue the point, I just think you'd have a helluva time getting anyone to agree to do it that way. And let me be explicit about this: college is not a waste of time, even if a kid learns nothing academically, any more than high school is a waste if the kid doesn't get much out of that, either. At best, college is a learning opportunity, don't get me wrong; but at worst it's a kind of holding pattern for people who shouldn't be out on their own and can't be locked up at home, either, and that's a good thing, too.

Naturally, there are conservatives who will dispute nearly everything I've just written, and will go on to ask why should society pay for it if I'm right. One of the problems with conservatism as a philosophy, of course, is right there in the name, and here we come back to the very first-and-obvious sentence of this post: conservatives are remarkably resistant to the notion that things change, and if twelve-year-olds in Roman times had jobs and wives or were sold into slavery, well, by God, that ought to be good enough for the pampered and coddled proto-commies of this era. Or something like that. Realizing that eighteen-year-olds are too dumb to hold jobs and ought to have their hands held until they're twenty-two isn't something I have a problem with, obviously, and if we could agree an eighteen-year-old is too dumb to take up arms for his country I'd be happy to agree he's also probably too dumb to vote; American society has certainly agreed he's too dumb to sell liquor to, and I'm not sure you get dumber than that. Things change, and just as we can adapt to the idea that women can do math and drive and that poor people shouldn't have to work fourteen hours just to lease their dinner from the company stores, I'm sure we can adjust to a new sense of what college is, if we haven't already (I'd contend we have, and that it's implicit in our expectations for high school graduates and in the way jobs are posted). I think it's in the nature of conservatism to cling to prejudices as keenly as they cling to "tradition," assuming arguendo that there's a difference between the two.


12 comments:

Janiece Murphy Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 2:20:00 PM EDT  
This comment has been removed by the author.
Janiece Murphy Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 2:21:00 PM EDT  

Speaking as the mother of two 18-year-olds (and a former company commander of 150 18-year-olds), I will say yes, they are in fact dumber than a box of rocks when it comes to the judgment department.

It amazes me to realize that ANYONE who has been around kidults (I love that, BTW) longer than 5 minutes doesn't realize this salient fact.

Christ, I was a kidult until I was 30.

Nathan Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 8:37:00 PM EDT  

When my father was talking about sending off my little brother and sister to college, the rest of my sibs and I were pretty unanimously wondering why he'd waste the money.

At one point, he looked at us and said, "Haven't any of you figured out yet that college is just where you send a kid so he gets out of the house and after 4-5 really bad screwups, finally realizes that he's getting a little too old to call home to be bailed out?"

Jim Wright Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 10:28:00 PM EDT  

I agree with the post for the most part, but I would point out that the recklessness of young adults is most likely the result of evolution and that it serves a useful purpose - or did once in our pre-history.

Those tribes of hunter gatherers with a high percentage of conservative hunters probably didn't eat mammoth meat all that often. Hunting in those days was dangerous - the fossils of that time show. (Ook and Thag go poke big hairy beast with long nose and big fucking horns and red eyes with pointy stick, be right back). Those with conservative leaders probably lost their breeding females to aggressive tribes more often than not, or starved when they kept waiting to see what would happen during flood or famine or drought instead moving on in search of new and strange lands.

On the other hand, those tribes that were too reckless probably didn't last all that long either (what the fuck, Ook? You lead tribe onto volcano, now we surrounded by hot glowy rock. You fucking idiot, Ook)

Hey, they don't call the pointy end of the dinosaur the Thagomizer for nothing you know.

Jeri Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 11:34:00 PM EDT  

And what about those 'kidults' whose last piece of brain development never kicks in?

I'm rather afraid my 20 year old will be one of those - he's still operating at around 13-14ish as I write.

Very interesting insights. And unfortunately one of the warehousing requirements of college is the ability to do well enough to stay off academic probation. :/

Nathan Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 11:41:00 PM EDT  

Jeri,

If it helps any, I got a package from my big sister the other day. It's filled with papers and stuff my mother saved from my childhood into kidulthood. (I'll be mining it for blog fodder soon.)

Anyway, there's a report card from my last semester of Freshman year in college.

Grades?

1 C
1 Pass
2 Incompletes

I'm not exactly taking the world by storm, but I'm not a drain on society either.

Take Hope!

Jeri Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 12:25:00 AM EDT  

Speaking of high school with ashtrays - Evan, the twitterverse needs you and your particular brand of snark. And just think of the possibilities of the creative constraint of 140 characters! :D We need a liberal counterbalance to JTS, and we need our favorite crushee... so test the water, it's just fine. ::sharklike smile::

Eric Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 9:28:00 AM EDT  

Jeri, I've had an open tab to Twitter in my Firefox browser at home for a couple of weeks now. I just haven't managed to actually, you know, sign up. But I will. Eventually. Sometime.

And Jeri, for whatever it's worth, early 20s is what the brain scans are showing right now, but my own personal experience is much like what Janiece and Nathan relay here--a bit of a mess until I was in my late twenties, early thirties. So don't give up hope.

Jim, interesting point on the evolutionary side of it--I hadn't thought of that.

ntsc Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 7:31:00 PM EDT  

Somepeople will never get that final bit of brain developement, others will at 16. I had the intellect earlier, but think I became a rational adult at about age 18.

Also a good swift kick in the ass, as provided by one SFC Beck on 1 March 1968 will do wonderous things to improve rationality.

What I did in college, radio and theater, was of great use to me in a 34 year career in television. I flunked out to get away from my mother, deliberately and with malice aforethought (I didn't know I could enlist at 18 without permission). Enlisted before the Army could draft me, and spent two years at USHQ Europe as a signals specialist, holding clearances so high I didn't know what they were. In the year I spent in training prior to Europe, I essentially received a B.E.E.T. Degree in leading edge electronics, command of a 61 man platoon for 4 months and a double promotion upon graduation to E-5. I think my MOS score was the highest ever recorded until the MOS was eliminated. In Europe I was both assigned to Special Intellegence (OK they needed somebody with the clearance, who could type and play bridge) and spent 4 months in Paris on civilain status at the Paris Peace talks.

I went back and finished college in a year all As but one B.

John the Scientist Friday, August 14, 2009 at 5:43:00 PM EDT  

One problem I have with the biological evidence is the lack of controls. Historical controls.

Kids were expected to grow up earlier in previous centuries, and in many cases, they did. Brain development is a feedback-loop - it is highly influenced by what's expected of the owner of that brain.

I'd like to see the studies done on kids judged relatively mature, versus those who are judged immature, and see what the difference is.

The problem of course, is that it is hard to design an experiment to determine how much you can accelerate brain development, but in my experience, it is quite a bit.

Maybe my perspective is skewed because I was one of those who did have their act together at 17, but I was surrounded by people who were the same way. Those who flunked out of my school were, almost to the man (it was all male at the time) from homes where not much was expected of them, and they got in by virtue of natural talent and then didn't know how to apply themselves once the subjects got more difficult than their natural ability allowed for.

I'll address the idea of whether this use of college as an advanced babysitting service does society any good in my own blog post, but I will say that progressives embrace change far too easily, forgetting the Pareto as applied to societal development - 80% of the good comes from only 20% of the change, and the rest of the change is a crapshoot.

Conservatives realize that 90% of everything that's "outside the box" is outside the box because it's junk.

John the Scientist Friday, August 14, 2009 at 5:45:00 PM EDT  

One problem I have with the biological evidence is the lack of controls. Historical controls.

Kids were expected to grow up earlier in previous centuries, and in many cases, they did. Brain development is a feedback-loop - it is highly influenced by what's expected of the owner of that brain.

I'd like to see the studies done on kids judged relatively mature, versus those who are judged immature, and see what the difference is.

The problem of course, is that it is hard to design an experiment to determine how much you can accelerate brain development, but in my experience, it is quite a bit.

Maybe my perspective is skewed because I was one of those who did have their act together at 17, but I was surrounded by people who were the same way. Those who flunked out of my school were, almost to the man (it was all male at the time) from homes where not much was expected of them, and they got in by virtue of natural talent and then didn't know how to apply themselves once the subjects got more difficult than their natural ability allowed for.

I'll address the idea of whether this use of college as an advanced babysitting service does society any good in my own blog post, but I will say that progressives embrace change far too easily, forgetting the Pareto as applied to societal development - 80% of the good comes from only 20% of the change, and the rest of the change is a crapshoot.

Conservatives realize that 90% of everything that's "outside the box" is outside the box because it's junk.

Eric Friday, August 14, 2009 at 6:16:00 PM EDT  

John, I can't discount your experience (I didn't know you at 17), but I have to confess I'm skeptical: you and the folks that you refer to would be a concentrated group of outliers nothing like any of the people I've ever known. I have known people (not you, who I only know online) who thought they were very together at 17, but their peers disagreed with them, subsequent events proved them wrong, or the circumstantial evidence suggested otherwise. As much as I'd love to name names, I suspect that's a bad idea and will refrain. Your experience also seems to be inconsistent with the anecdotal evidence being offered by earlier commentators here--you're the first and thus far only person to say his or her shit was together at such a youthful age.

I will admit that my comments about whether lack of physiological maturity were a part of the reason life was worse back in the day are speculation--evidence is wanting. Another speculation that I omitted, but might as well throw out there, is whether the apparent increased religiosity of earlier generations is a reflection of human brain development: one interesting feature of religions is that they do serve as a kind of external module for the kinds of things the frontal lobe is supposed to do. That is, organized religion is generally explicit about the consequences of cause and effect, and somebody whose brain isn't sufficiently developed to effectively deal with the consequences of a course of action can refer to the absolute terms of his faith--if you kill, or steal, or sleep with another person's spouse, divine punishment shall ensue. Religion has the added benefit, in such contexts, of potentially being an effective deterrent (one reason human laws are so ineffective as a deterrent is the inconsistency of execution of the laws: people do get away with murder, crime does pay; a vengeful and retributive God, however, is postulated to see you when you're sleeping and to know when you're awake, as they say of Santa).

Touché regarding embrace of change, though as a progressive and as one who believes that we evolve or we die, I think I much prefer risking the 80 for the 20 to the alternative of choking on the 10. Indeed, I'll even go so far as to say that much of what most conservatives seem to consider "junk" strikes me as preferable to what so many seem to consider sacrosanct.

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