Thursday, August 8, 2013

Meaningess Adolescence

Farmer Boy was the biography of Almanzo Wilder, the husband of Laura Ingalls Wilder, she of "Little House on the Prairie" fame. I read it several years ago. It was an eye-opener. I realized, for one thing, that adolescence is an artificial construct, and a dangerous one.

Almanzo hated school, attended perhaps a few months at most, yet grew up intelligent and well-read. In many ways he had no adolescence, and if he did, it wasn't in the modern sense. This is a good thing.

His parents owned a farm and Almanzo had an intimate part in running it from a young age. He loved it, including getting up at 3 am to move the cows around so they didn't freeze to death in the winter.

From a young age he had responsibility. And respect. And importance and meaning and purpose. Autonomy, or freedom. And community, or family. He got those from his meaningful and important work running the farm, and from his needed place in the family. He did not get those thing from the regimented, boring and unfree schools, which exist today and were probably just the same in Almanozo's time in the 1870s.

All people must have certain things to be happy: meaning, importance and community. Then there is competence.

In order to be happy you must have autonomy, meaning, importance, community and competence (you can call it the mastery of something).

Almost none of these things are available to teenagers today, except perhaps if you're an athlete. They can't get them for a long time, due to the extended adolescence that is embedded in our society. This is why there are so many disturbed adolescents. There is no place for them anymore. They have no meaningful work. In a sense, they're ostracized by society because they are seen as a threat, and being ostracized is one of the worst punishments there is.

The phrase "pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence is a mistranslation of the Greek eudaimonia, which means "well-being" or "flourishing" (to me, the same thing). It's attained through arete, or excellence. Or competence, or mastery or being good at something. To get those things you first and foremost must have freedom.

Now imagine how kids grow up today. They're sent off to unfree and regimented schools. They spend hours a day sitting in desks. Sit, march, sit, wait for the bell to ring. Don't go Up the Down staircase, as Bel Kaufman wrote about. School is about as close to the military as you will find outside of the military.

Oftentimes their families mean little to the kids. The mothers may work but also may not act like mothers. The fathers do work but when the kids see him what do they learn from him?

Merely being a biological mother and father isn't enough. It isn't even close to enough. For one thing, they also have be teachers and mentors. These days, many of them abdicate their responsibilities to the schools. Parents did it when I was a kid, to the point I was put in after-school care because there was no one home.

The average child and teenager today has no truly meaningful and important responsibilities at home or in school. Since they have no communities they make their own with their peers. What they master or excel at they often learn on their own, not at school. I've never seen anyone learn to program or excel at playing at instrument at school. They teach themselves, since they rarely have the freedom at school to follow their own interests, so they can become good at them.

Education is supposed to identify and develop your talents. The schools don't do it. Some schools are better than others, but ultimately they don't do what they're supposed to do.

In school students have little of autonomy, little of meaning and importance, little of community, little of feeling alive. Schools are half military, half prison. And people wonder why there is a 40% drop-out rate these days. Adolescence, unfortunately, for some people has become endless.

My paternal grandfather dropped out of school in the eighth grade, yet still made a middle-class living installing and finishing wooden-strip floors. It was the norm in those days, and it wasn't until the Great Depression that it became common to graduate high school.

In fact, both my parents were high school drop-outs, although they later got their GEDs.

Things have gotten so bad I believe the public schools should be closed down. Barring that, home-schooling is the only option. I've known people who moved into rural trailers to get their kids out of what they consider a corrupt and decaying society.

The public schools inherently extend adolescence until at least 17. With college it's until at least 21 years old. For that matter, what does it take 12 years to teach kids, anyway? For all practical purposes I do not believe I learned anything past the first grade.

In fact, the way things are set up now I am amazed so many kids make it. Yet there is another question to consider: do they really make it? Where are the polymaths we had in the past?

It's not at all shocking, when you study history, to realize the bigger the government gets, the less meaning, importance, liberty and competence people will have in their lives. The larger the government, the less well-being and flourishing people will have. The bigger the State, the more it destroys society.

Or, as Robert Nisbet put it in his The Quest for Community, "The conflict between the central power of the political State, and the whole set of functions and authorities contained in church, family, guild and local community has been, I believe, the main source of those dislocations of social structure and the uprootings of status which lie behind the problem of community in our age."

If the government didn't interfere in society, destroying education (which is not the same thing as schooling), destroying families, and destroying the economy...adolescence would disappear, and all of the unnecessary problems associated with it.

2 comments:

Glen Filthie said...

Bob I dunno what the answer is.

I know first hand what an awful job our public educators are doing and how they are failing the children. I started pushing my daughter and tutoring her after school so that she didn't end up in the same boat I did. When she was in grade 7 I had her doing grade 10 algebra - easily. By grade 10 she had conquered basic calculus.

I got nothing but shit and abuse from the teachers and our family though, they said I was pushing her too hard and that I was mean and too strict. I couldn't believe it.

You talk about how our society idolizes wastrels like actors and sports stars. Well, they also demonize successful people too. Big businessmen who work unholy hours to succeed and turn a profit are made out to be villains who could only succeed by screwing somebody else.

I think our educators actually stifle the intellect of children rather than nurture it. What do they get out of that?

Bob Wallace said...

Like I said I could have dropped out in the first grade. The rest was just boring and/or hell.