One kind of question we get asked as homeschoolers is about the Real World. As in, how will our children be able to handle the Real World if they have never been to school? Now I could argue at length about how there is nothing “real” about being stuck in a classroom where children outnumber adults more than 25 to 1, but my post today is about a different take on this issue. I’m reading a book right now that suggests, for teenagers at least, that the consequences of institutionalized learning have been particularly dire. The book is called The Case Against Adolescence: rediscovering the adult in every teen, by Robert Epstein and I’m finding it fascinating (credit is given to Miranda at Nurtured By Love who wrote about this book some time ago; it’s been on my Amazon Wish List ever since and I finally ordered it from the library).
The basic premise of the book is that throughout history, and in pre-industrial cultures around the world today, there is no such thing as “adolescence”. Teenagers were (and still are in some places) given the same rights as adults and assumed the same responsibilities. They worked full time doing what the other adults around them did, they married and had sex and had families. They made decisions, invented great things, wrote symphonies, and lead nations. Epstein suggests that our current Westernized teenagers suffer from depression and immense frustration because they are ready to take on responsibilities but are denied the ability to do so. They cannot vote, own land, hold down a fulltime job, marry, have an abortion, drive a car, drink alcohol, or many other things that adults are free to do or not do. They often feel inside themselves that they are ready to make these decisions, but then get told by all the adults around them that they are not. And then the adults make life choices for them. As a result some teens end up rebelling against adults and the adult world. Being forced to attend school (which, for many high schoolers, means being institutionalized with thousands of other teens and very few adults) keeps them further isolated from the Real World (the adult world) and so they invent their own culture, Teen Culture. And to be successful in the world of Teen Culture requires different attributes and abilities than success in the adult world. Thus, adults become convinced that teenagers are irresponsible, unable to make sound judgments, unable to enter into real lasting relationships, unable to make decisions about their own health and medical treatment, etc. because their behaviours would not be sensible in the adult world. Problem is, the teens are shut out of the adult world and often their behaviours make perfect sense in the world of Teen Culture.
In short, Epstein argues that laws restricting minors combined with compulsory schooling until age eighteen effectively infantilizes our teenagers. We remove them from the adult world for most of their weekday and then deny them the ability to participate meaningfully in that world even when they aren’t in school. Without any meaningful work or responsibilities, teens turn to their own culture to provide the role models, identity, and meaning that adults get by participating in the Real World and taking on real, meaningful work. It becomes a vicious cycle whereby we deny them responsibility, they appear to lack the ability to be responsible, so we deny them responsibility even more. Epstein argues that teenagers are all capable of those qualities that define “adulthood” (that chapter alone was fascinating: try to define what it means to be an adult and then ask yourself how many adults you know that are incompetent in at least one of those areas that define it), and all should be given the chance to make their case and be judged on their merits as individuals. Not all will be competent in all areas where we grant freedom to adults, but neither does some magical force take over on the eve of their nineteenth birthday and turn them all into responsible decision-makers the next morning.
There is no way I can do justice to this topic and the convincing arguments Epstein puts forward, which include reams of scientific information on behaviour, biology, and neuroscience (the “teen brain” appears to be a figment of the media’s imagination, perpetuated by bad science and our culture’s already made-up minds that teens are not worthy of adult status). Needless to say, I’m quite convinced and would highly recommend this book to anyone who either has teenagers or will one day. You may not agree with everything Epstein says, but it certainly will give anyone food for thought.