Our opinions about adolescents are deeply contradictory; inquisitive yet confrontational, sometimes energetic yet frequently infuriatingly laid back, we don’t know if we love them or despair of them. No longer children to be told what to do, they lack adult powers of judgment, and are as uncertain as to how to behave as are adults in how best to respond to them.1
Be it now in Toxteth, Moss Side or Notting Hill, or Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, it seems as if once you enter adolescence you are deemed guilty until proved innocent. Growing up was always difficult, and it seems to be getting worse. At the age of twelve the boy Jesus drove his parents to distraction by going off on his own for three days. When they eventually found him the boy was earnestly questioning the learned doctors and priests in the temple ─ “All that heard him were amazed at his understanding and his questions”2, but to Mary and Joseph his behaviour was irresponsible, troublesome and not appropriate for a village lad. Like many a modern parent they felt they probably no longer understood their child.
Five hundred years ago, long before the identification of hooligans, flappers or asbos3 it was common practice for parents to ‘swap’ their troublesome teenagers, for somebody else’s child… easier, they thought with good cause, to deal with teenage ‘angst’ in a child other than your own. Amongst the early settlers in Massachusetts this was a common experience; “Take the lad”, wrote a sea captain of his twelve-year-old son, “till he is about fifteen or sixteen years of age; let him serve you as he is able, impose not on him too heavy burdens which will cripple or spoil his growth… (and if I am drowned at sea)… then put him to an apprenticeship”4. Our ancestors realised that youngsters need something meaningful to do if they were to come through adolescence, and emerge fully responsible adults able to think things out for themselves, and be respected by others for what they contribute to the common good.
It was French aristocrats, fawning around the court at Versailles who, by giving their sons too much money to keep out of their way, popularised the term ‘adolescent’ to describe their spoilt, rich brats. Alex de Tocqueville5, himself an aristocratic Frenchman, was amazed when visiting America in 1835 to note that there weren’t any adolescents. As soon as the young American began to approach adulthood, he noted, “the reins of filial obedience are daily slackened, and he becomes progressively responsible for his own behaviour”. During the transition from childhood to adulthood out on the frontier in Virginia with which he and Thomas Jefferson were so familiar, there was plenty of back-breaking work even for embryonic philosophers to do. It was that adolescent energy and independent thought which gave the young Republic its zest6.
Within sixty years, however, America had passed from an essentially agricultural society into the most heavily industrialized state in the world. Americans became too busy getting rich to have any interest in apprentices. Once a youngster had the physical strength to join the workforce, his learning was over. Factories were filled up with exhausted, and totally unfulfilled adolescents. G. S. Hall7, later to be known as the Father of Experiential Psychology, published a ground-breaking book on adolescence in 1904. He was horrified at what he saw happening; “Youth is awaking to a new world, and understands neither it, nor itself”, and he went on to deplore the way in which America had developed an ‘urbanised hothouse life, that tends to ripen everything before its time’. “Youth has never before been exposed to such dangers of perversion”8, he argued. Increasingly urban life with its temptations, sedentary occupations and passive stimuli, had come to dominate just when an active life was most needed. There was a lessening sense of both duty and discipline, a haste to know everything and a mad, reckless rush for sudden wealth. “If the vulnerability of adolescents were to be ignored”, argued Hall a hundred years ago, “the result would be a disaster both for the individual, and for society at large”.
President Roosevelt9, faced with high levels of unemployment following the Depression of the 1930’s, showed an excessive interest in Hall’s work. He encouraged more and more states to keep adolescents in school until the age of eighteen, thus preventing them from taking the work of unemployed adults. By 1934 47% of Americans aged fourteen and above were in high school because, “we can’t imagine what else to do with them”10. The English observed all this with increasing interest and concern, but without the financial capacity to do much about it. One of the first decisions of the new labour government under Ramsey MacDonald11 in 1923 was to set up a commission under Sir William Hadow12 to plan for universal secondary education. Hadow was much influenced by Hall, Watson, Thorndike and Frederick Winslow Taylor. He based his conclusions on the new understanding of child development; “There is a tide which begins to rise in the veins of youth at the age of eleven or twelve. It is called by the name of adolescence. If that tide can be taken at the flood, and a new voyage begun in the strength and along the flow of its current, we think that it will ‘move on to fortune… transplanted to new ground… we believe that pupils will thrive to a new height, and attain a sturdier fibre’”13. It was to be twenty years before this was acted upon, and then the politicians got it wrong.
Thesis 60: 24th August 2006