kitchen table math, the sequel: "sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents"

Friday, January 25, 2013

"sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents"

Two people have told me about this article now: Why You Never Truly Leave High School

I love this line:
“Ironically, one of the reasons many of us have chosen to educate our own is precisely this very issue of socialization! Children spending time with individuals of all ages more closely resembles real life than does a same-age school setting.”
Casey and two of her colleagues, Francis Lee and Siobhan Pattwell, were part of a team that co-published a startling paper last year showing that adolescents—both mice and humans—were far less capable of dialing back their fear response than children or adults.


...if humans really do feel things most intensely during adolescence, and if, at this same developmental moment, they also happen to be working out an identity for the first time—“sometimes morbidly, often curiously, preoccupied with what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they feel they are,” as the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote—then it seems safe to say this: Most American high schools are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents.

Until the Great Depression, the majority of American adolescents didn’t even graduate from high school. Once kids hit their teen years, they did a variety of things: farmed, helped run the home, earned a regular wage. Before the banning of child labor, they worked in factories and textile mills and mines. All were different roads to adulthood; many were undesirable, if not outright Dickensian. But these disparate paths did arguably have one virtue in common: They placed adolescent children alongside adults. They were not sequestered as they matured. Now teens live in a biosphere of their own. In their recent book Escaping the Endless Adolescence, psychologists Joseph and Claudia Worrell Allen note that teenagers today spend just 16 hours per week interacting with adults and 60 with their cohort. One century ago, it was almost exactly the reverse.

Something happens when children spend so much time apart from adult company. They start to generate a culture with independent values and priorities. James Coleman, a renowned mid-century sociologist, was among the first to analyze that culture in his seminal 1961 work, The Adolescent Society, and he wasn’t very impressed. “Our society has within its midst a set of small teen-age societies,” he wrote, “which focus teen-age interests and attitudes on things far removed from adult responsibilities.” Yes, his words were prudish, but many parents have had some version of these misgivings ever since, especially those who’ve consciously opted not to send their kids into the Roman amphi­theater. (From the website of the National Home Education Network: “Ironically, one of the reasons many of us have chosen to educate our own is precisely this very issue of socialization! Children spending time with individuals of all ages more closely resembles real life than does a same-age school setting.”)

In fact, one of the reasons that high schools may produce such peculiar value systems is precisely because the people there have little in common, except their ages. “These are people in a large box without any clear, predetermined way of sorting out status,” says Robert Faris, a sociologist at UC Davis who’s spent a lot of time studying high-school aggression. “There’s no natural connection between them.” Such a situation, in his view, is likely to reward aggression.

By Jennifer Senior
Published Jan 20, 2013
New York Magazine


Michael Weiss said...


Allan Folz said...

Coming in a little late on this one (but so is NYMag, heh, & Wow, you've been busy... 9 posts, 3 days)...

Paul Graham did a very thorough analysis of the structural dysfunction of high school. Ten years ago (hence my NYMag quip); it still stands.

Catherine Johnson said...

Michael - I'm laughing!

Allan - Thank you for that link! I've read his stuff before...but I don't think I've seen that piece (or if I did, I had forgotten it----)

Catherine Johnson said...

btw, later on in the article someone talks about "Strangers in a box" --- a social arrangement that is true not just of high schools but of many workplaces.

There is fascinating research re: the stranger in a box phenomenon with animals. In essence, whenever you throw a lot of animals together, you automatically get sometimes-violent jockeying for position & dominance hierarchies.

For a long time, researchers thought dominance hierarchies were intrinsic to all kinds of species.

Then they found out that dominance hierarchies are intrinsic to animals who have been throw in together with other animals they don't know.

Animals in families don't have dominance hierarchies. (That's my memory, at any rate. Wolves for sure don't have them --- in a wolf family, there is no 'alpha.')