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Friday, January 25, 2013

Aspirations to relevance

One problem I've discovered with blogging in grad school is that you start to see everything in terms of the specialized thing you study, and this manifests itself in your blogging when you devote thousands of words to describing all cultural happenings as Lockean, Rousseauian, or Franklinian, or, by the time you get to dissertation stage, as a Franklinian synthesis of Rousseau's critique of Locke's view of authority. This is not a great turn-on for the general reader, or the sane reader, or both. This is also perhaps why journalists are better bloggers. 

But then sometimes, journalists write vaguely on what you are laboring away at with painful specificity, and then you can feel a great swelling sense of vindication, right before that balloon is exploded by the reality of your unproductive internet-reading. So here is my momentary vindication, from NY Mag's essay on why people are or claim to be haunted by their high school memories because of the misperceptions in their prefrontal cortexes (cortices?) about identity labels and unreciprocated social identifications blah blah:
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. Absent established hierarchies and power structures (apart from the privileges that naturally accrue from being an upperclassman), kids create them on their own, and what determines those hierarchies is often the crudest common-­denominator stuff—looks, nice clothes, prowess in sports—­rather than the subtleties of personality. “Remember,” says Crosnoe, who spent a year doing research in a 2,200-student high school in Austin, “high schools are big. There has to be some way of sorting people socially. It’d be nice if kids could be captured by all their characteristics. But that’s not realistic.”
In other words, recipe for tyranny: Put many children in a box, remove adult authority, let them reconstruct civilization from a state of nature. You know who also says that? Locke, Rousseau, Franklin... Also, William Golding, but he's not early modern.

4 comments:

Miguel Monteiro said...

Hey, do I get points for talking about someone who is not form my area of studies? This post of yours brought to mind instantly Arendt's The Crisis in Education. It's precisely about that, about treating children as human beings that are born into a pre-existing world, and how much we would be cheating them out of that world's existence by treating them to a false reality whose consequences are just as the ones here diagnosed. Keep up the blogging!

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, that essay opens the dissertation. Parallel thought waves.

Norm said...

Middle school may be the very strangest social grouping of all. They have very little self identity don't even have semi mature 17 year olds to learn from.

Miss Self-Important said...

True, but apparently it's more easily wiped from our "15-25 memory peak." Oddly, that statistic hardly supports the author's contention that high school ought to be particularly memorable, given that 15-25 mainly encompasses the college years. But I do agree that middle school is, in terms of the ratio of character deformation to academic benefit, the worst of all ideas in schooling.