What is adolescence? It’s not something that has always existed. Rather, it is a concept that was developed about a century ago, around the time that state employees were assuming an ever greater role in the raising of children. We should be very wary of the ideas associated with it therefore. It has principally served to justify a swollen workforce of state certified professionals who are specially trained to deal with ‘adolescent issues’, based on the assumption that the particular problems of this phase of life are so tricky that one must be officially licensed by the authorities in order to deal with them.
But what are these special problems? A colleague of E D Hirsch, the historian Joseph Kett, has pointed out that
Prior to the middle of the nineteenth century, contemporaries associated puberty with rising power and energy rather than with the onset of an awkward and vulnerable stage of life which would later become known as adolescence. (Rites of Passage, p17)
The transition from childhood to adulthood was seen as something welcome, something enabling, a time when a child was increasingly able to take on the work and responsibility of an adult. It was not seen as a threatening and difficult thing, and it was not classified as something unique and separate from the rest of human existence.
What is now called adolescence is nothing more or less than the transition to adulthood, and the responsibilities of adulthood. The challenges faced by teenagers are essentially the same as those faced by adults. They must battle to overcome their weaknesses so that they may take responsibility for themselves and others. If they have a strong urge to do something damaging to themselves and others they must resist it, because they are important: other people will soon be depending upon them, and they must learn self-mastery so they can be ready to shoulder that increasing burden of responsibility.
But I have heard teachers who speak about teenagers as if they were animals on a nature programme. They constantly refer to their hormones, and talk about mating rituals and pecking orders as though they were describing chickens in a barnyard. If teenagers have the urge to indulge in self-destructive promiscuity, how does that make them different from adults? If they are tempted to crush those beneath them in the social hierarchy, how are they different from arrogant business bosses or bureaucrats? Adults and teenagers alike face choices about their behaviour, and adults and teenagers alike have free will and reason, and can make wise or foolish decisions.
If there are differences, they are differences of experience and authority. Clearly teenagers are less experienced than their elders, and consequently have a greater need of guidance from those in authority to help them make good choices. But when adults are giving them that guidance, they must remember that they are dealing with rational human beings with free will, not animals in a zoo.
A well ordered and civilised school community can be an excellent place in which to develop self-discipline and responsibility. The supposed special problems of adolescence are not based in human nature. They have been created by state institutions which do not promote a belief in the rational dignity of young adults, thus creating ever more job opportunities for those who specialise in medicating them and manipulating them during their youth, and in doling out state handouts or prison sentences to them in adulthood.
Just think how many public sector jobs would be at risk if the majority of state schools succeeded in cultivating generations of self-disciplined, caring young people with a healthy sense of their own dignity as rational human beings.