Thursday, November 03, 2005

We don't not need no education

Jim Leach had a very interesting interview on Tuesday with Barbara Strauch, medical science and health editor for the New York Times and author of the book “The Primal Teen.” Her book attempts to make physiological sense of teenagers’ often irrational and perplexing behavior by looking at the brain development and function of adolescents.

While I'm probably misrepresenting her work and I’m certainly oversimplifying it, the crux of her dissertation is that teenagers aren’t stupid, but rather they, like everyone else, are ignorant of many things. Well, some teenagers are stupid, but it’s hard to identify them as such until they turn 30 and we find that they’re still giving wedgies and hitting on high school chicks.

You really don’t need to be a brain surgeon (literally) to understand the frequent synaptic misfires occurring in an adolescent’s head. What sets the teenage years apart from childhood is that teenagers are increasingly asked to figure things out for themselves and to learn from their mistakes, and they just aren’t fine-tuned to do that with any degree of consistency. Erraticism is a sign of lack of development more than dysfunction and rebelliousness arises out of confusion probably as much as it does belligerence. Except for James Dean for whom rebelliousness had no cause.

Many people, mostly parents of teenagers, would probably be relieved if it were discovered that their children’s whacked-out behavior could be tied to some physiological cause they could be remedied with regular rounds of shock treatment. The cure however, in my humble opinion, is much less severe. This may sound hackneyed, but if they stay in school and remain diligent in their studies, they will soon be able to weather life's many storms with the deftness of a well-seasoned captain.

Anyone who has attended a liberal arts college, at some point in their matriculation, probably questioned the requirement that an English major take an economics course or that a math major be required to sit through a poetry seminar. What these budding Flauberts didn’t realize, and what I didn’t realize until well after graduation, is that we were never expected to find much use for Laffer Curves in our daily lives. In a liberal arts education, it is the journey, not the destination that is important.

The best definition of a liberal arts education that I’ve heard is that it "teaches you how to learn.” It presents you with subjects that you know nothing about and, in a semester’s time, teaches you how to apply logic and reason to its principles until you have a good enough understanding to pass an exam or write a passable essay. The more you do this, the better your brain gets at doing it. By asking analytically-inclined math majors to explore the visceral world of poetry, the brain is cross-trained and becomes even stronger. The applications for this in daily life are endless.

This type of learning can be honed outside the classroom as well. In earlier times, the ability to quickly make sense of the unknown and derive a favorable course of action was often the difference between life and death. Even today, in a more civilized time, learning is the ultimate survival skill.

That my parents raised 10 children on a single, modest income is a testament of their love, but it is also a demonstration of higher brain function developed as a means to get by. When the washing machine would break down, my dad would fix it, perhaps calling on some of the knowledge he gained fixing the dishwasher the week before or the car the week before that. When the first of seven girls prepared to head down the aisle, my mom made her wedding dress and the ones for those that followed. In today’s dollars, those gowns would be worth in the tens of thousands. In short, they supplemented the family income, probably a hundred-fold, by learning to do things for themselves. This is becoming a rare art.

People today are becoming more and more specialized, both in their professional and their personal lives. This has given rise to a large service industry in this country that has been a boon to our economy, but has stunted our ability to cognitively adapt. We’ve grown helpless in many ways. Not only do we have more plumbers, electricians, and mechanics, we also have professional organizers for those who lack the spatial awareness to arrange a closet or the inventory skills to make out a shopping list. Those with stunted interpersonal skills can seek out a dating service. Even such basic skills as cooking and cooking can be farmed out to someone else. As such, there’s just no incentive to grow beyond our present interests or develop new talents or proficiencies.

I attempt to expand my mind to new ideas by reading books that fall outside my normal interests and by tackling the occasional plumbing problem. But I fall short in many areas. I’ve yet to complete a tax return on my own, I’m befuddled by anything mechanical, and after many years, I still can’t play the guitar very well.

But back to those deranged teenagers, I think that it’s obvious they need guidance and direction to accompany their independence. They need to learn that if they go out and get drunk it isn’t the end of the world, but if they drive drunk it could be. They needn’t be chastised for dying their hair purple, but they should know that a tattoo is forever while Bre’anna’s love may not be. It doesn't take a neurologist to realize what's going on with teenagers, just parents who remember what it was like to be a teenager. But if you must consult a doctor for advice, consider these words from one of the wisest:

So be sure when you step.
Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life's
a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.


JeromeProphet said...

Yet, in anthropological studies of other cultures the "teen" culture which we accept as being a normal step toward development into adulthood simply doesn't exist.

Adolescence is a modern, and western invention created out of the need for an increased level of education prior to admission into the increasingly demanding world of work.

Certainly there are differences between the "developing" brain of teens, and the "developed" brains of adults, but as to whether those differences are the cause of attitudinal, and behavioral differences or not is worth debate.

I believe it is more likely that teens act the way they do simply because they can.

Adults have less time, energy, and freedom to act in the ways teens are allowed.

If I dye my hair black, and walk into work looking like a vampire I can forget about next years pay raise if my supervisor is a right wing religious zealot.

The world of adults though it may look free to many, is constructed to restrain all behavior except work, exceptible recreation, and consumer spending.

Teens are children growing to realize that despite any ideas they may have been fed that they were somehow special, or unique, that they must conform, or be cast out. And that within just a few short years they must aquire the skills, and the level of conforming behavior to survive this cookie cutter world we have constructed for them.

It's a depressing, and frightening thing to find that you're not special, but simply a replacement - but it's also a lesson we must all learn, and a role we must all accept in this modern urban world.

That is why we see teens thrashing out, but within the safety of peer groups, at what they percieve as adult values. Loud music, sexually provocative lyrics, gang related clothing, drug culture. All designed to assist the child to believe that they are somehow individuals, but in actuality are just means of stepping into the corporate uniform.

Settle down wild child, put a smile upon that face, begin to lie to your boss, and customer with grace - it is your place, and it's no disgrace.

For survival is the noblest of causes.


A warning to the "False Dan" that Lurks BlogFreeSpringfield pretending to be the real Dan - I know of your existence now, and you can stick it where the sun don't shine you illiterate bumpkin.

La Lubu said...

conform, or be cast out

You've been listening to Rush lately, haven't you, Jeromeprophet? ;-)

I wonder how much of the "erratic" behavior of teens can be attributed to the mixed messages the culture sends---that is, one minute the culture insists that teens are children, the next minute damn-near-adults. There's been a significant change in what is generally expected out of teens from my grandparents day to mine....teens were not only expected to be more "adult", but were given the latitude to be more adult, as well.

In my more cynical moments, I think the move towards "infantilizing" teens is directly related to their spending power. During these times of economic crunch, there is little adult disposable income, so teens are there to "fill in the blank". Look at the stores at White Oaks mall---how many are devoted to raking in teen dollars, as opposed to adult dollars? And....if we encourage teens to be more "adult", it's probably likely they'll be more choosy about how they spend their money, the way their great-grandparents did before the rise of "party-till-ya-drop" teen culture.

La Lubu said...

Dan, you are right on point about practical skills; however, with money being tight more people are going the DIY route (there's a reason Home Depots are popping up everywhere!). I've heard criticism that the Martha Stewart empire is all about selling an image, that very few people are actually doing the knitting, crafting, and cooking....but the rise in stores devoted to knitting, crafting and cooking tells me that someone must be doing it! Young women in particular are reclaiming those "homemaking" skills derided in the seventies, as a contemporary feminist (and anti-corporate) act. Go figure.

Me? I've always enjoyed cooking, but know diddly-squat about knitting or crocheting; my grandmother still works diligently with her needles. I've been thinking about getting a how-to book and some yarn and learning how to do it myself, in response to the high expense of good-looking, high-quality handknit sweaters! I think that trend will continue.

Oh, and electricity? Folks who don't know what they are doing should not attempt it. Seriously. I've worked in houses that I couldn't believe people slept in, with the fire dangers that were the result of weekend "home improvement" projects, or trading a case of beer with the brother-in-law to do some "electrical work". Gaah. Unreal. I've seen lamp cord run down as the feed for a kitchen ceiling fan---it was stapled to the wall, then covered over with wood paneling. Yow! You won't believe the things people do with electricity---there's an attitude out there that if the breaker doesn't trip, it must have been wired right. Wrong!!!

BlogFreeSpringfield said...

I should point out that Dan M., who now goes by the name MonkeyBoy, never intended to deceive anyone with his original moniker. He just happens to have the same first name. When it became apparent to me that people were getting confused and I attempted to clear the air, he graciously and without further prompting changed his username.

As far as what he should be made to stick where, I'll leave that for others to decide. I know that MonkeyBoy has some strong points-of-view that often contrast with those of others who comment here, but I personally find that type of debate interesting. The lengthy exchange between MonkeyBoy and LaLubu was quite entertaining and despite some harsh comments from both sides, they both expressed themselves well and I think that it concluded as amicably as could be expected.

JeromeProphet said...

O.K. Dan,

I was wrong to spank the MonkeyBoy!

I was under the impression that the alter-dan was in fact purposefully misleading folk.

I guess not.

Long Live MonkeyBoy!