Sunday, February 22, 2009

The "End" of Adolescence

Once again, I post an entry and as I research more I find myself on the same side of the fence as Newt Gingrich. It seems that since Newt has left elected office, he has really hit his stride with engaging discussions about health care, finance, and, now, education and adolescence. Like Dr. Robert Epstein's book The Case Against Adolescence, Newt has been speaking at places like that American Enterprise Institute, and he is arguing that "adolescence" is a "failed cultural" model. Newt presents some insightful history, as well as some intriguing recommendations, in this short clip. Though I do concur that Newt can have the tendency to exaggerate and over-extrapolate on occasion, the idea is still valid and intriguing.

Realistically, it can be argued that adolescence is a nineteenth-century invention designed to keep children out of the employment market where they were competing with adults for jobs. Thus, by the 1920s we had nearly nationwide mandatory education for kids k-12. This has proved counterproductive. Whereas kids should seamlessly transition from being children to young adults, as they have done across cultures for centuries, we've now reached a point where the average American lives in arrested development until about the age of twenty-six. Instead, we should be focusing on providing incentives for students to move expeditiously through schooling, developing the basic competencies.

One of Newt's insights is the idea of giving high school students who graduate early the money that would have been used to educate them as a scholarship. If they graduate two years early, they can have the sum of those two years. I think that is a fantastic idea. Personally, I'd like to see some offered to the motivated students and the rest refunded to taxpayers who might appreciate not paying for the babysitting of so many teenagers. Regardless, these ideas should be examined and debated more in-depth by communities and departments of education. Newt's comments can be explored more in depth in this interview with Business Week magazine.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Ending Adolescence

Shocking as it may be to many, there is validity to the claim that "adolescence" is a twentieth-century invention. Additionally, there is validity behind the argument that the creation of adolescence has been a huge mistake for contemporary society. As high schools struggle with establishing a reasonable level of education for all students, as state governments in New Hampshire and Massachusetts consider offering graduation at sixteen, as some school districts move away from grade levels toward basic standards of competency, as college presidents push to lower the drinking age to eighteen, as communities struggle with levels of driving privileges, it becomes clear that society needs to figure out what an adult is and what do do with all these teenagers. This issue is compelling explored in-depth in the book "The Case Against Adolescence" by Dr. Robert Epstein. He argues that as society has decreased the responsibility of adolescents and increased the restrictions on their freedom, we have complicated what should be a more seamless transition between childhood and adulthood. He may be right.

Clearly, age is a completely arbitrary factor in establishing competency for a myriad of rights and responsibilities. There are plenty of fourteen-year olds who can competently drive, sixteen-year-olds who can competently vote, and eighteen-year-olds who can competently drink. It's the last one, by the way, that I have the most difficulty with. However, I can reasonably understand that there is a disturbing discrepancy between the time societies have historically bestowed adulthood and the polls which show the average adult didn't consider himself an adult until about the age of twenty-six. Why does nature bestow adulthood at puberty and religions bestow it at about the same time, though American law pushes it to eighteen and twenty-one, and American culture apparently sets it in the mid-twenties. This is a problem.

I have long considered the idea that American society should consider lopping one year off of high school and two years off of college, as the current system is surprisingly inefficient. As a high school teacher, I always have a considerable number of juniors who are ready for college - as noted by the presence of AP classes. Granted, there are issues of emotional maturity to consider. However, those are not established by age, and many of my students who clearly seem ready for college and life often don't believe they are. That's sad. There is much to consider about Epstein's beliefs, and while some assertions make me (and him) rather uncomfortable, I hope his ideas begin to generate and contribute to the type of debate American society needs to have.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Can Stephanie Meyer Write?

As an English teacher, I regularly discuss the issue of quality writing with my students. In other words, "what's good?" Inevitably, the discussion addresses the issue of literature versus popular fiction, and lately it has been centered on the skill, or possibly the lack thereof, of Stephanie Meyer. For as long as I have been teaching, I have argued that there are great writers and there are great storytellers, and they are not always the same. In terms of literature, a great writer inevitably tells a great story. However, a great storyteller may not stand the test of time - there might not be any literary quality. Charles Dickens happened to be both, though there were countless popular writers during his time who never attained significance. In contemporary times, the debate has raged over writers such as Stephen King, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, and, now, Stephanie Meyer. As an English teacher, I assert that J.K. Rowling is the only truly great writer. It seems one of these writers agrees, and he's not shy about stating it.

In this weekend's edition of USA Today, the lifestyle section reports on several celebrities publicly criticizing others. Among them, Stephen King says of the skill of J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer, "The real difference is Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephanie Meyer can't write worth a darn. She's not very good." Ouch. Though I have to agree. Strangely, Stephen King used to be one of my examples of a good storyteller who wasn't a great writer, though I have to give him credit for his knowledge in "On Writing." An important issue in this debate is the issue of popularity, and King acknowledges that. Sadly, Us Weekly's West Coast Bureau chief Melanie Bromley - who judges the spat - does not. Bromley incorrectly asserts "At the end of the day, it's the fans who are judging, and sales prove these books (by Meyer) are fantastic."

Actually, that's not true. Popularity does not equal quality. McDonalds serves 42 million people everyday, but nobody claims it is high quality food. No food critic worth his credentials would rave about the Big Mac, though they'd admit it tastes good. Similarly, the movies of Tom Cruise make billions, but no one with any credibility in judging the craft would argue Tom Cruise is a great actor. He's, quite simply, not. In fact, he doesn't act at all - he's Tom in every movie. The Academy is never going to call him, or Adam Sandler or Will Ferrel for that matter, a great actor. However, their movies are still immensely popular. Thus, Stephanie Meyer may be fabulously entertaining, but she'll never knock Harper Lee off the required reading lists of high school English departments.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Who's Educated?

“Did you know that nearly two-thirds of Americans aged 18 – 24 still cannot find Iraq on a map?” That question was on a flyer that went up at my school this week. It was posted by some club, and the information was attributed to CNN. Clearly, the question is designed to shock and outrage, pointing a finger at a weakness in the education system or the culture in general. My answer to the question is this: Who cares? I wonder if the data was taken from people looking at atlases with the names marked on the country. Of course it wasn’t. It was a blank map, and, thus, the question is simply measuring the arbitrary ability to match names to random shapes. When is that necessary? How is that a valid measure of education? Are the Joint Chiefs sitting around drawing up foreign policy with a bunch of blank maps in front of them? I don’t think so.

This sort of question – and all its snide implications – is indicative of the wrong kind of conversations Americans have when evaluating education. The arbitrary assigning of educational significance to some knowledge is baffling, and it’s become a punch-line in this country with popularity of shows such as “Who’s Smarter than a Fifth Grader?” Who’s smarter? A sixth-grader. So are all those professionals who went on the show and were “embarrassed” because they can’t name the countries that border Ecuador. I’d like to see the show that puts the “smart” fifth grader in a house by himself when the main line bursts. Can the fifth grader fix that? Can he balance a budget? Can he draw up a contract? Can he fix dinner?

I concede the importance of basic skills, and I argue to my students that it’s not enough to be able to punch numbers into a calculator. Their brains benefit from having to do math “the hard way.” Much knowledge in contemporary education is designed to “grow” and “exercise” their brains. Much of it is integral to critical thinking, especially if they can extrapolate basic knowledge into larger trends. Much of it is about becoming “a person on whom nothing is lost.”

And then there is assigning names to random shapes. Who cares?