Thursday, May 30, 2002

Rarely if ever am I reduced to a simple "what the..." when reading something, but somehow Glenn Reynolds (aka Instapundit) managed to pull it off in his Fox News column about teen sex.

First, I actually agree with Glenn about the problem of society infantalizing teens. They aren't infants, nor are they children (except in the way that we all are). They're teenagers, which is a different thing entirely. Part of that "different thing" is that they are sexually mature, and (just like their parents before them) are going to want to do something with that, whether their parents (or their pastor) want them to do it or not. The "cliche" about teenagers having sex whether their parents want them to or not is true. That's why it became a cliche. I think Glenn missed the nuance involved in this, since teenagers are paradoxically both infantalized and sexualized by society (and probably partially by biology; it is the middle ground between childhood and adulthood after all) but by and large he has the right of it.

So, just as I'm thinking "you go Instapundit!" I read this:

I recommend a different approach: If we want teen-agers to be more adult, in their virtues as well as their vices, we should try treating them more like adults. Teen-agers should be encouraged to hold jobs in addition to going to school. (Or instead of since high school is not for everyone.)

No. Just No. This is ludicrous. Part of the reason teenagers do poorly in school is because they're carrying part-time jobs in order to pay for all the things they're expected to have nowadays, and their studies have suffered for it. This is not a topic for debate; there have been several studies that have supported it, and it simply makes sense that teenagers who work do less well in school. Why the heck would we want to encourage this? Because "high school is not for everyone"? And why is that, exactly? I could see the argument that "college is not for everyone" but most of those I know who dropped out of high school didn't do it because they had a bright future ahead of them that couldn't wait; they dropped out because they had little choice, or were so unbelievably shortsighted (which is, sadly, also a part of being 13-18) and anxious to get out into the "real world" (as is this) and anxious to get out from under their parents control (as is this). What, exactly, was Glenn thinking, dooming all these kids to what would likely be a lifetime of poor-paying unskilled labour at best and welfare at worst?

Much of high school is wasted time: School meets only about 180 days a year, with a lot of class time wasted on going over the same ground from one year to the next. Teen-agers with a powerful desire to be adults should be allowed to follow an accelerated program, with earlier graduation (and perhaps other privileges) as a reward. Many teen-agers would take advantage of this, rather than spending extra years in what's little more than a pre-adult holding tank.

Ah, he was thinking this. I've heard this argument before, and it gets sillier every time. First because it can be pushed back as far as you want; why the hell should kids go to elementary school... it's just a "holding tank", right? Who needs to know how to read anyway? I'll agree that there's a lot of wasted time and potential in high school but that isn't a function of the concept but a problem with the implementation. If high school weren't necessary adults wouldn't be going back to get their diplomas all the time. Which they are. (And I'd like to take a moment to express my support of alternate schools, which pick up a lot of the "free spirits" that Glenn is lionizing after they come to their senses and decide to move out of the trailer park.) Glenn is assuming that because teenagers aren't children and can exercise enough judgement to have sex they must be fully mature in every way. I somehow doubt that, considering the brain keeps on developing up until age 18 and considering the average teenager's hormonal levels could drop a healthy horse.

I think Glenn is trying to hearken back to a time when high school really wasn't necessary, and I can appreciate that. The simple fact of the matter, however, is that today's society *is* more complex than the ones where high-school wasn't necessary and eight years of education is enough. While there may be wasted time in high school, a lot of that time is "wasted" because of programs that are intended to evoke an interest in a subject that a student can use to guide his or her career choices, or programs whose value isn't immediately apparent, but comes in incredibly handy down the road. (Math and English, anyone?) I mean, how is anybody supposed to be able to hold down a white-collar job if they neither know basic mathematics nor how to write a report or essay?

For that matter, how exactly are people supposed to become able citizens without the kind of historical, geographical, and political training that one gets at the high-school level (and not nearly enough as it is?) I realize that the intended audience for Fox News isn't exactly high on the concepts of responsible citizenship that don't involve shooting gub'mint agents, but like it or not we're citizens, and we get the education we need to be citizens at the high-school level. (How the heck do you teach little kids about the historical bases of the United States' governmental system with the kind of depth they need to be able to interpret that when called upon to vote?) Without some sort of critical and civic training, these "responsible, uneducated adults" are at the mercy of demagogues, whose arguments pander to what they want to hear and which these people are ill equipped to deal with.

Perhaps if teen-agers were encouraged to take on adult responsibilities and win status and recognition in constructive ways, they'd probably start acting more like citizens, and less like a leisure class, with all the vices that have historically attended leisure classes.

Which is a good idea, although I think Glenn has missed the chicken-and-egg nature of boomers infantalizing their children in order to assert their own youth. Rest assured, though, leaving teenagers with an eighth grade education (if that: elementary schools push kids forward in ways that high schools don't) is not going to make them "citizens" in any way, shape, or form. At best, they'll be vocationally trained production/consumption machines; at worst, ignorant fools who betray everything that freedom and democracy stands for.

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