Coming of Age in America

Remember that phony list of the “top school problems” of 1940 (“talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in halls, getting out of turn, wearing improper clothing, not putting paper in wastebaskets”) versus today’s (“drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, rape, robbery, assault”) that circulated widely in the 1990s?

Big-time experts – including Yale University President Derek Bok, Education Secretary William Bennett, U.S. Sen. John Glenn, acclaimed juvenile justice author Ed Humes and institutional heavyweights of every stripe – were not only fooled by this ridiculous scam uncorroborated by any serious study of school problems, they embellished it with new horrors concocted out of thin air. It became “the most quoted ‘results’ of educational research, and possibly the most influential,” lamented a New York Times Magazine report exposing the list as a hoax cooked up by right-wing zealots.

What a disgrace. How could America’s august authorities – the “experts” on youth issues who fashion policies affecting millions – have so unapologetically swallowed such cockamamie junk?

Crazed anti-youth panics are rampant. Institutional experts, popular authors, and media commentators eagerly recycle mythical scares over teenage heroin, Oxycontin, methamphetamine and cough-syrup epidemics, and junior high school sexual scourges, hundreds of thousands of gun-toting boys seething to massacre their classmates, and similar specters – all despite scant credible evidence anything of the sort is occurring.

When challenged (unfortunately, rarely), trumpeters of these fevered alarms marshal neither statistics nor real bodies to demonstrate that their imagined hordes of grade-school junkies, teenage cyber-predator victims and suburban stone killers exist in appreciable numbers.

In truth, compared with their parents’ Baby Boom generation, today’s teenagers are better behaved in every measurable way. Data for today’s teens show fewer violent deaths, drug overdoses, drunk drivers, suicides, murders, births, abortions and serious crimes, and more graduations, college enrollment, community volunteerism and expressions in surveys of self-confidence and optimism.

But reality means nothing. We’re determined to believe kids today are horrifyingly dangerous and endangered, no matter how compelling the evidence to the contrary.

Why? Because of modern adults’ maladaptive reaction to unprecedented social change, anthropologist Margaret Mead argued 30 years ago in her brilliant Culture and Commitment.

Adults are adapted to “postfigurative cultures,” the traditional tribes in which parents and ancestors were familiar models for what each child would be, Mead wrote. Nothing prepared grownups for today’s “prefigurative cultures”: modern societies experiencing rapid social change. “In this new culture, it is the child – not the parent or grandparent – who represents what is to come,” she wrote.

“There are now no elders who know more than the young themselves about what the young are experiencing,” she declared. Modern adults “do not know how to teach these children who are so different from what they themselves once were, and most children are unable to learn from parents and elders they will never resemble.”

Unfortunately, Mead wrote, grownups remain “fettered to the past” when anything unfamiliar was presumed dangerous. We “fear that the young are being transformed into strangers before our eyes, that teenagers gathered at a street corner are to be feared like the advance guard of an invading army … a threat to whatever moral, patriotic, and religious values their parents uphold.”

Shell-shocked by change, elders retreat into outmoded delusions, hallucinating a vast menace lurking in the new culture and the frightening, multiracial generation of youths who inhabit it.

For it isn’t just social change that compounds fear. The United States is jolted by demographic transition as well. Older whites dominating government, business and academia find themselves presiding over a diverse, darker-skinned young America many of them want no part of.

Mead (probably harboring faith that Americans would not become so willfully self-destructive) didn’t anticipate the rise of unscrupulous institutions that would actually throw gasoline on the fire of adults’ irrational fear of youth. Exploitative scare tactics by the Robert Wood Johnson, Packard, California Wellness, Kaiser, W.T. Grant, Heritage and Media Education foundations, the Family Research Council, the Urban Institute, the Sentencing Project, the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Marijuana Policy Project, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, the National Campaign Against Youth Violence and their ilk, both political parties and the fawning news media (including Youth Today) publicizing their demagoguery are wrecking America’s social fabric. They are fostering abandonment of an entire generation.

Mead was optimistic that “we can change into a prefigurative culture, consciously, delightedly, and industriously raising unknown children for an unknown world.” Instead of inflaming antiquated fears, institutions should confront oft-heard complaints such as, “Kids didn’t act this way when I was growing up,” with a calming affirmation: “True. And that’s a good thing. That’s why they deserve our wholehearted investment.”

Mike Males teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and has written four books on youth. Contact: http://home.earthlink.net/%7Emmales.


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