March 09, 2004
The Alien Landscape Weblog on how to nurture "teenagers" differently

My warmest thanks to Alan Little for emailing me about a posting on the Alien Landscape Weblog called On the evils of easy grading.

It's about the economics of education. Education as currently organised is a gigantic waste of juvenile energy. Teenagers - I would say: by definition (this is what a "teenager" is) – sit around doing extraordinarily little, and the truly scandalous bit is that the cleverer they are, the truer this often is. Result, they behave like "teenagers".

Key paragraphs:

But, you say, we're talking about teenagers here. Teenagers lack judgement and maturity, and if you let them out without a keeper, who knows what they'll do?

Teenagers behave that way today, of course. But that's not because that's all they're capable of. Remember the old Soviet saying "As long as they pretend to pay us, we'll pretend to work"? Teenagers, like their older counterparts, rarely put forth their best effort unless they have a reason. Since diligence and maturity don't shorten their sentences, and immaturity and laziness don't get them into real trouble or lower their standard of living, it's not surprising that they're not really trying. There's no biological reason that they're incapable of being productive, useful adult citizens, it's just that there's no payoff for them. If they've got marketable skills and their own place, property, and liberty that they can improve through hard work, common sense, and ingenuity or lose through laziness, impulsiveness, or viciousness, they'll be just as inclined as anyone else to straighten up and fly right. It's clear that they're not pushing themselves to their limits, so I don't see any reason to believe anyone's assertions about just what their limits are based on observations of today's teenagers.

I have the feeling that the claim that smart kids do less work may be false, in lots of cases if clearly not in all. Smart kids generally have smart parents, and smart parents often "clean up" those confused signals by attaching rewards to each item of educational progress, and punishments to educational torpor or general "teenager"-ness. (Remember the girl who got a Cadillac, just for doing well at school?)

Nevertheless, the point about the non-biological-ness of teenager-ness is surely right. I did a sociology degree, and I actually learned quite a lot from doing it. The main thing I learned is that what my sociology teachers called "society" or "social structure" - and what I, under the influence of libertarian writers and pamphleteers and economists was starting to think of more as an "incentive structure" (although not yet with those sort of exact words) - matters.

One moment in 1945, all Germans adult males are fighting you and must be treated with extreme suspicion. Then something big happens in the big wide world out there ("Germany" surrenders in the war) and immediately all German adult males start to behave entirely differently. All of them. Society. (And in this case "history".) Explanations of previous, hostile German behaviour based on the immutability of the German version of human nature simply must be wrong. They are certainly woefully insufficient. Biology, that is to say, is not a satisfactory explanation of what is happening, even if it does have some bearing.

So yes, teenagers must have the energy to be a nuisance and the psychological energy to defy what passes for authority in their lives. But whether they behave like "teenagers" or not is a function of the society they find themselves in. Hormone theories of teenager-ness are excuses used by people who are presiding over unsatisfactory social arrangements, blaming the victims of these arrangements instead of changing the arrangements. It's the same with the theory that slaves (i.e. black people) are inherently slavelike. Or, many home-edders and home-ed supporters like me would add, the theory that children are inherently childlike.

I realise that I have a problem with biological and sociological/economic theories. I believe strongly in both. (Does this make me rather rare, apart from the general public I mean?) Young humans do have a definite nature, which is different from puppy nature or kitten nature or junior crab nature. But how that nature asserts itself is radically different depending on the social/economic influences that impinge upon it. Nature and nurture.

I could elaborate, but that's more than enough profundity for one post.

FINAL final point: I have just been wrestling with how to categorise this posting. I picked three from my list that seemed particularly pertinent, but could have picked at least half a dozen more. This shows, I think, how much the Alien Landscape man and I are thinking along similar lines, not neccesarily answering all questions the same way, but wrestling with lots of the same questions. So thank you again Alan.