Coming of Age in America
(appeared in slightly different form in publication)
You mayremember 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.
disgrace. How could America’s august authorities – the “experts” on youth
issues who fashion
of policies affecting millions – have so unapologetically
swallowed such cockamamie junk?
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, junior high
school sexual scourges, hundreds of thousands of gun-toting boys seething to
massacre classmates, and similar specters – all despite
challenged (unfortunately, rarely), trumpeters of these fevered alarms marshal
neither statistics nor real bodies to demonstrate
imagined hordes of grade-school junkies, teenage cyber-predator victims, suburban stone
killers or wastoid “Thirteen”
not sure what this reference
means vixens exist in appreciable number.
In truth, compared to 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, drunken driving, suicides, murders, births, abortions and serious crimes, and more graduations, college enrollment, with even an increase in online masters degrees programs, community volunteerism, and survey-reported self-confidence and optimism (expressed in surveys).
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.
are adapted to “postfigurative cultures,” the traditional tribes in which
humans have spent 99 percent of our existence. In those cultures, 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.
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.”
by change, elders’
become “immigrants in time,”
retreating into delusions that yesterday’s imagined values were superior and
today’s youth are apocalyptically evil. Theyretreat into outmoded
delusions, hallucinating hallucinate
vast menace lurking in the new culture and the frightening, multiracial
generation of youths who inhabit it.
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.
(probably harboring faith that Americans would not become so willfully
self-destructive) didn’t anticipate that 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
,the National Campaigns to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Against Youth Violence, and
their ilk, both political parties and the fawning news media (including
Today) publicizing their demagoguery are wrecking America’s social fabric. They are fostering abandonment of an entire
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 authored four books on youth. Contact: http://home.earthlink.net/~mmales.