December 9, 2010
CNN asks this week “Is an internship the new entry-level job?” in an article profiling several recent college grads who have racked up half a dozen or more unpaid internships apiece while looking for full-time jobs in their degree areas.
Several things trouble me here.
“I want to do what I studied, and I don’t want to settle,” says Ani Kevork, who graduated in 2009 and is in her first paid internship after six unpaid internships. Six. unpaid. internships.
I’ve written before that people who know how to be constantly learning are never confined by their schooling. Kevork seems determined to be confined by her schooling. Maybe this recession will pass and she’ll get a job in her degree area. But then what happens to her in the next downturn or the one after?
I have to wonder what she studied; the article doesn’t say. I sympathize…who doesn’t want to be actually working in the area they studied for? But I have to take issue with the outlook that taking a job that isn’t what you studied for right out of college is settling. This is something that humanities and arts majors have always had to cope with. It’s the right thing to do for some people, and may be the wrong thing for some people, but if your priority is to be self-supporting, it’s often just the way to do that. And this is only even a choice for people whose parents are able and willing to financially support them indefinitely. Anyway, she’s settling in a different way: working without getting paid.
Which is obviously the second big problem. Companies are learning that they can get away with not paying their young workers, because we’re so desperate and fearful of being left out in the cold entirely. And if companies are actually using interns to fill functions that used to be paid positions, or if an unpaid internship is really a low-level job and not primarily educational in nature, then that’s also illegal. And after six (or nine, or 15) internships, an internship is no longer serving an educational function; you’re being taken advantage of. But this is a condition that we’re being told to accept, or risk falling behind young workers who are more willing to be endlessly taken advantage of.
Thirdly, as the article notes, “it’s no longer enough to get a degree. Employers expect a certain skill set of those they consider for a job post-graduation.”
But then, shouldn’t we be asking why students aren’t learning that skill set as part of their education? If a college education was once considered sufficient preparation for an entry-level job, and is no longer, to the extent that a post-graduation internship (or six) is now considered by default to be essentially mandatory, shouldn’t we be seriously questioning both colleges and employers why a college education is no longer measuring up to real skill requirements? Not that a classroom education can or should ever be expected to bestow everything a graduate needs to learn, but most students should’ve had some significant opportunity in the course of their college years to obtain and practice real professional skills. (I’ve estimated myself that probably about 75-80% of my real college education occurred outside the classroom.) And young workers can and should be expected to pick up skills and knowledge on the job.
I’m by no means unilaterally against internships, including unpaid ones in some circumstances. There are specialized skills that are best learned in the context of the real working world. Mentoring relationships with experienced professionals can be priceless. My own one and only internship (paid) was among the most important experiences of my life and continues to pay off professionally. But when we’re talking about years’ worth of multiple unpaid internships now being the only way that many young workers can stay engaged in the labor market, and we’re expected to accept this as just the way it is now, the very concept of what an internship is supposed to be is being abused to the point of meaninglessness, along with the skills of young workers. This is something closer to acceptance of a new version of indentured servitude.
And lastly, while the article touches on the statistic that currently only 41% of Millennials have a full-time job, it doesn’t explicitly make a connection between this recent acceptance of unpaid internships in place of entry-level jobs and our generation’s supposed Peter Pan syndrome. So, for future reference (ahem, New York Times), the next time anyone’s wondering why 20-somethings can’t seem to move out on our own, get married, and start having kids, consider that maybe it’s because employers don’t seem to think that they should have to pay us.
December 4, 2010
There’s a list of books going around Facebook. Purportedly compiled by the BBC, which has supposedly found that most people have read, on average, six of them. Only according to a friend who went looking, the BBC compiled no such list; the meme seems to be some kind of conflation of the BBC’s “Big Read” list which is the result of a poll of Brits’ favorite books, and some apocryphal statistic about how little the average adult actually reads.
So relax everyone, it’s just fun; it’s not actually a judgment of how well-read you are. Nevertheless, my Facebook friends had some interesting and useful banter about what made the list and important books and authors that didn’t make the list.
Here’s my own list of 100 important books that didn’t make the Facebook/BBC list, in no particular order of preference. It’s a highly idiosyncratic and in no way judgmental list, incredibly biased towards stuff I’ve read and stuff I like, or found particularly formative. I haven’t read all of these; a few are things I think I should have read and haven’t.
If you like, give it the Facebook treatment and see how you do. (Copy and paste into a comment, star what you’ve read.) Tell me your own–what are your most important books that haven’t made anyone’s list?
1. The Hunchback of Notre Dame–Victor Hugo
2. The Poisonwood Bible–Barbara Kingsolver
3. Caucasia–Danzy Senna
4. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl–Linda Brent
5. American Gods–Neil Gaiman
6. Like Water for Chocolate–Laura Esquivel
7. Middlesex–Jeffrey Eugenides
8. White Oleander–Janet Fitch
9. The Alchemist–Paulo Coelho
10. 2001: A Space Odyssey–Arthur C. Clarke
11. Fahrenheit 451–Ray Bradbury
12. Pillars of the Earth–Ken Follett
13. Girl, Interrupted–Susanna Kaysen
14. Interpreter of Maladies–Jhumpa Lahiri
15. The Lacuna–Barbara Kingsolver
16. The Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.)–Stieg Larsson
17. The Woman Warrior–Maxine Hong Kingston
18. Native Speaker–Chang-rae Lee
19. Wicked–Gregory Maguire
20. Beloved–Toni Morrison
21. A Canticle for Leibowitz–Walter M. Miller
22. No-No Boy–John Okada
23. Fight Club–Chuck Palahniuk
24. The Stolen Child–Keith Donohue
25. The Red Tent–Anita Diamant
26. God’s Mountain–Erri De Luca
27. House of Leaves–Mark Z. Danielewski
28. The Prince of Tides–Pat Conroy
29. The Mists of Avalon–Marion Zimmer Bradley
30. The Once and Future King–T.H. White
31. Atlas Shrugged–Ayn Rand
32. The Joy Luck Club–Amy Tan
33. Frankenstein–Mary Shelley
34. A Soldier of the Great War–Mark Helprin
35. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil–John Berendt
36. Slaughterhouse 5–Kurt Vonnegut
37. The Demon-Haunted World–Carl Sagan
38. On the Origin of Species–Charles Darwin (If I had to pick ONE book that should be required reading in school, at the very least for anyone who ever takes a science class, this would be it. Not only is it the basis of the practice of modern biology, it’s not that hard to read, fun, clever, and doesn’t remotely say what over half of Americans think it does.)
39. Till We Have Faces–C.S. Lewis
40. The Neverending Story–Michael Ende
41. Into the Wild–John Krakauer
42. The Last Temptation of Christ–Nikos Kazantzakis
43. A Little Princess–Frances Hodgson Burnett
44. The Giver–Lois Lowry
45. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister–Gregory Maguire
46. Possum Living–Dolly Freed
47. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal–Christopher Moore
48. Breakfast at Tiffany’s–Truman Capote
49. The Time Quartet (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters)–Madeleine L’Engle
50. Maus–Art Spiegelman
51. Reviving Ophelia–Mary Pipher
52. Cat’s Cradle–Kurt Vonnegut
53. Pudd’nhead Wilson–Mark Twain
54. A Gesture Life–Chang-rae Lee
55. Ishmael–Daniel Quinn
56. Something Wicked This Way Comes–Ray Bradbury
57. A Tale of Two Cities–Charles Dickens
58. Last of the Mohicans–James Fenimore Cooper
59. Walden–Henry David Thoreau
60. The Passage–Justin Cronin
61. The Canterbury Tales–Chaucer
62. Mystic River–Dennis LeHane
63. The Earthsea Cycle (A Wizard of Earthsea, etc.)–Ursula K. LeGuin
64. Jacob Have I Loved–Katherine Paterson
65. The Silmarillion–JRR Tolkien
66. The Screwtape Letters–C.S. Lewis
67. Shoeless Joe–W.P. Kinsella
68. The Feminine Mystique–Betty Friedan
69. The Scarlet Letter–Nathaniel Hawthorne
70. Wonderboys–Michael Chabon
71. The Iliad/The Odyssey–Homer (This is how we were taught The Odyssey in high school: our 9th grade language arts class was divided up into groups of 3 or 4, and each group was assigned one section of the tale–one of the adventures of Odysseus and his crew–and had to read it and present it in book report form to the rest of the class. So we “learned” The Odyssey, but no one actually had to read the whole thing. It was the stupidest thing ever. And I still haven’t gotten around to correcting the situation and just reading it.)
72. My Sister’s Keeper–Jodi Picoult
73. The Diary of Anne Frank–Anne Frank
74. The Tipping Point–Malcolm Gladwell
75. The Magicians–Lev Grossman
76. Awakenings–Oliver Sacks
77. The Faerie Queene–Edmund Spenser
78. Anthem–Ayn Rand
79. A Farewell to Arms–Ernest Hemingway
80. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest–Ken Kesey
81. Johnny Tremain–Esther Forbes
82. Matilda–Roald Dahl
83. The Outsiders–S.E. Hinton
84. Flowers for Algernon–Daniel Keyes
85. Bridge to Terebithia–Katherine Paterson
86. Neverwhere–Neil Gaiman
87. The Chocolate War–Robert Cormier
88. Only Revolutions–Mark Z. Danielewski
89. The Winter’s Tale–Mark Helprin
90. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry–Mildred Taylor
91. Angels of Destruction–Keith Donohue
92. The Laramie Project–Moises Kaufman (Yes, technically a play; give yourself credit if you’ve seen it)
93. His Master’s Voice–Stanislaw Lem
94. Franny and Zooey–JD Salinger
95. The Satanic Verses–Salman Rushdie
96. Angels in America (Also a play, well, technically two plays)–Tony Kushner
97. Griffin and Sabine–Nick Bantock
98. The Koran
99. Little House in the Big Woods–Laura Ingalls Wilder
100. Beowulf–author unknown
November 16, 2010
One of the latest video messages to have gone viral in the last few weeks’ public fight against anti-gay rhetoric is of openly gay 14-year-old Graeme Taylor speaking at a school board meeting in defense of a teacher who had apparently ejected from class two students who said that they “did not support gay individuals” during a discussion, on Anti-Bullying Day, that erupted after he’d asked another student to remove her Confederate flag belt buckle. The teacher was then suspended without pay for a day.
Sound like a First Amendment quagmire yet?
Graeme eloquently defends his former teacher, saying he was driven to a suicide attempt at age nine in large part by anti-gay slanders by classmates that long went accepted and unchallenged by teachers. The teacher says that he ejected the students for being disruptive, not for their stated opposition to supporting gay people, and I tend to believe him.
But…suppose that the students were telling the truth, that they only expressed their personal opposition to support for gays, calmly, non-threateningly and non-disruptively. Would their ejection have been a violation of their free speech rights? How should the teacher have handled the discussion?
Doesn’t the First Amendment protect even–especially–the most unpopular of speech?
Yes, I would say, IF the students in question merely expressed a position, as vile and unfortunate a position as I find it, then the teacher did wrong to punish them rather than guiding the conversation to a useful and potentially enlightening conclusion…even though he was right, doubtless in the eyes of some of his most vulnerable students, to oppose the sentiments as strongly as he was able to in the moment.
As much as I despise the opinion that gay people (or black people, Gypsies, Muslims, whoever) are morally inferior, in my understanding, the right of free speech applies equally to these sentiments. We don’t allocate the First Amendment’s protection based on the popularity of the content of the speech. So long as the speech does not constitute an explicit or implicit threat, well, people have the right to dislike whomever they dislike, whether or not their reasoning sucks.
But students also need to learn that the right of “free speech” does not mean the right of unchallenged or consequence-free speech, that just because their prejudice may be a religious belief doesn’t disallow opposition to it, and that if they choose to express their bigotry, they should expect to be strenuously challenged. Banning or punishing such speech (again, as long as it’s not actually a threat) will only give the bigots confirmation for their whine that they’re being oppressed by the fascist liberal homosexual agenda or something. Simply suppressing it doesn’t allow us to openly challenge it, to reveal its ugliness and violence for what it is, to discredit it with facts, or to show that the positions of acceptance and respect are stronger. Teachers are in an optimal position to do these things, and more importantly, to show their students how to do them.
Graeme Taylor has eloquence, grace, and self-possession of which I could only be passionately envious at his age; there will be no one more suited to take up the task than he will be. I’m sorry that he’ll have to. I shudder for his opponents to think of what he’ll be like to oppose in debate in a few years.
November 1, 2010
A Michigan prosecutor believes that the school system ought to own adults’ time now, too, not just the lives of their kids.
September 17, 2010
1. My friend Brandy recently revamped her own blog and I think it’s great! It’s called Cognitive Informalist, and concerns how we learn in informal or unplanned settings, especially through games and interactional media.
2. In the debate in the comments section of my last post, I’m being told by an old friend that I’m wrong about what’s going on in schools these days. And it’s just possible; I might be. So if you are a teacher, or a parent with kids in school, or have some other sort of inside view of what’s actually going down in classrooms lately, and your school is trying something radical or exciting to foster independence, critical thinking, creativity, and respect for individual learning desires, I would love to hear about it! The comments section, as always, is open.
September 15, 2010
President Obama gave his second annual start of the school year address this week to the nation’s students, and many media sources have noted the general absence of the paranoia and outrage that marked the occasion last fall, including accusations of injecting politics into education, socialist indoctrination, and parents threatening to pull their children from school for the day lest their vulnerable minds be contaminated by whatever inflammatory thing the President might have to say to 3rd graders (I’m still at a loss as to what these parents really feared he might say). But I’ve actually found both years remarkable for the almost utter lack of attention paid to the substance of the speech itself.
I was thrilled to hear Obama openly acknowledge the realities and difficulties that many students are facing: financial insecurity and family tension, the wars and the recession, wondering if they’ll be able to afford college at all. I always resented being talked down to or having the truth soft-pedaled to me as a kid so I was appreciative that he didn’t even try. I was glad to hear him ask students to reject bullying and show kindness and respect each others’ differences; I’m not sure it would’ve done a lot of good but that’s something I would have loved to hear a President say when I was in middle school. I think the President spoke with an awareness that childhood bullying, unchecked, grows up into the kind of much more dangerous bullying behavior–lying, smearing, contempt, character assassination, open disregard for the rights or dignity of opponents, even violence–that we’ve seen all too much on display in our political process lately.
I was glad to hear him tell students that “nobody gets to write your destiny but you.” I wish this was the #1 lesson that we imparted to all students: that no one else gets to tell you who or what you are, or what you can or can’t do.
The two big (and almost completely predictable) things wrong, however: the near-equation of education with school success, and the lauding of “hard work” as the key to nearly all success, in education, life and career.
The fact is that the school system we have now is, for many, many students, a tragically counterproductive system or simply a bad learning environment. It has no respect for learning differences, for individual ambition, or for independent thought. Its goals are standardization and submission to authority. By constantly punishing students for their deficits rather than encouraging them and letting them go as far as possible in their strengths, it forces most students to be mediocre in most everything. Schools confer diplomas, not education. When the school system does not serve the goals of education or of the individual student (which was usually, in my experience from kindergarten through 10th grade), then our encouragement of students to fulfill their full educational potential might need to include encouragement to leave school behind and pursue their own education.
And we need real schooling options which will take into account the individual learning styles, desires, and goals of students when those are at odds with what’s considered acceptable by the current school system. The schools we have are failing too many kids. Asking them to keep playing along is not a solution to anything.
“More and more, the kinds of opportunities that are open to you will be determined by how far you go in school. In other words, the farther you go in school, the farther you’ll go in life,” Obama stated, as if this is a foregone conclusion. I hope it isn’t. I think that this is a vision of the future that we should and can reject and turn back from. With the exception of highly technical, scientific or medical career fields, there’s no particular reason that it needs to be true. Indeed, this faulty outlook that everyone needs more and more schooling–that everyone needs a college degree–to be successful and comfortable is, I think, is largely responsible both for the explosion of college costs and the increasing meaninglessness of a college degree. And to look at the number of our geniuses, innovators, artists and business successes who were school failures or dropouts or who avow that their formal education had little or nothing to do with their eventual success, is a pretty strong refutation of the presumption that length of schooling is deterministic of how far anyone can go in life. Whereas I worked hard and did well in school and found myself graduating high school with all A’s and almost no skills, something that I had to take it upon myself to fix. People who can teach themselves, on the other hand, who are always learning and adapting, are never confined by their schooling.
Hard work, of course, is a necessary ingredient to most success, but not a sufficient one. We have millions of people out of work right now, and not for any aversion to hard work. Likewise, millions of people are desperate for any job and more than willing to take menial or physically demanding ones, but find themselves disqualified (or “overqualified”) by advanced degrees. Most of them, I’m sure, have worked hard their whole lives, doing what they thought they were supposed to do, believing that hard work would keep them safe. It’s one of our most intoxicating and stubborn national myths, that hard work is the primary necessary condition for material success and security; it’s our way of saying that life is fair at its core and that people ultimately get what they deserve. But it isn’t, and sometimes they don’t. Often, the people who work the hardest struggle the most for their entire lives.
What’s going to restore America’s vitality and point the directions in which we need to go next in so many areas–energy independence, health care, job creation, healing our ecological situation, just to name a few–in addition to hard work, are ingenuity, creativity, critical and fiercely independent thinking, judicious willingness to take risks…and ethical leadership. All of which are precisely the things discouraged by the predominant way in which we currently educate children.
What I wish a leader would say to the nation’s students is this: that in order to write your own destiny, you have to take your education into your own hands. That means being focused and unashamed of what you want out of your life and what you want to accomplish in the world, looking around you to assess whether your educational environment is helping or hindering you in meeting your own ambitions, and taking things into your own hands if it isn’t. Because playing by other peoples’ rules is no future at all, for you or for the country.
The Kansas City, Missouri school district, which could kindly be described as eternally struggling, is instituting reforms which would allow all students to progress through all subjects at their own pace. (Forget grade levels, KC schools try something new.) They’re doing away almost entirely with age-grading, in favor of grouping students in each subject by ability regardless of age. Students who finish the high school curriculum in any subject early will be able to move on to college work. (I would also hope that if students who finish early don’t wish to or aren’t ready to start college classes, they’d simply be given the free time.)
(Incidentally, I grew up in the Kansas City area but did not attend the KCMO school district; my town was served by the Park Hill district. It was considered a “good” school district–it’s probably still ranked among the best in the state–but I was miserable.)
Superintendent Covington is brave and brilliant for making this transition. A high school diploma will mean something again–that students have actually mastered something of their own initiative–whereas right now, in most places, it means that you sat there for 13 years and didn’t try to do anything too hard.
I could have finished the high school English curriculum by the end of 8th grade, in the time that I spent reading the whole textbook by the end of the first week of school every year and then sitting through the rest of the year zoned out and angry while the teacher tried to control the discipline problems of kids who just didn’t care. The math curriculum between 3rd and 8th grade was meaningless–you just had to sit in math class because most kids had gotten long division and fractions but weren’t ready for algebra. No more in downtown Kansas City. I just about want to cry when I think about all the art classes I didn’t have time to take, that I could have if I weren’t stuck in classes that meant nothing to me or were absurdly below my ability level.
What might this end… Labeling kids failures for not learning the same things the same way at the same time as people who just happen to be the same age. Teaching to the lowest common denominator. The busywork required to keep all students in a class achieving on the same mediocre and arbitrary level.
What might this create… Respect and encouragement rather than punishment for independence and self-direction, active learning and risk-taking rather than passive obedience. A healthier social environment, with kids able to befriend and work with a diverse set of other students continually and based on shared interest, instead of being confined almost exclusively with people only their own age for 13 years. Invaluable mentoring relationships with teachers who will be able to spend time guiding students independently in their own goals.
If I had to name a single policy change that would do the most to change the public school institution from a place where I would not dream of sending a child, to one that I’d be thrilled to support, this would be it. Merde to Kansas City, and may many others follow their example.
June 29, 2010
I’ve been really torn about responding to this one–Online Bullies Pull Schools Into the Fray–though since the Times got 547 comments on it, I guess I better chime in….
The conundrum is how much schools can do to prevent and punish cyberbullying by text message, YouTube, or Facebook, that occurs off school grounds and outside of school hours. The article profiles Benjamin Franklin Middle School in New Jersey, and is accompanied by a chilling picture, which I can only hope was posed, of a small group of very young (like maybe 11 or 12) female students, standing in a semi-circle, not chatting or playing, but texting on Blackberries and other elaborate QWERTY-enabled phones.
It’s a hard one for me, because of course I’d like to side with the bullying victims and say that the school should do everything in its power to stop bullying. But in this case, “everything in its power” would mean an unacceptable intrusion into students’ lives outside of school (as we should’ve learned from the Pennsylvania case in which a school district was caught monitoring students in their own bedrooms via their laptop cameras).
And certainly, the schools create the kind of environment in which bullying of all kinds thrives, so it’s tempting to want to hold them responsible when the nastiness goes off school grounds.
But…why do middle school students have smart phones? Why do they have internet usage unmonitored by parents? Why do they have Facebook pages (against even Facebook’s terms of service, which bar anyone under 13) without their parents being their “friends” and therefore able to see everything that happens on the page? These circumstances are created by parents, and the responsibility of raising kids to be decent human beings is the responsibility of parents. It should go without saying, but apparently it doesn’t, that discipline for kids’ wrongdoing outside of school is the responsibility of their parents.
The article recounts a few different schools’ experiences with massively disruptive incidents born from online spats, and their attempts to smooth things out between students. Principal Tony Orsini laments that “All we are doing is reacting. We can’t seem to get ahead of the curve.”
No, Mr. Orsini, you can’t. Because you might have the legal designation of in loco parentis when it comes to restricting students’ civil rights and commanding their behavior in your building, but you can’t actually take the place of a parent. And you can’t teach compassion or respect or human decency in a basically authoritarian institution where children are considered as factory products instead of people.
In the end, Benjamin Franklin Middle School organizes a group of 8th grade girls to talk to the 6th graders about responsible technology use and cyberbullying. Actually, not such a bad idea, to enlist older students, who kids might be more likely to take seriously than their parents or teachers. The 6th graders seem intrigued. But unintentionally, it sort of highlights exactly what’s wrong with middle school environments that allows and encourages cyberbullying in the first place: the environment itself practically enforces immaturity. There are no younger kids to look after and protect, there are no older kids to look up to and emulate, and the only adults are ones whose job it is to control and manipulate you, so they’re not very compelling role models. And there’s nothing meaningful to do. Is it really any wonder at all that kids turn to petty technology-mediated aggression for entertainment and to make themselves feel bigger?
I wish schools would return to housing kindergartners through 6th graders together, and 7th graders through high school seniors together. My own school district back in Kansas City has recently gone even further in the wrong direction, separating 6th graders out from the middle schools and putting them in a designated “6th grade center.” I don’t even want to imagine what kind of psychodrama goes on in that place.
The article closes with a sweet sounding girl named Emily telling the younger kids that if they’re being cyberbullied, “Go to the school. The school will make it stop, immediately!” But Emily dear, most schools can barely control the bullying that goes on inside their walls. I’m glad your school at least takes it seriously.
There’s a saying in biology and genetics regarding the influence of both nature and nurture on outcome: “Genetics loads the gun, and environment pulls the trigger.” In the case of cyberbullying, parental negligence is loading the gun, and school environment is pulling the trigger. (The technology is only amplifying effects; there were predatory little girls a long time before we had Facebook.) But schools aren’t capable of dealing with the consequences; they cannot be expected to act as police, prosecutor, judge and jury when discipline matters cross over into stalking, harassment, and libel; and we should not invite them to have any more reach into students’ out of school lives than they already do. It’s like schools have scared parents into doubting their ability to do their own jobs. Parents need to stand up for their kids and take it back. And if they don’t understand the technology or how to control it, they need to learn…before they give a Blackberry to an 11-year-old.
June 22, 2010
I’m actually about a week late on my response to this article. Sue me; I’ve been working on two separate productions this week.
In a June 11 article, “Long Road to Adulthood is Growing Longer,” the New York Times reports from the findings of researchers from the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, purporting to show that young people are actually taking longer to reach adulthood these days.
The disservice that this article does to young adults begins in its second sentence, declaring that “a growing body of research shows that the real Peter Pans are not the boomers, but the generations that have followed.”
This is a careless characterization of 20- and 30-somethings that, on top of everything else we’re facing, we really don’t need, thanks anyway Patricia Cohen. Peter Pan, remember, deliberately determined to remain a child forever. He wasn’t hobbled in his quest for maturity and independence by a major economic collapse, spiraling higher education costs, untenable health care and housing costs, and a 20% unemployment/under-employment rate. He chose eternal childhood and a fantasy existence over what he saw as the drudgery and hypocrisy of the adult world.
Really, New York Times, does that sound like American young adults of today?
Once again, like the article from the Chicago Tribune I wrote about a couple weeks ago, the Times reporter takes at face value, without much critical inquiry, assumptions that fewer young adults meeting certain commonly accepted markers of maturity actually means that young adults are less mature (which, as I’ve said before, I might agree that they are, but for far different reasons). There’s no consideration for the possibility that perhaps, in the face of wildly altered circumstances from those in which our parents and grandparents came of age, young adults are simply making different choices. And what’s more, that those choices might be rational and well-informed.
Early in the article, Cohen cites as an incidental example of adulthood taking longer to take hold the provision of the new health care law which allows adult children to stay on their parents’ health insurance policies up to age 26. But this is no indication whatsoever that young adults are less adult, but rather that wages have been stagnant for 30 years while insurance premiums have spiraled out of range of what a college graduate with an entry level or hourly wage job can reasonably afford. How does that reflect on our maturity, rather than on the unfairness and irrationality of our haphazard health care delivery systems?
Frank F. Furstenberg, leader of the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, is quoted as saying “A new period of life is emerging in which young people are no longer adolescents but not yet adults.”
Is it that we’re not yet adults, or that young adulthood now holds different challenges (among which I would include an educational system that actually discourages rather than encourages maturity and independence) and more choices than it used to? Most of the anecdotes contained in the article are about young women taking longer to complete their education, and thus marrying much later and delaying childbearing. But, among other factors, birth control is legal now. It was once assumed that young adult women would marry and have children by their early 20′s, simply because they didn’t have many other options. That wasn’t better for their personal maturity, to do what society assumed they would because they lacked compelling career options; it was far worse. (If you haven’t read it, Betty Friedan makes the case eloquently in The Feminine Mystique, a book I enjoyed and identified with far more than I thought I would.) But the Times article laments that according to a study out from Princeton, “Marriage and parenthood–once seen as prerequisites for adulthood–are now viewed more as lifestyle choices.”
I’m sorry, a “lifestyle choice” is whether to live on the East Side or West Side, to drive or bike to work, to cook at home or eat out, to get a cat or a dog. To marry and have children are serious, life-altering choices involving the fates of at least two other people. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to do those things, but to do either right now would completely upend my career pursuits and independence.
Indeed, I don’t see anyone among the people profiled in the article who are Peter Pans–deliberate children–but rather people whose careers or economic circumstances necessitated further education, whose life trajectories simply didn’t take the courses they assumed they would (and how many people’s actually do?), and in the cases of the marriage-delayers, who honestly took their feelings into account in wisely not rushing into marriage at 23. When did honest self-reflection in delaying a major life decision become lack of maturity?
Things get more interesting on the website of the newsletter for the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood. It seems that much of this group’s current research agenda is based on a vision of the past that, well, isn’t all that true. One of the postulates shaping their body of research is stated as being that
The time period between age 18 and 34 has changed dramatically in the past several decades. Where once young adults moved in lockstep progression through the stages of adulthood—graduating from high school, leaving home, going to college or getting a job, marrying, and starting a family—today this path is no longer ordered and sequential.
Sure, it’s true that young adulthood has changed dramatically in the past few decades. But the assumption and ordering of most of these rites of passage are incredibly skewed towards the middle and upper classes of the mid- to late 20th century. This sequence was far from the lockstep norm for most people, for most of American history. Most states had no compulsory education through the end of the 19th century; it was not assumed that most people would graduate from, or even attend, high school. There has never been a time when most people graduated from or even attended college. Prior to the industrial revolution, many people never “got a job,” but learned a trade through an apprenticeship to a family member or neighbor, or inherited a family business or a farm. It wasn’t the lockstep following of these steps that used to make people adults by their late teens; it was the fact that they’d had to do things for themselves their entire lives.
Public awareness and social policies have not yet caught up to the changes. Many features of U.S. society operate on the assumption that reaching adulthood occurs much earlier than it ordinarily does today.
But how is it established that adulthood is actually occurring later? I agree that many social policies and institutions don’t serve young adults well, but that it’s because they presume a level of economic enfranchisement that’s out of reach for young graduates in the current job market.
The website criticizes earlier media portrayals of “Twixsters” and “Adultolescents,” and says that the Research Network “takes young people seriously.” But that is not the implication of what its leader, Mr. Furstenberg, said to the New York Times: “We have not developed and strengthened institutions to serve young adults, because we’re still living with the archaic idea that people enter adulthood in their late teens or early twenties.”
But I don’t see any likelihood that this view is going to result in young adults being taken more seriously, rather than less. If we’re shaping policies and institutions on a new paradigm that 18-34 year-olds (yep, that’s the age range given for this new period of young adulthood on the website) are in fact not effective adults, how does that not lead to taking them less seriously, as able to be self-directing and fully engaged in and responsible for their own lives, choices, and contributions to society and democracy? What Furstenberg blindly and rather deceptively confuses, as the Chicago Tribune article did, is personal maturity and capacity for independence with achievement of economic and material goals.
If it’s an archaic idea that we become adults in our late teens or early twenties, then I think we need to start looking backwards for guidance on how to take young adults seriously. Because this forward-looking vision of Mr. Furstenberg’s of recognizing ever less-adult “adults” is not going to help us establish realistic ways to help people reach self-sufficient adulthood in a timely manner. It will further justify the social exclusion of young adults from full enfranchisement and economic participation. It asks us to further infantilize young adults rather than seriously considering remedies to the economic circumstances that make full independence so difficult. This view itself is helping to lengthen the road to adulthood, not providing solutions for young adults who are seeking greater independence.
June 16, 2010
From the New York Times this evening, “The End of the Best Friend,” about school officials attempting to regulate the closeness of elementary school-aged best friend pairs–and curtail it if they see fit. The article quotes Christine Laycob, a director of counseling at St. Louis Country Day School:
“Parents sometimes say Johnny needs that one special friend. We say he doesn’t need a best friend.”
No one who would say such a thing should be allowed around children.