Modern versus Western Thought: Adolescence over Adulthood

William H. Young

In the mid-twentieth century, an emerging upper-middle-class “other-directed” social character in which the feelings of others in peer groups—subjectivism—began to replace an “inner-directed” social character based on intellect and inner principles and increasingly dominated the individual’s motives and actions.  

Moreover, an “adolescent society”—anti-intellectual and materialistic and largely isolated from adult influence—had begun to take hold in American high schools. A culture of adolescence dominated by feeling and subjectivism formed over time and displaced the development of intellect and adulthood for many in American life.   

Progressive Education  

In 1950, Harvard sociologist David Riesman criticized the new face of progressive education in his classic work The Lonely Crowd. Americans, he wrote, were changing from “inner-directed” to “other-directed,” from people with an internalized set of principles to people guided entirely by what others thought of them. Riesman wrote that secondary school teachers were increasingly instructed to pay more attention to their students’ social and psychological development than to their intellectual prowess. They had become responsible for the socialization of students’ friendships, tastes, interests, even their fantasies. Children were told that what mattered was not their hard work but their adjustment to the group. Progressive education, Riesman noted, facilitated “the breakdown of walls between teacher and pupil; and this in turn helps to break down walls between student and student, permitting that rapid circulation of tastes which is a prelude to other-directed socialization.” Intellectual growth had become unimportant, he said, supplanted by attention to popularity and friendliness.1 

Over the course of the twentieth century, progressive education had sought to replace academic and intellectual development with “student-centered” education. The life-adjustment movement—subjectivism—within progressive education, which emerged during the 1940s and witnessed its heyday during the early years of the Cold War, did just that. During the 1950s the confluence of progressive education, the new materialistic consumer society, and permissive parenting of the baby boomer generation led to the beginning of an entirely new phenomenon in America. 

The Adolescent Society  

In a paper for the Harvard Education Review in 1959, 2 Johns Hopkins sociologist James Coleman reported on a review of high schools in which he had discovered an “adolescent society” in which adolescent students had become anti-intellectual and materialistic and had become cut off, probably more than ever before, from the adult society. Coleman, with other authors, eventually published the results of this review in The Adolescent Society: The Social Life of the Teenager and Its Impact on Education (1961). He posited the following observations—which seem remarkably fresh even though written fifty-five years ago: 

This setting-apart of our children in our schools—which take on ever more functions, ever more “extracurricular activities”—for an ever longer period of training has a singular impact on the child of high-school age. He is “cut-off” from the rest of society, forced inward toward his own age group, made to carry out his whole social life with others his own age. With his fellows, he has come to constitute a small society, one that has most of its most important interactions within itself, and maintains only a few threads of connections with the outside adult society. In our modern world of mass communications and rapid diffusion of ideas and knowledge, it is hard to realize that separate subcultures can exist right under the very noses of adults—subcultures with languages all their own, with special symbols, and, most importantly, with value systems that may differ from adults….To put it simply, these young people speak a different language. What is more relevant to the present point, the language they speak is becoming more and more different….  

As if it were not enough that an institution as today’s high school exists segregated from the rest of society, there are other things that reinforce this separation. For example, adolescents have become an important market, and special kinds of entertainment cater almost exclusively to them. Popular music is the most important, and movies…have moved more and more toward becoming a special medium for adolescents.  To summarize: in a rapidly changing, highly rationalized society, the “natural processes” of education in the family are no longer adequate. They have been replaced by a more formalized institution that is set apart from the rest of society and that covers an ever longer span of time. As an unintended consequence, society is confronted no longer with a set of individuals to be trained toward adulthood, but with distinct social systems, which offer a united front to the overtures made by adult society.  

Thus, the very changes that society is undergoing have spawned something more than was bargained for. They have taken not only job-training out of the parents’ hands, but have quite effectively taken away the whole adolescent himself. The adolescent is dumped into a society of his peers, a society whose habitats are the halls and classrooms of the school, the teen-age canteens, the corner drugstore, the automobile, the numerous other gathering places. Consequently, the non-occupational training their parents once gave to their children via “natural processes” has been taken out of their hands as well, not by the school teachers—many of whom are dismayed at the thought of having to take over parental functions—but by those very social changes that segregated adolescents into a society of their own….  

Coleman notes that the adolescent finds the family a less and less satisfying psychological home with less and less ability to mold him. Coleman cites the ways in which the family has declined and would like to restore more old-fashioned values and discipline. At the same time, he recognizes that family circumstances vary widely and are unlikely to regenerate. Equality of opportunity in education depends on developing an effective public system that can productively educate all adolescents.3  

He also recognizes the uncontrollable and problematic influence of the media. J. D. Salinger’s influential 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye tells the story of an adolescent boy, Holden Caulfield, on the brink of adulthood and of a new category of hero—a victim of his society. All of Salinger’s protagonists are angry, saintly youths, not so much in rebellion against the established world of middle-class values as they are victims of that world. Salinger attributes evil, hypocrisy, and corruption to the world of adults while honesty, idealism, and innocence are found only in the unspoiled world of childhood and adolescence.4

Added to the massive cultural changes since Coleman published his study have been greater consumerism and self-indulgence, with identity often defined by material goods as well as now by social group or class. Fortunately—and ironically—The Catcher in the Rye has been stricken from high school syllabuses because it fails to reflect multiculturalism—because Holden Caulfield is a privileged white male—but the book contributed significantly to the beliefs of extended adolescence that are summarized herein.5  

Adolescent Thought  

The culture of adolescence vice adulthood has grown ever more degraded over the past fifty plus years, reflecting: a preoccupation with sex and sexual rights; obsession with trivialities, celebrities, and mass culture; immediate satisfaction and self-celebration over patient achievement; sensationalism over the life of the mind; and subordination of the spoken and written word to manipulation of visual images and sound bites. 

Modern thought has come to reflect its result: further degradation of knowledge and language, which Mark Bauerlein explicates in his essay in The State of the American Mind (2015).

Intellectual and abstract reasoning skills among the young may have come to be limited to bounded spheres in which general knowledge and word breadth don’t count so much, such as undemanding entertainment and unskilled labor, a sad prospect for their future….  

The problem, of course, is that youth speech isn’t as sophisticated as adult speech, nor is it stocked with the material that helps them understand the world (not to mention IQ Vocabulary questions and reading test passages). The lingo of youth banishes big words; topics center on social doings, while museums, bookstores, and historic sites have the status of foreign lands. Adolescent subculture is just that—adolescent—and youths immersed in it emerge with dawdling vocabulary and information knowledge, what we may call Cultural IQ….If adult conversation and interests don’t counteract youth content, intellectual development slows….If they shunned the elders, they narrowed the pipeline of eloquence and knowledge…As more music and movies catered to adolescent audiences and more kids not only stayed in high school but proceeded to college and extended peer immersion into their early twenties, a fundamental human tradition deteriorated. The parent-to-child and employer-to- young-worker acculturation process gave way to peer-to peer interaction, which didn’t raise vocabulary and information IQ but only intensified youth consciousness….  

The solution is easy to conceive but impossible to implement. Parents and mentors need to spend more time conversing with youths….and adding grown-up affairs to the menu ofadolescence. But how can we change habits and preferences that have the force of history behind them. How can a parent in a single-parent home find the time and energy to do so, especially with sulky teens who relate only to one another? How can mentors curtail youth culture when the goods and styles of it form a mega-industry that showers kids with marketing and plays upon status and consumer competition?...The cultural liberation of youth was a genuine revolution in human society, and few things in this world have stronger momentum than cultural mores and values that settle into people’s heads as the way reality operates. I know of no way to slow this hazardous social experiment except to broadcast as widely as possible the intellectual damage it has done and will continue to do.6  

Adolescence in College  

Richard Arum examines the state of adolescent culture in colleges in his own contribution to The State of the American Mind:

The extent to which many colleges and universities focus more on promoting student social engagement than academic rigor likely has consequences for human capital formation in the United States…. As eighteen to twenty-three-year-olds have come increasingly to experience prolonged periods of “extended adolescence” or “emerging adulthood,” this age span likely has a more significant formative impact and lasting consequences….  

Many college students today experience college life as being less about academics than about engagement in social activities and the development of sociability, sensitivity to others, and social networks. This interpersonal emphasis, too, is considered rational by students as the economic returns to college are often perceived as not a product of individual knowledge and productivity, but simply a reflection of earning a credential…or social network formation….  

In the University of California system, for example, researchers have documented that students spend more than three times as much time socializing and entertaining themselves than they do studying…Students in the University of California system devote twelve hours per week studying compared to forty-three hours in the following pursuits: twelve hours socializing with friends, eleven hours using computers for fun, six hours watching television, six hours exercising, five hours on hobbies, and three hours on other forms of entertainment….Full time college students’ hours studying have dropped in half from twenty-five hours per week to approximately twelve or thirteen hours per week….  

The crucial years of intellectual maturation from ages eighteen to twenty-three are not yielding the gains in knowledge, discernment, and analytical capacity that they should, and that are necessary for a productive workforce and responsible citizenry…. Colleges and universities are not doing enough to ensure that college graduates experience their rightful intellectual growth and cognitive development and make successful transitions to adulthood. This failure likely has consequences for the long-term global competitivenessof our economy and the capacity of future citizens to engage and participate actively in a democratic society.7  

Modern Thought  

The culture of adolescence vice adulthood that first appeared at the high school level in the 1950’s now defines college undergraduate years as well, further stunting the intellectual development and maturation of our Millennial generation and extending the limits of the intellectual abilities of adolescents described above by Mark Bauerlein. This further degrades Modern thought, turning it inexorably toward individual feeling and subjectivism.  

The next article will address the turn to feelings rather than reason in the education provided by the academy and its reflection in society.  


Image: Pixabay, Public Domain

This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.  

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).  

 1 David Riesman with Nathan Glazer and Ruell Denney, The Lonely Crowd: A study of the changing American character (New Haven: Yale University Press, Originally Published 1950, Abridged Edition, 1961), 59-60.

2 James S. Coleman, “Academic Achievement and the Structure of Competition,” Harvard Education Review, Volume 29, No. 4 (Fall 1959)

3 James S. Coleman, “Academic Achievement and the Structure of Competition,” Harvard Education Review, Volume 29, No. 4 (Fall 1959)

4 J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1951). Charlotte A. Alexander, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: A Critical Commentary (New York: Monarch Press, 1965), 10, 57–62.

5 Emily Wax, “The Search for a Multicultural ‘Catcher’,” The Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 22–28 January 2001.

6 Mark Bauerlein, “The Troubling Trend of Cultural IQ,” in Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow, eds. The State of the American Mind (West Conshohocken, Templeton Press, 2015), 19-31.

7 Richard Arum, “College Graduates, Satisfied But Adrift,” State of the American Mind, 65−75. 

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