The Endorsement of Compulsory Education

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

Following on the heels of the new child labor laws is this second ingredient, the endorsement of compulsory education. While state sponsored schools cannot take credit for originating education, they did develop a system to organize it for the masses. After all, now that most teens didn’t have a job they needed something constructive to do. Why not educate them?

While in many ways this was and is an admirable goal, there are a few problems built into the design. First of all, the laws enacted removed the decision about the subjects, duration, and in some cases even the manner of how a child should be educated away from parents. Enrollment was mandated by the government, and parents could now be punished for keeping their children out of the public school.

Of course, for thousands of years prior to this, parents educated their own children. Parents taught their children whatever they believed was necessary for independent survival in society. In biblical times, Hebrew parents were responsible for the education of their children. Roman parents did the same.

Even the early schools of the late-eighteenth century appeared not to confuse teachers with custodians. They did not try to replace the families, the church, or any other institution. Unlike the mandatory high schools a century later, schools did not organize their students’ social lives, monitor their health, or prepare them to be good citizens.

Keep in mind that the widespread acceptance of the idea of high school was very, very slow in coming. The first public high school opened in Boston in 1821, but New York City didn’t open one until more than seventy years later. Only during the 1930’s was a majority of what we now term high-school age youth enrolled, mostly because the Depression had made jobs unavailable. Previously, most teenagers had jobs and their education took place at work while the rest happened at home. Still another reason for this slow acceptance was that parents were unwilling to give up their primary place in the life of their young people. Now children are separated from their parents for forty or more hours a week, and many parents appear happy to herd them off to the public guardians.

The second design flaw is the adolescence greenhouse effect. A greenhouse is a contained environment for the cultivation and exhibition of plant life. Likewise, high schools are contained environments for the cultivation and exhibition of adolescent life. Though originally time spent with others your same age was only one aspect of a varied life and daily contact with different sorts and ages of people was regular, now the majority of a young person’s life was spent with their peers. Young people are crowded into classrooms, removed from the oversight of their parents. This is fertile soil for the growth of a youth culture. Teenagers now had control over their own social lives. Sports and other extracurricular activities provided the stage for young people to express themselves and explore their talents. In short, “[w]ithout high school, there are no teenagers” (Hine, 139).

This hasn’t even scratched the surface of issues like the purpose of schools – is it to prepare someone for life? for a better job? for college admission? For something else? And how can standardized schools be expected to teach and test students of widely different abilities and interests? And how do schools know when they are successful?

While there may be nothing inherently wrong with being in school for 180 days a year for seven hours a day for thirteen years, it is a significant problem that compulsory education laws say that young people must spend a certain amount of time in school, not necessarily that they must learn anything. It is all too tempting for youth simply to put in their time rather than to learn. And many parents have handed over their responsibility for education, academic, moral and otherwise, to the school. For most people going to school is the key teenage experience, whatever “education” they may take away.

As with child labor laws I am not suggesting that we simply do something opposite. Obviously teenagers who don’t go to school are not guaranteed greater maturity than those who do. I am not proposing that home-schooling is the sure solution, since many current home-schooling trends are just secular education philosophy repackaged. Those students may avoid the adolescent hothouse, but they are not necessarily better educated. Christian schools are not necessarily the answer either as they have largely the same problems as the for public school problems mentioned above. I guess we can be happy that at least most Christian schools teach creation rather than evolution.

The point is, while my goal is not an overall overhaul of institutional education, I do believe it is essential for us to evaluate how our system of education perhaps has done more to train students in adolescent behavior than adult behavior.

I pray that we as Christians will have a better perspective on education than: “[t]he principal reason high schools now enroll nearly all teenagers is that we can’t imagine what else they might do” (Hine, 157).

The Enactment of Child Labor Laws

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

The first ingredient to mention in the growth of adolescence was the enacting (or passing) of child labor laws. Obviously, these were laws that made it illegal to employ persons below certain ages. Additional laws limited the hours or pay for young people. Though there were advantages of this legislation, it ultimately served to lengthen the period of childhood since early teenagers, for example, could no longer work full time. Because they were not allowed to work, or at least had a significant reduction in possible work hours, they were economically dependent on their parents.

One of the obvious reasons for child labor laws was abuse, or at least what was presumed to be abuse. For many immigrant families, frontier families, and other households with limited income, parents often depended on their children just for sheer survival. “Whether it was in the mills and mines, farms and ranches, everybody–young and old–had to work” (Hine, 121). Employers knew that families were dependent on whatever jobs they provided so they could afford to pay minimal attention to workplace conditions while having little sympathy for the long work days required.

Perhaps the poster child for this problem was the “breaker boy,” a young person probably between the ages of ten and fourteen who worked for coal mining companies. These breaker boys would stand over a series of channels and conveyor belts and look for pieces of rock among the crushed coal as it was transported out of the mine. They would have to stay close to the belts since slate and coal are so difficult to distinguish. After breathing coal dust all day and getting covered from head to toe in black soot, these young people were typical illustrations for advocates of child labor legislation.

But hard work for long hours with little pay was not the only reason for the creation of laws that limited work for young people.

As technology improved many jobs performed by young people became automated or at least unnecessary. For example, before the introduction of the recording cash register big department stores had “cash boys” or “cash girls.”

[Since] it was risky to allow clerks throughout the sprawling store to handle money…when the clerks finished writing up an order, they would yell, ‘Cash!’ and one of the uniformed teenagers would run and pick up a basket containing the buyer’s money, a sales slip, and often the item as well. The item was brought to the wrapping desk, the money to a cashier, who would place change in the basket, and all would be returned to the customer. … During the 1870’s … department stores were the single largest employers of big-city twelve to sixteen year olds. … But in 1902 Macy’s installed eighteen miles of brass pneumatic tubes and rendered the cash boys and girls obsolete. (Hine, 127-128)

It is not difficult to imagine many other ways that technology changed the workforce structure. This too created need for child labor laws, not to protect the sons – but the fathers! “In some industries, new machines made it possible for factories to lay off skilled workers and replace them with young men in their teens whose wages were considerably less. As a teenager, you might endanger your father’s job. It would be worse, though, if your father lost his job to someone else’s son” (Hine, 125). Laws that limited wages and hours for young people protected employment for the head of the household.

In addition, some educators lobbied to keep pay for teenagers low so that they wouldn’t be tempted to enter the job force and become independent prematurely.

These factors and others made severe cuts into the employment opportunities for young people. And so it was at the turn of the century, when technology began to eliminate youths’ jobs, that intense concern about the welfare, education and labor of people in their teens began to emerge. Since school was not yet required for everyone (a foreshadowing of ingredient number two), and since jobs were unavailable, there were not too many better options than to hang out with your buddies and find some trouble.

Keep in mind, however, that for thousands of years it was not this way. Young people commonly worked with their parents or beside a master as an apprentice until they could become independent, which was the clear-cut goal. For most of human history, let alone American history, child labor was not a social horror but simply a fact of life. The labor of young people – especially teenagers – has typically not been an abomination but a necessity (see Hine, 58).

I am not arguing that we should seek to find full-time employment for every eight year old, nor for each twelve year old or fifteen year old and so on. I am not suggesting that if every teenager had a full-time job all the problems of immaturity and irresponsibility among youth would be fixed. But the aversion of most “adolescents” to work, and the typical teenager taken-for-granted expectation of someone else providing for them should at least cause us to consider if the ways our culture has chosen to “protect” its youth from work has also , perhaps unintentionally, “protected” them from maturity.

The Growth of Adolescence

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the Reformation and the Reformers in preparation for the 05SR. Of course, one of the Reformation’s biggest characters (in every sense of the word) was Martin Luther. Here is a quote of his that I think is appropriate as we continue our series on adolescence. Luther said:

If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Wherever the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved and to be steady on all the battlefield besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that one point.

Obviously the myth of adolescence was not in Luther’s thinking when he made that statement, but I do think his assertion is extremely applicable for us. There is a battle today, even though it is largely invisible and of which most people are unaware, over who teenagers are and what they are capable of. There is an attack on the biblical idea of young adulthood, and we must be prepared to fight for the glory of Christ even in His work in the lives of students.

Everyone has some belief about teenagers that they take for granted. Especially those of us in the church need to diagnose why we think what we think about adolescence and measure that thinking against the truth in God’s Word.

It is my job to help this process. It is my happy duty to feed and guide and protect the flock from false ideas, whatever disguises they may wear. Paul’s description of the responsibility of an elder in Titus 1:7-9 reminds us that:

an overseer, as God’s steward, … must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

In previous blogs I have described the birth and naming of adolescence. Remember, by the name “adolescence” we are not simply referring to the biological changes that take place in a person (i.e., puberty). The word has come to represent much more than just a catalog of the days, months, and years of being a teen. When we are talking about adolescence we are talking about a mindset; the attitudes and behaviors of teenagers, especially seen toward their parents and others in authority.

It is assumed by many and argued by professionals that this mindset in teenagers is biologically, chemically, or hormonally determined. And you know the end of the argument: if this teenage mindset is biologically determined then they can’t reasonably be held responsible for it. If a teenager can’t control their hormones then they certainly don’t deserve to be rebuked or reproved it. You shouldn’t punish someone who is incapable. It is unfair to do so.

Since we’re talking about terms, you may find it interesting that in history the terms “adolescent” and “adult” are closely related. The Latin term “adolescent” originally referred to a “growing one” and generally related to the sudden growth spurt at the age of puberty (around twelve or thirteen years of age). The word “adult” meant “grown one” and referred to a person who had passed his or her growth spurt. In essence, then, an adult was a person who was able to have children. So throughout history puberty was the beginning of adulthood itself, not the beginning of a stage between childhood and adulthood.

This is the key. Rather than viewing the transition as a relatively short one, adolescence indefinitely extends the period of time between being a child and being an adult. There is a great article by David Bakan entitled, “Adolescence in America: From Idea to Social Fact.” In that article he says:

The idea of adolescence as an intermediary period of life starting at puberty…is the product of modern times….[I]t developed in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century…to prolong the years of childhood.

So exactly how did adolescence become a “social fact”? How has it made such a deep and thorough impression on us, most of which we don’t even suspect to be dangerous? Having already looked at the beginning or ‘birth’ of adolescence, we’re now going to consider the growth and development of adolescence; the ingredients that have helped the myth of adolescence to become so widely believed.

As you can imagine it is difficult to summarize even just a century’s worth of history, and I don’t want to oversimplify the development of adolescence. But there are some distinct and recognizable elements that can be identified.

Over the next week or so I want to consider Eight Ingredients in the Growth of Adolescence, in order that we might better recognize and fight false ideas. Hopefully I will be able to expand on each ingredient a little more than time allowed during my message on Sunday morning.