Over the course of several books, pediatrician and learning expert Mel Levine has argued that for most people, adulthood is easier than “studenthood.” Adults have the opportunity to specialize in what they’re truly good at—or, as Levine would say, what best suits their neurocognitive strengths. (For example, someone with strong spatial but weak verbal skills might become an engineer.) A high schooler, on the other hand, is expected to do everything well, making intellectual shifts several times a day from one unrelated subject to the next.
But if adulthood is easier, then why do increasing numbers of youngsters have such a hard time making the transition to productive adult life? Levine’s new book strives to answer this question by pointing to fault lines in family lives, our culture, and the educational system.
Levine argues that parents, especially affluent ones, tend to overprotect their children from adversity—witness those who call the principal to complain about teachers who’ve given their kids low grades. These children are almost certain, as young adults, to have a difficult time with demanding bosses. The nonstop culture of entertainment and consumerism, in which parents themselves are often steeped, further contributes to later disillusionment. “Life for many adolescents,” Levine writes, “has been saturated with pleasures that the banality of the workplace cannot match.”
Furthermore, success in school—the Holy Grail for many parents—is often a poor predictor of career success. Levine tells many stories of high school “golden girls and boys”—well-liked kids who were both good students and athletes—who were clueless after the glow of adolescence faded. In school, these kids were often lauded for being well-rounded, but they now have difficulty committing to the “deep and narrow grooves of adult work life,” Levine writes. Once accustomed to the cheering of teachers, coaches, and peers, they also have a hard time adapting to the indifference of employers and coworkers.
Top students, of course, tend to be those who do the best job of conforming to the many social and academic demands made of them in high school. But as Levine points out, those striving to move up the career ladder are expected to be industrious self-starters, generating original ideas rather than merely implementing the agendas of others.
In the second half of his book, Levine suggests a number of ways that educators can better prepare students for a post-school existence. First, they must be careful not to reward “spongelike learning.” Too often, teachers overemphasize memorization while giving conceptualization—the key to career success—the short end of the stick, Levine argues.
And instead of trying to force students to be good at everything, which breeds frustration, schools should allow kids to immerse themselves in areas of individual strengths—to major, so to speak. Levine supports an educational model that would permit students to “demonstrate basic competency in traditional academic skills by the end of 10th grade, after which they are permitted to specialize” by taking appropriate classes not only in high school but at local universities and colleges, as well.
He concludes with the wisest suggestion of all—that we replace college prep with “life prep,” so that students will be armed for “what will confront them after college or instead of college.” The college-or-bust mentality obviously doesn’t work for everyone, and Levine believes that many different paths lead to successful adulthood.