Education Commentary

The ‘Curse’ of American Adolescence

By Robert J. Samuelson — June 14, 1989 5 min read

Meet Carlos. He’s a senior at American High School in Fremont, Calif. He’s also a central character in a recent public-television documentary on U.S. education.

Carlos is a big fellow with a crew cut and a friendly manner. We see him driving his pickup truck, strolling with a girlfriend, and playing in a football game.

“I don’t want to graduate,” he says at one point. “It’s fun. I like it.”

If you want to worry about our economic future, worry about Carlos and all those like him. It is the problem of adolescence in America.

Our teenagers live in a dreamland. It’s a curious and disorienting mixture of adult freedoms and childlike expectations. Hey, why work? Average high-school students do less than an hour of daily homework. Naturally, they’re not acquiring the skills they will need for their well-being and the nation’s.

Don’t mistake me: I’m not blaming today’s teenagers. They are simply the latest heirs of an adolescent subculture--we have all been part of it--that’s been evolving for decades. American children are becoming more and more independent at an earlier and earlier age. By 17, two-fifths of Americans have their own car or truck. About 60 percent have their own telephones and televisions.

Adult authority wanes, and teenage power rises. It’s precisely this development that has crippled our schools.

Consider the research of the sociologist James Coleman, of the University of Chicago. He found that students from similar economic and social backgrounds consistently do better at Catholic high schools than at public high schools.

The immediate explanation is simple: Students at Catholic schools take more rigorous courses in math, English, and history, and they do nearly 50 percent more homework. But why do Catholic schools make these demands when public schools don’t?

The difference, Mr. Coleman concluded, lies with parents. “Parents [of public-school students] do not exercise as much authority over their high-school-age students as they once did,” he recently told a conference at the Manhattan Institute.

Since the 1960’s, public schools have become less demanding--in discipline, required coursework, and homework--because they can’t enforce stiffer demands. By contrast, parents of parochial-school students impose more control. “The schools therefore [are] able to operate under a different set of ground rules,” Mr. Coleman said.

There are obviously many good public schools and hard-working students, but the basic trends are well established and have been altered only slightly by recent “reforms.” Change comes slowly, because stricter academic standards collide with adolescent reality.

In the TV documentary, Tony--a pal of Carlos--is asked why he doesn’t take tougher math courses to prepare him as a computer technician, which is what he wants to be. “It’s my senior year,” he says, “and I think I’m going to relax.”

Adolescent autonomy continues to increase. “Teens have changed so dramaticalel10lly in the past decade that more advertisers ... are targeting ‘adults’ as 15-plus or 13-plus rather than the typical 18-plus,” notes Teenage Research Unlimited, a market-research firm.

It estimates that the average 16- or 17-year-old has nearly $60 a week in spending money from jobs and allowances. By junior year, more than 40 percent of high-school students have jobs.

These demanding school-time jobs are held predominantly by middle-class students. Popular wisdom asserts that early work promotes responsibility, but the actual effect may be harmful.

In a powerful book, When Teenagers Work, the psychologists Ellen Greenberger, of the University of California at Irvine, and Laurence Steinberg, of Temple University, show that jobs hurt academic performance and do not provide needed family income. Rather, they simply establish teenagers as independent consumers better able to satisfy their own wants. Jobs often encourage drug use.

Our style of adolescence reflects prosperity and our values. We can afford it. In the 19th century, children worked to assure family survival; the same is true today in many developing countries.

Our culture stresses freedom, individuality, and choice. Everyone has “rights.” Authority is to be questioned. Self-expression is encouraged. These attitudes take root early. My 4-year-old daughter recently announced her philosophy of life: “I should be able to do anything I want to do.”

Parental guilt also plays a role. The American premise is that the young ought to be able to enjoy their youth. Schools shouldn’t spoil it, as if an hour and a half of daily homework (well above the average) would mean misery for teenagers.

Finally, more divorce and more families with two wage-earners mean that teenagers are increasingly left to themselves. They often assume some family responsibilities--shopping or caring for younger children. Many teenagers feel harried and confused, because the conflicts among all these roles (student, worker, child, and adult) are overwhelming.

Americans, young and old, delude themselves about the results of these changes. A recent study of 13-year-olds in 6 countries placed Americans last in mathematics and Koreans first. But when students were asked whether they were “good at mathematics,” 68 percent of the Americans said yes (the highest), compared with only 23 percent of the Koreans (the lowest).

This was no quirk. The psychologist Harold Stevenson, of the University of Michigan, who has studied American and Asian students for years, finds the same relationship. Americans score lower in achievement but, along with their parents, are more satisfied with their performance.

“If children believe they are already doing well--and their parents agree with them--what is the purpose of studying harder?” he writes.

Good question. No one should be surprised that U.S. businesses complain about workers with poor skills or that a high-school diploma no longer guarantees a well-paying job. More school spending or new educational “theories” won’t magically give students knowledge or skills. It takes work.

Our style of adolescence is something of a national curse. Americans are growing up faster, but they may not be growing up better.

A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 1989 edition of Education Week as The ‘Curse’ of American Adolescence