I propose a brief experiment in citizenship: Find a teenager and ask her if she thinks she will grow up to lead a free life. The results might give you pause. When I asked this of my upper-middle-class high school students recently, nearly every one of these 11th and 12th graders said “no.”
The problem is that adolescents imagine adulthood as an extension of their own experience, and most see themselves as overworked, overregulated, and overstressed. They have a point.
Anyone over the age of 40 who spends much time with kids recognizes that growing up today is dramatically different. Compared to other generations, children now seem overprescribed. They have less time to play on their own outside the authority of adult coaches, teachers, and minders. They take more standardized tests. They get more homework. They are far more likely to be diagnosed with a psychological malady of the stress, depression, or attention-deficit variety and to be medicated. Many will leave college and enter the adult world already deeply encumbered by debt. They see making money as imperative, and payback for the constraints they feel.
My students appear bereft of role models for freedom. Most have heard of Henry David Thoreau, Jack Kerouac, or Walt Whitman, but they do not see such people as realistic examples for living. Who, really, can subsist in a homemade cabin on Walden Pond or spend life roaming the highways singing the body electric? Every year, I make it a point to introduce my classes to people who are largely free to pursue their own passions—writers, dancers, painters—but most kids come away feeling merely awestruck by the artists’ talent and personality. It is hard to convince young people who have little firsthand experience with freedom, who read it as austere, uncomfortable, and implausible, that it is a legitimate aspiration.
I do not intend to sentimentalize the past or suggest that teenagers today are without advantages, but it used to be much easier to get out of the way of adults. Growing up in suburban California, New Jersey, and Connecticut in the 1960s and ’70s, I lived in a world that could be profoundly insulated and provincial. Yet from the perspective of freedom, my peers and I had an edge. When we were in elementary school, we got on our bicycles on summer mornings and came back home at dinnertime. In middle and high school, I never felt too burdened by homework to read extensively for pleasure, and I played two varsity sports. I applied to two colleges and paid my own way through the state school that accepted me.
Students today look incredulous when I tell them that I once attended a high school football practice in Connecticut in the mid-1970s to which several of my teammates showed up from hunting in the fields behind our school. They stepped into the locker room and asked our coach where they should put their shotguns so they could suit up to play. He stowed the shooting irons in his office, and after practice the hunters showered, changed, loaded up, and headed back outdoors.
Of course, a scene like this is no longer possible, or maybe even desirable, but it offers a glimpse into a lost world when kids were far less scrutinized—and freer.
I like to believe we could change direction. For starters, we could repeal the No Child Left Behind Act, offer free public education through college, eliminate most standardized tests, reconfigure town planning to make neighborhoods accessible to bicycles and pedestrians, and slash homework requirements. Doing so would be freeing.
Some people will find such proposals shocking. They see the heightened prescription of childhood as a positive development. They argue that to remain economically competitive, American kids must learn the same kind of self-discipline that their counterparts in China or India have. They also assert that because many children grow up without “structure” at home, especially poorer kids in cities, school must be all the more regimented and authoritarian. Modern life is often chaotic, so I understand why advocates of regulated childhoods have an audience.
Yet, much evidence suggests that these “reformers” have it wrong, that imposing new layers of discipline onto American kids’ lives will not lead to the production-oriented results they seek. We see, already, that the current state of prescription has produced a backlash: binge drinking is up, rates of mental illness among teenagers have risen, academic cheating is on the rise. Jonathan Kozol’s The Shame of the Nation shows how poor, inner-city schoolchildren suffer intellectually and spiritually in overregimented schools. But even if the advocates of more discipline and rigor are right, I question how the ends justify the means.
Our society puts a priority on freedom, at least in theory. We consider its export worldwide a noble diplomatic and military goal. We idealize freedom as the ultimate political and economic aspiration. When this cultural rhetoric is out of step with the experience of young people, we should not blame them for becoming cynical. Neither can we realistically demand that they make good use of freedom without allowing them opportunities to practice it.
Since 1776, Americans have touted freedom as the essence of our exceptionalism. We remove it from childhood at our peril.
A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2009 edition of Education Week as Growing Up Scripted