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Why You Truly Never Leave High School

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Patrick, 1996 & 2011.  

Those feelings of intensity aren’t just associated with good experiences. Casey and two of her colleagues, Francis Lee and Siobhan Pattwell, were part of a team that co-published a startling paper last year showing that adolescents—both mice and humans—were far less capable of dialing back their fear response than children or adults. They did so by designing two very simple experiments: In mice, they paired a neutral tone with a shock; in humans, they paired a neutral color with a horrible noise. Both populations learned to associate one with the other. The mice froze as soon as they heard the tone; the humans, when seeing the color, would sweat more. Over the next few days, the researchers again played the neutral tone for the mice and showed the neutral color to the humans, but this time without the horrible outcome (no shock, no loud noise). And over the course of those few days, both the adults and the children—whether mice or human—learned to dissociate the two.

But not the adolescents. Whether they were pubescent mice or high-school students, the adolescents remained as fear-stricken as ever. Their systems remained on high alert, as if a threat were just around the corner.

These studies could have sobering implications. If, as the researchers say, adolescents have an exaggerated sense of fear when faced with certain triggers, isn’t it possible they could carry that exaggerated panic into adulthood, because they never developed the tools at the time to beat it back? I phoned Pattwell and Lee to ask this question. The press release accompanying the study notes that an estimated 75 percent of people with fear-related disorders “can trace the roots of their anxiety to earlier ages.” Doesn’t this suggest that the fears of adolescence are harder to overcome?

“It’s funny you say that,” said Pattwell. “We actually checked in with the mice 30 days later, once they’d reached adulthood.”

And?

“Their level of fear was just as high,” she said. “It was as if the experiment had just been done.”

Now, people are not mice, and there are limits to what one can learn from a single experiment. But if humans really do feel things most intensely during adolescence, and if, at this same developmental moment, they also happen to be working out an identity for the first time—“sometimes morbidly, often curiously, preoccupied with what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they feel they are,” as the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote—then it seems safe to say this: Most American high schools are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents.

Until the Great Depression, the majority of American adolescents didn’t even graduate from high school. Once kids hit their teen years, they did a variety of things: farmed, helped run the home, earned a regular wage. Before the banning of child labor, they worked in factories and textile mills and mines. All were different roads to adulthood; many were undesirable, if not outright Dickensian. But these disparate paths did arguably have one virtue in common: They placed adolescent children alongside adults. They were not sequestered as they matured. Now teens live in a biosphere of their own. In their recent book Escaping the Endless Adolescence, psychologists Joseph and Claudia Worrell Allen note that teenagers today spend just 16 hours per week interacting with adults and 60 with their cohort. One century ago, it was almost exactly the reverse.

Something happens when children spend so much time apart from adult company. They start to generate a culture with independent values and priorities. James Coleman, a renowned mid-century sociologist, was among the first to analyze that culture in his seminal 1961 work, The Adolescent Society, and he wasn’t very impressed. “Our society has within its midst a set of small teen-age societies,” he wrote, “which focus teen-age interests and attitudes on things far removed from adult responsibilities.” Yes, his words were prudish, but many parents have had some version of these misgivings ever since, especially those who’ve consciously opted not to send their kids into the Roman amphi­theater. (From the website of the National Home Education Network: “Ironically, one of the reasons many of us have chosen to educate our own is precisely this very issue of socialization! Children spending time with individuals of all ages more closely resembles real life than does a same-age school setting.”)

In fact, one of the reasons that high schools may produce such peculiar value systems is precisely because the people there have little in common, except their ages. “These are people in a large box without any clear, predetermined way of sorting out status,” says Robert Faris, a sociologist at UC Davis who’s spent a lot of time studying high-school aggression. “There’s no natural connection between them.” Such a situation, in his view, is likely to reward aggression. Absent established hierarchies and power structures (apart from the privileges that naturally accrue from being an upperclassman), kids create them on their own, and what determines those hierarchies is often the crudest common-­denominator stuff—looks, nice clothes, prowess in sports—­rather than the subtleties of personality. “Remember,” says Crosnoe, who spent a year doing research in a 2,200-student high school in Austin, “high schools are big. There has to be some way of sorting people socially. It’d be nice if kids could be captured by all their characteristics. But that’s not realistic.”


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