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The idea of adolescence, argues Kent Baxter, came into being because it fulfilled specific historical and cultural needs: to define a quickly expanding segment of the ...
The idea of adolescence, argues Kent Baxter, came into being because it fulfilled specific historical and cultural needs: to define a quickly expanding segment of the population, and to express concerns associated with the movement into a new era. Adolescence—a term that had little currency before 1900 and made a sudden and pronounced appearance in a wide variety of discourses thereafter—is a “modern age” not only because it sprung from changes in American society that are synonymous with modernity, but also because it came to represent all that was threatening about “modern life.”
Baxter provides a preliminary history of adolescence, focusing specifically on changes in the American educational system and the creation of the juvenile justice system that carved out a developmental space between the child and the adult. He looks at the psychological works of G. Stanley Hall and the anthropological works of Margaret Mead and explores what might have inspired their markedly negative descriptions of this new demographic. He examines the rise of the Woodcraft Indian youth movement and its promotion of “red skin” values while also studying the proliferation of off-reservation boarding schools for Native American youth, where educators attempted to eradicate the very “red skin” values promoted by the Woodcraft movement.
Finally Baxter studies reading at the turn of the century, focusing specifically on Horatio Alger (the Ragged Dick series) and Edward Stratemeyer (the Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, and Hardy Boys series) and what those works reveal about the “problem” of adolescence and its solutions in terms of value, both economic and moral.
School Reform, the Juvenile Court, and Demographic Change at the Turn of the Century
The Hero of the Twentieth Century
Given the commanding presence of the adolescent in all aspects of contemporary Western culture, it is hard to imagine a time when such a concept and its representative demographic did not exist, but most scholars are in agreement that one need glance back only a hundred years or so to find evidence of such a reality. In his frequently cited 1960 study of the evolution of childhood and the family, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, Philippe Ariès surveys a wide scope of Western literary and cultural texts and doesn't see anything that resembles our contemporary concept of adolescence until the late nineteenth century. Historically, in Western culture, Ariès tells us, the adolescent has been subsumed by the much more common category of the child. For example, "[i]n school Latin the word puer and the word adolescens were used indiscriminately. Preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale are the catalogues of the Jesuit College at Caen, a list of the pupils' names accompanied by comments. A boy of fifteen is described in these catalogues as bonus puer, while his young schoolmate of thirteen is called optimus adolescens."
According to Ariès, the lack of distinction between the puer and the adolescens is indicative of a society that made no distinction between the two as demographic entities and a culture in which individuals passed from childhood to adulthood with no pronounced and extended transition period. In a detailed study of the European school system, for example, Ariès concludes that "[i]n the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, children of ten and boys of fifteen were mixed up with adults; in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, children and adolescents continued to study together but were separated from adults." And even though there was a "recognition of adolescence" in the seventeenth century with the appearance of the academy, the physical separation of children and adolescents did not begin until the latter part of the eighteenth century, when an "increasingly close correspondence between age and class" and a new interest in the officer and the soldier began to carve out a space between the child and the adult: "The medieval school made no distinction between the child and the adult. The college at the beginning of modern times had merged adolescence and childhood in the same scholastic system. In the eighteenth century, the officer and the soldier were to introduce into sensibility the new notion of adolescence." This new notion became more commonplace, according to Ariès, throughout the nineteenth century, as age segregation in the schools became more pronounced. With as much fanfare as is deserved by what Ariès deems the "privileged age" of the twentieth century, the adolescent had arrived: "The first typical adolescent of modern times was Wagner's Siegfried: the music of Siegfried expressed for the first time that combination of (provisional) purity, physical strength, naturism, spontaneity and joie de vivre which was to make the adolescent the hero of our twentieth century, the century of adolescence."
Ariès's conclusions are not without controversy, however. Often in direct rebuttal to his work, scholars have identified "adolescentlike" spaces in the "chusing time" of colonial New England, London apprentices during the seventeenth century, apprentices in Bristol during the sixteenth century, sixteenth-century youth abbeys in France, and confraternities in Florence during the fifteenth century, among other places. The problem, of course, is one of definition. If adolescence is defined as an identifiable stage between—and distinctly different from—childhood and adulthood, then it is not difficult to find evidence of its existence in texts from a wide variety of cultures and time periods. But, as John Gillis has demonstrated, the parameters of such a stage, which was commonly known as "youth" in preindustrial society, were much less precise than is the case with our contemporary conception of adolescence. "What they commonly called 'youth,'" he tells us, "was a very long transition period, lasting from the point that the very young child first became somewhat independent of its family, usually about seven or eight, to the point of complete independence at marriage, ordinarily in the mid-or late twenties." Gillis goes on to argue that the term adolescence—and the more precise age group and stage of development it represents—did not enter the popular lexicon School Reform, Juvenile Court, and Demographic Change 23 until the end of the nineteenth century, largely as a result of industrialization, urbanization, the growth of the middle class, and changes in education.
A number of critics have expanded upon Gillis's conclusions, arguing that although "adolescentlike" spaces have existed in other cultures and historical periods, Western society did not use the term with any frequency or precision and thus did not recognize the stage of development, as we know it, until the end of the nineteenth century. For example, in his book Adolescence and Culture, Aaron Esman concludes: "Puberty has, of course, always been with us, and some process of adaptation to it, of assimilation into the body image of the newly acquired sexual capacities and the concurrent growth spurt, is certainly universal. Similarly, some process of socialization, of direction and channeling of sexual impulse, of inculcation of cultural values, is an essential component of all human societies. But the form with which we are familiar—protracted, indeterminate, conflict-laden, marked by gross dyssinchrony between sexual and social maturity—is our own cultural property." Similarly, in The Fin-de-Siècle Culture of Adolescence, John Neubauer proposes that "adolescence 'came of age' in the decades around 1900, not only because the term itself had little currency earlier, but ... because interlocking discourses about adolescence emerged in psychoanalysis, psychology, criminal justice, pedagogy, sociology, as well as in literature. Adolescence may have been used sporadically earlier, but the appearance of the interlocking discourses testifies that human life was perceived in terms of a new category by the end of the nineteenth century."
A number of critics have identified a similar "coming of age" in America during this same time period. Most notably, Joseph Kett, in his 1977 book Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present, has explicated the complex ways in which urbanization, changes in the family, and new educational practices culminated in the invention of adolescence at the turn of the century. "The key contribution of the 1900–1920 period was not the discovery of adolescence," he points out, "for in one form or another a recognition of changes at puberty, even drastic changes, had been present long before 1900. Rather, it was the invention of the adolescent, the youth whose social definition—and indeed, whose whole being—was determined by a biological process of maturation."
Kett's distinction as to the "invention" of adolescence is a point well taken, for, arguably, the most convincing evidence to support the notion that adolescence is a uniquely turn-of-the-century concept is, first, the widespread recognition of the concept in literary, theoretical, and cultural texts from a wide range of disciplines and readerships and, second, the immense influence this concept has had on twentieth-century American society and its image of the teen demographic. Additionally, Kett makes the excellent point in his explication of this invention that although adolescence was often posited as a scientific concept, something observed and recorded, it was largely a theoretical construct imposed upon youth. "To speak of the 'invention of the adolescent' rather than the discovery of adolescence," he argues, "underscores a related point: adolescence was essentially a conception of behavior imposed on youth, rather than an empirical assessment of the way in which young people actually behaved. The architects of adolescence used biology and psychology (specifically, the 'storm and stress' thought to be inherent in youth), to justify the promotion among young people of norms of behavior that were freighted with middle-class values."
Kett has made a convincing case that material and cultural changes in American society during the nineteenth century gave rise to a unique developmental stage known as adolescence and, perhaps more important, that this stage was as much a reflection of the society that created it as the new teen demographic it was describing. Adolescence was largely a reactionary concept that was "invented" for rehabilitative purposes. This invention can be seen in a wide variety of disciplines and discourses in American society, and the concept that these discourses promoted spoke so well to that society and was so influential that not only does it remain with us today, but we accept it almost verbatim as "truth." Arguably, the two most profound changes in American culture at the turn of the century in regard to individuals in their teen years were educational reform and the development of the juvenile court system. These social programs were systematic approaches to both education and crime that served to segregate teens from the child and adult populations and thus made them a more conspicuous and unique demographic. The new segment of the population these changes created was greeted with a great deal of reprehension and anxiety and, interestingly, the social practices and modes of understanding developed in reaction to this new segment can most accurately be seen as ways to contain a new and dangerous threat. People resist change, and adolescence, even before it was named as such, represented the future to late nineteenth-century American society, a modern future full of difference and the shock of the new.
Reading, 'Riting, and (Age) Reform
As has been recounted in many histories of turn-of-the-century American society, increasing industrialization in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century inspired a mass migration from the country to the city. According to U.S. Census statistics, in 1860, of a total population of 31,443,321, slightly over 6,000,000 lived in urban communities— defined as those with populations over 2,500. In 1890 the population, now numbering 62,947,714, included over 22,000,000 urban dwellers. In 1860 there were only 392 communities in the United States with populations over 2,500; by 1890 the number had increased to 1,348.
This urbanization had profound and wide-reaching effects on young Americans. The new economy meant the opening up of a wide range of occupational opportunities for those who were just beginning to venture into the working world. Industries, banks, warehouses, and insurance companies needed labor to satisfy a suddenly international market that was growing by leaps and bounds. According to U.S. Census statistics, in 1860, of the 10,533,000 "gainful workers" in the country, 6,208,000 were on farms and 4,325,000 were in nonfarming occupations. In 1890, of the 23,318,000 who made up the total labor force, 9,938,000 worked on farms and 13,380,000 at other tasks. Many of these workers were young men, turning their backs on their fathers' profession and migrating to the city for a taste of the "modern life." Such a phenomenon was apparently widespread enough to warrant a number of articles in major publications, such as an 1858 piece in the Atlantic Monthly in which the author posits the following explanation for the deterioration of the farmer's life: "Let the son of such a home as we have pictured get a taste of a better life than this, or, through sensibilities which he did not inherit, apprehend a worthier style of existence, and what inducements save those which necessity imposes, can retain him? ... It is not strange that the country grows thin and the city plethoric. It is not strange that mercantile and mechanical employments are thronged by young men, running all risks for success, when the alternative is a life in which they find no meaning, and no inspiring and ennobling influence."
But the effects of urbanization went much deeper than just opening new mercantile and mechanical employment opportunities for Americans in their teens. These opportunities had a significant impact on the manner in which the middle class prepared their children for the workplace. Kett has observed that, although industrialization created an increasing demand for cheap boy laborers at the turn of the century, a resistance to "dead-end" jobs and a proliferation of white-collar positions made the prolongation of education an increasingly attractive alternative to the parents of children in their teens:
Only in the latter part of the 19th century did the sheer length of time passed in the setting of formal education become a major determinant of one's economic prospects.... Even at the end of the 19th century the correlation of prolonged schooling and enticing job opportunities was far from perfect, but a truncated education was likely to lead to a poor job. The more attractive crafts did not want anyone under 16. Advertisements for bookkeepers or accountants were usually addressed to those around 16 or 17, if not older. The colleges did not want anyone who had not attended secondary schools, and employers were increasingly prone ... to look to the colleges as sources of managerial recruits.
The attractiveness of such professional careers, according to Kett, is largely responsible for the dramatic increase in enrollments in the schools commonly populated by students in their teen years. High school enrollments doubled in the 1890s, for example. Similarly, there was a 38.4 percent increase in college enrollment, and the number of professional schools established between 1876 and 1900 in law, medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, and veterinary science was more than double the number established from 1851 to 1875.
The rise in enrollment to meet the new demands of the workplace was both inspired and shaped in very specific ways by a mass overhaul of the country's schools. Most of the northern and western states passed compulsory education laws in the second half of the nineteenth century, beginning with Massachusetts, which, in 1852, required that "[e]very child between eight and fourteen was to attend some public school for at least twelve weeks each year, six weeks to be consecutive." These laws, along with closely related child labor laws, affected more and more teens as the upper end of the statutes were raised to fifteen, sixteen, and even eighteen as the century progressed. As a result of these laws, teens were required to be in school for a significant part of the year, which, along with the fact that labor laws decreased the length of their workday, made them much less attractive to many employers. But on a broader level, such laws represented a new attitude toward the value of education and a widespread belief that educational institutions and the students who attended them should be controlled and regulated by the state. As mentioned earlier, part of the reason for the massive increase in high school enrollment at the end of the nineteenth century was the need to train teens for new employment opportunities, but it was also a result of the proliferation of public high schools, which, in many states, were becoming mandatory by law.
Excerpted from The Modern Age by Kent Baxter Copyright © 2008 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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