Books by Epstein, Robert

Epstein, Robert. The Case Against Adolescence. Sanger, CA: Quill Driver Books, 2007. ISBN 1-884956-70-X.
What's the matter with kids today? In this exhaustively documented breakthrough book, the author argues that adolescence, as it is presently understood in developed Western countries, is a social construct which was created between 1880 and 1920 by well-intentioned social reformers responding to excesses of the industrial revolution and mass immigration to the United States. Their remedies—compulsory education, child labour laws, the juvenile justice system, and the proliferation of age-specific restrictions on “adult” activities such as driving, drinking alcohol, and smoking—had the unintended consequence of almost completely segregating teenagers from adults, trapping them in a vacuous peer culture and prolonging childhood up to a decade beyond the age at which young people begin to assume the responsibilities of adulthood in traditional societies.

Examining anthropological research on other cultures and historical evidence from past centuries, the author concludes that the “storm and stress” which characterises modern adolescence is the consequence of the infantilisation of teens, and their confinement in a peer culture with little contact with adults. In societies and historical periods where the young became integrated into adult society shortly after puberty and began to shoulder adult responsibilities, there is no evidence whatsoever for anything like the dysfunctional adolescence so often observed in the modern West—in fact, a majority of preindustrial cultures have no word in their language for the concept of adolescence.

Epstein, a psychologist who did his Ph.D. under B. F. Skinner at Harvard, and former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine, presents results of a comprehensive test of adultness he developed along with Diane Dumas which demonstrate that in most cases the competencies of people in the 13 to 17 year range do not differ from those of adults between twenty and seventy-one by a statistically significant margin. (I should note that the groups surveyed, as described on pp. 154–155, differed wildly in ethnic and geographic composition from the U.S. population as a whole; I'd love to see the cross-tabulations.) An abridged version of the test is included in the book; you can take the complete test online. (My score was 98%, with most of the demerits due to placing less trust in figures of authority than the author deems wise.)

So, if there is little difference in the basic competences of teens and adults, why are so many adolescents such vapid, messed-up, apathetic losers? Well, consider this: primates learn by observing (monkey see) and by emulating (monkey do). For millions of years our ancestors have lived in bands in which the young had most of their contact with adults, and began to do the work of adults as soon as they were physically and mentally capable of doing so. This was the near-universal model of human societies until the late 19th century and remains so in many non-Western cultures. But in the West, this pattern has been replaced by warehousing teenagers in government schools which effectively confine them with others of their age. Their only adult contacts apart from (increasingly absent) parents are teachers, who are inevitably seen as jailors. How are young people to be expected to turn their inherent competencies into adult behaviour if they spend almost all of their time only with their peers?

Now, the author doesn't claim that everybody between the ages of 13 and 17 has the ability to function as an adult. Just as with physical development, different individuals mature at different rates, and one may have superb competence in one area and remain childish in another. But, on the other hand, simply turning 18 or 21 or whatever doesn't magically endow someone with those competencies either—many adults (defined by age) perform poorly as well.

In two breathtaking final chapters, the author argues for the replacement of virtually all age-based discrimination in the law with competence testing in the specific area involved. For example, a 13 year old could entirely skip high school by passing the equivalency examination available to those 18 or older. There's already a precedent for this—we don't automatically allow somebody to drive, fly an airplane, or operate an amateur radio station when they reach a certain age: they have to pass a comprehensive examination on theory, practice, and law. Why couldn't this basic concept be extended to most of the rights and responsibilities we currently grant based purely upon age? Think of the incentive such a system would create for teens to acquire adult knowledge and behaviour as early as possible, knowing that it would be rewarded with adult rights and respect, instead of being treated like children for what could be some of the most productive years of their lives.

Boxes throughout the text highlight the real-world achievements of young people in history and the present day. (Did you know that Sergey Karjakin became a chess grandmaster at the age of 12 years and 7 months? He is among seven who achieved grandmaster ranking at an age younger than Bobby Fischer's 15 years and 6 months.) There are more than 75 pages of end notes and bibliography. (I wonder if the author is aware that note 68 to chapter 5 [p. 424] cites a publication of the Lyndon LaRouche organisation.)

It isn't often you pick up a book with laudatory blurbs by a collection of people including Albert Ellis, Deepak Chopra, Joyce Brothers, Alvin Toffler, George Will, John Taylor Gatto, Suzanne Somers, and Buzz Aldrin. I concur with them that the author has put his finger precisely on the cause of a major problem in modern society, and laid out a challenging yet plausible course for remedying it. I discovered this book via an excellent podcast interview with the author on “The Glenn and Helen Show”.

About halfway through this book, I had one of the most chilling visions of the future I've experienced in many years. One of the things I've puzzled over for ages is what, precisely, is the end state of the vision of those who call themselves “progressives”—progress toward what, anyway? What would society look like if they had their way across the board? And then suddenly it hit me like a brick. If you want to see what the “progressive” utopia looks like, just take a glance at the lives of teenagers today, who are deprived of a broad spectrum of rights and denied responsibilities “for their own good”. Do-gooders always justify their do-badding “for the children”, and their paternalistic policies, by eviscerating individualism and autonomous judgement, continually create ever more “children”. The nineteenth century reformers, responding to genuine excesses of the industrial revolution, extended childhood from puberty to years later, inventing what we call adolescence. The agenda of today's “progressives” is inexorably extending adolescence to create a society of eternal adolescents, unworthy of the responsibilities of adults, and hence forever the childlike wards of an all-intrusive state and the elites which govern it. If you want a vision of the “progressive” future, imagine being back in high school—forever.

July 2007 Permalink