Friday, August 31, 2007

Mary Catherine Bateson's Thoughts On My "Conspiracy Theory"

In my last post, I laid out a higher-ed "conspiracy theory." I'm going to reproduce (without permission, but I'm hoping it falls under "fair use") a portion of a book by Mary Catherine Bateson titled Full Circles, Overlapping Lives: Culture and Generation in Transition.

These young people have left childhood and been released from the classroom, yet they find very limited paths to the next stage of their lives... the reality is that there is no way most of them can live up to their own and their peers’ expectations to become legitimately self-supporting without further schooling or marking time in some other way, for decent jobs are often closed to them and viable and socially accepted independence lies years ahead. In American culture we still have assumptions of self-reliance after high school or college, even as times change and the graduates are unable to fulfill them. Identity is expected to be newly forged by each individual, just as each is expected to separate from the family, choose a career, and start a new household, without waiting to inherit from the previous generation.

In the United States in the booming fifties, however, early self-sufficiency was possible and early marriage was the route to independence and sexual access, even to a “starter house” in the suburbs, and this is the ideal that now haunts us: privilege and responsibility in tandem. Today, even the best public education does not lead to employment offering security for a family and the prideful satisfaction that eases the acceptance of obligation... the beginning jobs available to high school graduates are generally minimum wage or part time, and even these are often not available to young black men. High school today is like a ladder leaning up against the side of a cliff, yet when you reach the top it proves just too short for climbing up to level ground. Why try to finish a course of studies if it leads nowhere? Even military service is an option for very few. Yet we go on expecting young people to follow patterns that might have worked a generation ago and no longer do. All over the country grown children are living at home and working at jobs that lead nowhere, while their parents, bewildered by changing patterns of courtship and the job market, waver between resentment and wondering if they should blame themselves.

The inadequacy of the transition is not resolved by graduation from college... among the middle class the four undergraduate years are increasingly seen as preparation for professional training, while in many institutions students work and study part-time, half child and half adult, extending the four years to five or six, compiling a work record combined with a student lifestyle so they enter the serious job market at an age closer to thirty.

The changing shape of the life cycle and the changing job market have combined to create a gap from about age fourteen to about twenty-six that has to be rethought, used productively, and protected without simply extending childhood. We used to have a socially supported transition from childhood to adulthood called high school. It no longer works. Gradually college, or at least junior college, has replaced high school, but it too is proving inadequate. Within this ambiguity schools and colleges have a mixture of goals almost as confusing as those of families: to protect and challenge, nourish and judge; to impart factual knowledge, skills, critical thinking, cultural literacy; to build character or emotional maturity, uphold standards, prepare for citizenship; to raise self-esteem and prevent risky experimentation. At one moment students are treated as mature, at the next they are treated like children, for we are still struggling to find ways to teach that consistently evoke maturity.

Extended education has long been a way to keep young people occupied and off the labor market while separating them from their families, but it is no longer sufficient... Even after four years of college, Hillary [a young friend of the author] could find herself in a limbo not unlike that of her high school classmates. Middle-class and affluent people now know that their children cannot “work their way through college” and that most will not find stable jobs even with a BA, so realistic parents are learning to anticipate tuition for graduate school, grown-up children living at home, and continuing subsidies and health-care premiums – no end in sight. Ideas of discipline and family roles are shaken by the return of educated, sexually active offspring who just don’t quite seem to be adults. Meanwhile, educators at every level are being scapegoated for the fact that graduates are not adequately “prepared” – for a developmental step that has been drastically altered and a job market no longer ready to absorb them.

There’s more, but I can’t type out the whole book. She goes on to say, for example, that “a new way of enforcing conformity in the young has emerged,” i.e. the outstanding cost of education and the associated debts that young people undertake to live the pressured consumer lifestyle.

What do you think?

No comments: