I recently came across this long article titled “Adolescence: a critical evolutionary adaptation”, sent to me by a colleague. It is an attempt to interpret some of the recent (last 10-15 years’) findings in cognitive science, neurobiology and evolutionary psychology, and “provide a theoretical basis for a complete transformation of formal educational structures”, in the authors’ words.

I was someone who, during my adolescent years, was desperate to grow up so that I can be in charge of my own life. Now I find myself in a role where I control the lives of adolescents, and I find that it creates an inner conflict, sometimes.

There’s enough that is interesting about being a teacher to go on like this, but I really want to understand the issues of adolescence better, just because it’s something that’s close to my heart and I’ve been thinking about it since my adolescent years, how young people who are growing up do not have a proper place in modern society. Also, to explore the possibility of creating saner spaces for young people growing up.

Here are some excerpts from the article that suggest the critical evolutionary role of adolescence and its very features like exuberance and risk taking tendency that modern society find difficult to handle.

“Of the greatest importance to early people was the progression of their dependent
child to that of autonomous adult. This was a process that had to be completed sufficiently early to ensure that the young adult would be able to take on whatever were the responsibilities of the earlier generation before they died. While there is much evidence about the care and attention given by such people to the very young (as can easily be noted to this day in remote areas of Africa or elsewhere) there was absolutely nothing soft or sentimental about this.

Amongst the nomads of the Zagros mountains of southern Iran, until very recently, adults spent much time and energy equipping every four-year-old to look after the chickens, the six-year-olds the goats, the eight and nine-year-olds the sheep, the ten-year-olds the asses and twelve-year-olds the donkeys – leaving only the bad tempered camels as needing actual adult attention! When the tribe moved everyone had a task to complete. As the child grew older so the tasks they were allocated became harder. Everyone was engaged, even if work frequently felt like play they all shared in the sense of achievement.

Such small-scale, self-contained communities depend upon the good will of their members to ensure cohesion, but such cohesion would have come at too high a cost if youthfulness lasted too long , and there was any undue delay in reaching adulthood. The adaptation that had earlier enabled the young to learn easily in their earliest years through intense emotional connection with older people, had to be balanced by an internal mechanism that prevented the children from becoming mere clones of their parents. In other words unless those close bonds which had characterized the earliest years were ruptured (forcibly if necessary) the young would not grow to be adaptable to new situations.

Adolescence, it is now becoming clearer, is that deep-seated biological adaptation that makes it essential for the young to go off, either to war, to hunt, to explore, to colonize, or to make love – in other words to prove themselves – so as to start a life of their own. As such the biology of adolescence aims to stop children being merely clones of their parents. It is probably a time-limited predisposition, in other words if the adolescent is prevented (by over careful parents or a too rigid system of formal schooling) from experimenting and working things out for itself, it will lose the motivation to be innovative or to take responsibility for itself when it becomes adult.”

I don’t believe that adolescents should be left completely on their own to do whatever they want to do. Even in these early pre-industrialization and pre-civilization societies, the adolescents had tasks to do, but those were more concrete and real unlike the abstract subjects children learn in school today, and they had a role in society unlike the “youngsters of today who are too old to be treated as children but not yet in meaningful employment.”

It seems like our brains are wired so that adolescents of every generation will question their parent generation and try to find their own way in life. Given that, and given the likelihood that schools are here to stay for at least my lifetime, there are two questions that come to my mind about schools.

Is there something of value which the older generation can give the younger generation in such a set up? If so, what? And how is that valuable to the younger generation? I’d like to examine this question from scratch, not taking for granted anything that we think is of value in education.

Is there something of value which the younger generation has to give the society here and now(not some abstract notion of future citizens and blah-blah)? If so, what is it? And what are the conditions/environment that will bring forth those contributions?