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Does School Stunt The Teenage Brain?

A fascinating and important piece in the Wall Street Journal this morning makes the case that our modern habit of keeping kids out of work during years and years of academic study may actually stunt the development of important parts of their brain: the parts that have to do with practicality and making responsible decisions.

Generally speaking, neurological research still needs to be taken with a grain of salt when it comes to linking brain development and activity with behavior.  The science is developing rapidly and when that happens a lot of false ideas look temporarily plausible until new research comes in — and (like the climate) the brain is a very complicated subject where it is easy to go wrong.

Nevertheless, the piece points to something important: the modern situation in which kids reach puberty early and economic and emotional adulthood relatively late is not necessarily ideal.  Ideally, kids’ lives should integrate both work and study through life — not as nine year old factory slaves, but more like the way kids on American family farms acquired more and more responsible roles as they grew up.

Apprenticeships and other forms of education could well be healthier and more effective than our present over-emphasis on the classroom.

School reform in America needs to involve much more than objective test scores. The 20th century universal school system of rigid grades and the growing separation of learning and work may have made sense 100 years ago.  To sit still, follow directions, move with the herd and live by the clock were important skills in the days when repetitive jobs in factories and offices were how most adults lived. But civilization is at a higher level now, and we need to prepare kids for more fluid and dynamic lives.

You don’t need to be a neurologist to see that modern schools stunt brains.

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  • Lorenz Gude

    Well, I was one of those kids that grew up on a family farm and that childhood is certainly deeply connected to our past. I noticed that anew some years ago when I came flying around a corner on a dirt track full of mumbies (cows) in Zimbabwe. The roughly 8 year old boy in charge leapt to it and cleared the way whacking and hollering in fine style and then stood back holding his stick and grinning with pride – much as I had in similar situations. I’ll tell you something else about Zimbabwe. You can talk to teenagers there – black and white. They are just young adults who are curious about the world and willing to listen to adults. They are not crazy from school, I believe, because the realities of life are so close they don’t get lost in the artificiality of their education system. An example: I went with an miner friend to fetch some keys held by one of employees at home, but he had taken his critically ill mother to hospital and the house was locked. So we went to the local elementary school and got his employee’s 9 year old little sister and she came with us and unlocked the house and found the keys. As the three of us drove in the small pickup to her house she told us how she had won a baking contest at school and had started a business making cakes that she sold around the neighborhood. She knew her costs and what she could charge.

  • Some Sock Puppet

    I can agree wholeheartedly.

    Eutopian factories where they medicate, terrorize, and crush kids spirits.

    Monitor them, spy on them, molest them, fill their heads with nonsense.

    Do ANYTHING other than teach them to be a person.

  • Kris

    “Does School Stunt The Teenage Brain?”

    Assuredly so. And you should see what it does to teachers’ brains!

    Thangyew, thangyew, I’ll be here all evening.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Have you noticed how home schooled kids always win the spelling bees, and seem to knock the college entrance exams out of the park. I blame the Labor Gangs for dumbing down the potential our children, and driving many away from if not out of school altogether.

  • Eurydice

    Well sure, that’s how to deal with unemployment – park the next generation in education limbo, then keep raising the exit requirements – you need a BA, ooops sorry now an MBA, now a PhD. Then when they stumble out, we can complain that they don’t know how to be productive.

  • Luke Lea

    That’s why I advocate a home based-economy in which children have important chores and responsibilities to meet.*

    In the 1950’s version of the Amerian dream, half of all economic activity was in the informal sector. We need to get back to that again.

    *In The Soft Path I advocate an 18-to-24 hour work week in areas outside the cities where parents can participate in the construction (and upkeep) of their own houses, cultivate small gardens, cook and eat at home, care for their aged parents, and a lot of other things we currently pay others to do in our stead.

    [I wish to hell I could write]

  • lenf

    I attended school as a teen many, many years ago, and even then thinking was frowned upon. I responded by attending as little as possible. Many students did very well with their studies and their careers and lives later but that’s not the point. We were there to receive the prescribed information and then deliver it at test time. I did this well enough but the time dragged and I couldn’t ask questions or actually learn anything that I couldn’t learn from reading and much less classroom time. Oh well. I had to wait until it was over.

  • JKB

    We’ve come full circle. In the past, home life compensated for the foolish emphasis on the abstract in school. But now, few kids are responsible for anything practicable at home either. They don’t mow yards, don’t help with repairs and for sure don’t have farm chores which required a wide range of practice with the theoretical. Add to that the removal of shop classes and any practical training. Even “shop” classes that are offered have been corrupted to little more than button pushing training on computers such as CAD, whereas mechanical drawing taught both practicality and making responsible decisions.

    What the schools need are classes in tool skills that require the creation of a useful item whose value is objectively determined, such as a stool. A stool either works or it doesn’t, it aesthetically pleasing or it isn’t. It is not the fine arts where some abstract notion can be considered reasonable.

    They should offer these tool skill classes in the use of hand tools, it isn’t vocational training but incorporation of the classroom into the useful, instead of words, it is spoken by the hands. A semester in mechanical drawing, by hand not on the computer would also be useful to train the mind to manipulate objects and judge their practicality. The class would incorporate math, science, and history. It would inform for literature. A student would develop the appreciation of the journey across the desert to California in ‘The Grapes of Wrath.” The perils and risks, something lost today when we jet around in air-conditioned comfort in reliable vehicles and emergency help just a cell phone call away.

    “It is possible for the mind to indulge in false logic, to make the worse appear the better reason, without instant exposure. But for the hand to work falsely is to produce a misshapen’ thing—tool or machine —which in its construction gives the lie to its maker. Thus the hand that is false to truth, in the very act publishes the verdict of its own guilt, exposes itself to contempt and derision, convicts itself of unskilfulness or of dishonesty.”

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