Parenting Pearls-Jan. 5, 2006

Thinking can be taught to adolescents

By: Dr. Mae Sakharov
   A typical dictionary definition of adolescence states this time of life is "the transitional stage of development between childhood and full adulthood representing the period of time during which a person is biologically adult but emotionally not at full maturity."
   To this I will add it is also one of the most vexing times for all parents, who are filled with angst long before their child reaches that universally fatal hour — the 13th birthday.
   This is, roughly, when compliant childhood behaviors and attitudes say "bye-bye," and the teen starts dancing to the call of the wild, the fresh air of independence, the seductive powers of iPods, cell phones and IM, rumbling towards an inevitable destiny known as adulthood and real responsibilities.
   Today, these teenagers exist in a vast marketplace catering to their specific needs. The U.S. teenage population is more than 34 million and growing. They are flush with cash and eager to spend it; on average, approximately $100 dollars a week.
   They are fickle, keeping product developers on their toes projecting this age groups ever-changing trends. But I am getting ahead of myself.
   There was a time not long ago when the word adolescence had little meaning. The growing period was simply called "the teenage years." In the early part of the 20th century, most families did not have the leisure time or ready cash with which to indulge children.
   The fortunate attended school through the eighth grade and left to work or apprentice a trade. The income they brought home was put to use supporting the family. Many children were less fortunate, had no formal schooling and spent their waking hours toiling in sweatshops and factories.
   The situation began to change when factories automated and indignation about the working conditions children faced became broad public knowledge. Oftentimes, these children fell victim of industrial accidents and disease. It was a grim life with few prospects looming for the unschooled illiterate child.
   When children were no longer needed as chattel or commodities to be used and exploited, the issue became what to do with them.
   In such a climate was birthed what we now call the adolescent or teenager. With the birth of the teenager came a change in schooling. In 1919, the first junior high school — similar to the middle school of today — opened.
   However, what to teach in middle school and how to reach students in the newly defined adolescence has remained a subject of controversy and one that has not been successfully resolved.
   Suggestions have gone so far as to recommend sending children of this age away from home to boarding schools modeled on the Israeli Kibbutz or creating boot camps such as were instituted at Fort Dix, N.J.
   This past fall semester, while teaching my foundations of education class at Bucks County Community College, the students and I had a discussion about a requirement to write a paper describing their own emerging philosophies of education. Although I have taught the class for quite a few years, I was astounded anew by our discussion of the Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, whose ideas of how to educate youth are as relevant today as in the golden years of Athenian society.
   These purveyors of wisdom developed practical, straightforward sequential methods I believe could be successfully applied to junior high school students. A student leaving such a school today would know how to think for himself or herself, weigh both sides of issues and understand ethics and things of the spirit.
   They also would have made physical education habitual, thereby reducing their chances of falling into the American scourge of obesity.
   Socrates had a following among the youth of Athens that many parents found threatening. He taught his pupils to think for themselves and ask challenging questions about areas of consequence.
   Thinking can be taught. Learning how to think by asking questions develops discernment and judgment. Having pertinent discussions about topics one might consider insignificant also can be revealing.
   Critical thinking is one of the most important components of higher education. Laying that groundwork in the early teenage years would be extremely beneficial in all aspects of the curriculum.
   One example is books written specifically for adolescents on topics such as abuse, suicide, transgender siblings and rape. For some, these books are gruesome and sensationalistic. Some young people might argue for alternatives while others defend these books as representative of their experiences.
   The Academy of Plato was built on the principle the intellect could be trained through learning how the three parts of the human soul — intellect, spirit and basic animal desires — interact. Morality and/or character training develop intellect Plato described as the highest faculty.
   His Academy, addressing spiritual questions and learning about other traditions, leads to tolerance of others. Students should think about what their philosophy of life is and discuss and defend their notions.
   Aristotle, the student of Plato, opened a school, which was called the Lyceum. Students addressed philosophical questions and took classes in subjects such as biology, physics, mathematics, literary criticism and psychology. His guidelines, implemented so many years ago, laid the foundation for schooling.
   What is missing today in American middle schools, in my opinion, is the more active incorporation of the philosophies of Socrates and Plato into the curriculum at all levels.
   Dream with me. Perhaps one day educators and politicians, rather than creating more testing and Band-Aid programs, will look backwards to that time in ancient Greece. Incorporating the ideas of the great philosophers will not require 10-year studies. They have been tried and proven true.
   I believe a thinking teenager is a wonder to behold when encountered. We just need to provide the right environment to grow more of them.