As I See It: The Disappearing Grown-Up
by Victor Rozek
I enjoy watching people, and because of what I do (coaching, consulting, and facilitation), I tend to watch them intently. I watch their physiology and their behaviors. I look for subtle changes in expression. I listen to what they say and how they say it; I notice what they omit. I track how they treat others and how they act when they think no one is looking. And, lately, whether I'm in the workplace or the mall or watching television, I've been asking myself the same question: where have all the adults gone?
In the workplace, I have seen managers without integrity, leaders with high pay and low accountability. I have seen employees who are slow to display initiative but are quick to blame others. And everywhere there are people who do jobs they don't want to do and hold themselves as victims, stubbornly defending the belief that they have no choice.
In malls, surveys show that 70 percent of the shoppers don't know why they are there. They have no particular reason for coming, nothing they especially need to buy. I watch people with dull expressions and collapsed physiologies wander aimlessly, often eating something to relieve the anxiety and the boredom.
On television, political talk shows that once discussed important issues in depth are now shouting matches. Supposedly grown men and women are paid to interrupt and shriek insults at one another. Complex issues are reduced to meaningless sound bites, and most of the air time is spent savaging the opposing side.
Sometimes I just get hungry for adults.
If you're reading this, you're probably at work. Look around. Do you see any adults? I mean real adults, not just people who have had the biological good fortune to reach the age of maturity. I'm talking about the kind of people who have achieved a level of growth and wisdom that inspires you to say, "Yeah, I want to be more like that person."
See anybody like that? Me neither. It's not that people don't have admirable skills. They do. One plays the piano, another writes elegant code, still another can build a house. But what I'm talking about is more reflective of a state of being than a state of doing.
So what is an adult, anyway? And what constitutes an adult state of being? The dictionary won't help much. It maintains that an adult is "one who has attained maturity or legal age." That's like saying that a painting is a canvas that has attained paint. And notice the "or" in "maturity or legal age." Does that mean whichever comes first, or does it imply choice? Short of premature death, we don't have much choice about attaining legal age, but becoming mature is an entirely different proposition. Yet here the dictionary fails us again. Maturity is defined as "ripeness; the state or quality of being fully grown." Sure, I've known some ripe people, but a good shower will ameliorate that.
So let's create our own definition. In all cultures there is a select number of men and women who have achieved a gracefulness of being that is immediately recognized as that of a fully evolved and fully engaged human. They share certain common characteristics such as wisdom, compassion, purpose, integrity, awareness, joy, creativity, and self-responsibility. They appear to delight in being alive, and others feel more alive in their presence. They speak simply and directly and self-disclose as appropriate. They are generous and affectionate. They can accept praise without deflecting it and can hear criticism without denying it. They acknowledge mistakes. Their values and actions are congruent; therefore there is harmony between what they say and what they do. They keep their word. They are self-correcting. They are curious and are open to other points of view. They are respectful of differences. They have dignity but are playful and able to laugh at themselves.
Sound like anyone you know? If not, look in the mirror. In truth, we all have some degree of these qualities. The challenge of "growing up" is to maximize them to the extent we are able. But what if childishness was deliberately designed into our education system? And what if much of modern society, including the workplace, is organized around keeping us in a state of perpetual infancy?
An engrossing essay in the September Harper's by former teacher John Taylor Gatto traces the roots of our maligned school system and reaches a startling conclusion: that the system isn't broken at all; in fact, it's doing precisely what it was intended to do.
During his thirty years of teaching, Gatto often pondered why boredom was so dominant an experience for both students and teachers. He concludes that schools traffic in boredom because they were designed to prepare people for a lifetime of boredom.
Gatto makes a compelling case that our K-12 system is based on a Prussian model that was developed in order to standardize the population, thus making it "manageable" and compliant. By the mid-1920s, when the system was beginning to be well-established in the United States, a number of critics began to express alarm. Among them was H.L. Menken, who wrote that the aim of public education was not "to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. . . . Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim. . .is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality."
We have the type of schools we have, argues Gatto, because we have the type of economic system we have, and it requires feeding. So if there are many boring, repetitive jobs that must be filled, you had better train people to have a high tolerance for boredom and repetition. This is one step below Huxley's Brave New World, a "utopia" in which material consumption is encouraged and no one hates their job, because they have been bred, quite literally, to do what they do.
Gatto would argue that through the process of educational breeding we have lost our distinctiveness. We all wear basically the same clothes, drive similar cars, live in comparable homes with the same set of appliances. We are armed with cell phones, are reliant on computers, and are medicated by television. In the workplace we are all required to conform to a very narrow range of behaviors and are punished when we stray from the prescribed path.
The people aimlessly wandering America's malls are perfect examples of Gatto's thesis. "Schools didn't have to train kids in any direct sense to think they should consume nonstop," he writes, "because it did something even better: it encouraged them not to think at all." And that lack of critical thought allows the young to be herded by marketeers toward uniformity, which, in turn, constricts the fullness of their adulthood.
Gatto notes that some of the greatest leaders and geniuses of the American experiment (the caliber of individual we seem to have difficulty duplicating today) never endured twelve years of mandatory education. That list includes Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Edison, Carnegie, Melville, Twain, and Margaret Mead.
But while the old educational model may have made economic if not psychological sense during the Industrial Age, it makes little sense in an information economy where workers are valued for their knowledge, flexibility, and innovation. Yet the system has not appreciably changed, and Gatto likens the "forced confinement" and "cell-block style" of urban schools to "virtual factories of childishness."
He postulates that "maturity has by now been banished from nearly every aspect of our lives. Easy divorce laws have removed the need to work on relationships; easy credit has removed to need for fiscal self-control; easy entertainment has removed the need to learn to entertain oneself; easy answers have removed the need to ask questions."
Indeed, one measure of adulthood is the quality of questions a person asks himself. An adult will ask: "What do I want to do?" "How do I want to contribute?" "What is my part in this conflict or disagreement?" A child will ask: "What do they want from me?" "What's the least I can do?" And possibly the quintessential childish question of our time: "Why do they hate us so much?"
For most of us, adulthood is a journey and not a destination. In the end, some of us will be responsible for our own lives and well-being, for our own choices and our own behaviors. And some will not. For those who refuse to grow up, perpetual adolescence is a lonely place, full of empty distractions that never quite assuage the fear.
Perhaps Gatto is right, and the dumbing-down of America was an unintended consequence of a deliberate educational choice made many years ago. And since education and human nature are slow to change, at least we can claim with apparent accuracy that although we may not have had a happy childhood, we've certainly had a long one.
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