Youth, Soldiers, and Infantilizing our Country

Much hash is being made over a viral video of US Marines urinating on corpses. Two of them have already been identified, and government figures including Defense Secretary Panetta and Secretary of State Clinton are already labeling this as “deplorable” and demanding there be some sort of corrective action. Harmid Karzai, President of Afghanistan, is naturally outraged over this and is thumping his chest.

Personally, I find the actions of these Marines to be disgusting, degrading, and a stain on the United States. They definitely should be punished, and I hope that happens. Little wonder people in other countries don’t like us when we do things like this.

But I’m not going to rant on about that. I have a somewhat different argument.

James Joyner of Outside the Beltway has already written an insightful post on the situation. I really could not add more to it. Instead, I want to focus on a comment made by a commentator who goes by the name “Ben Wolf.” The interesting part is thus:

You can’t take an 18 year old who just got out of high school, give him a gun and then expect him to be a paragon of nobility, virtue and cultural sensitivity.

Perhaps not be a paragon, per se, but I do think that this is wrong. Or, at least, it should be. Our eighteen year olds should be more mature and more developed, but they’re not. The reason why we can’t train and equip eighteen years old in the military and expect more dignified behavior is, I believe, a result of two generations of infantilizing teenagers in our schools and homes, because we think they are incapable of doing anything. This, I believe, is a grand mistake.

There are a great many restrictions placed on American teenagers. They’re subject to curfews, either by their parents or a local government. They’re prohibited from voting, consuming alcohol, and smoking. They’re punished for any deviation from whatever arbitrary standard adults have placed, whether that’s bringing nail clippers to school, spilling water (that happened at my own high school), or even hugging. In school, they have to ask for permission to use the bathroom, which places control over their own body to others. Indecency and obscenity laws are still applied to most media they consume, with the MPAA and TV ratings, forcing them to watch childish stuff (though most of them get past that one.) I could continue on and on.

Some may say this occurs because teenagers have demonstrated that they are not capable of being mature, and would take any freedom given to just fool around. But how can you know that? You can’t. I’ve seen many teenagers act responsibly and respectfully, and a lot of this came when they were given responsibility. I am proud to be an Eagle Scout, as well as a graduate of the United States Air Force Junior Reserve Officers Training Program, where I was a Cadet Captain. In both the Boy Scouts and AFJROTC, I saw example of youth being irresponsible and stupid, but I saw many more examples of youth taking charge, being courteous, honest, and mature. And guess what: I saw many of both in adults too. In fact, I saw so many examples of adults acting like maroons, I figured it was a complete no-brainer as to why so many teenagers did dumb things: they had a large selection of role models.

Robert Epstein is a psychologist who wrote the book Teen 2.0, and argues that the reason teenagers have so many difficulties today—depression, STDs, rebellion against their parents—is because we are “infantilizing” them, when really we should be working to help awaken the inner adult in every one of them.

I first heard about the book in an online discussion a few years ago, back when it was called The Case Against Adolescence (that was the first edition.) I profess to never actually reading this book, but just from the excerpts and other materials the Dr. Epstein has posted, it does intrigue me, and having gone through the trials and tribulations of adolescence not too long ago myself (I’m an “early twentysomething”), what I do see and hear discussed resonates very deeply with me. Perhaps what resonates most deeply is an interview Dr. Epstein had with Dr. Leon Botstein, the President of Bard College, and indeed, the youngest person to ever become a university president in the United States. The interview is in PDF format, but let me extract a relevant bit for you:


Epstein: What did your book say that was so relevant to the Columbine shooting?

Botstein:There’s a chapter which argues for the abolition of the high school and argues that the high school is an infantilizing structure. I wrote that we hadn’t paid attention to adolescents properly as young adults and that we fail miserably when puberty meets education; we fail to nurture young people when they have the greatest capacity to learn. As a result, we fail to produce people with any real ambition to learn. College is too late, and the arrogance of college educators is unbelievable. Having criticized the high school environment as a way we treat adolescents, the book seemed to overlap with some of the observations about the Columbine event. A journalist asked to interview me about this, and then I did a couple of op-ed pieces for leading newspapers. Then Oprah Winfrey got wind of this, and the book suddenly had a magical revival from the moribund.

Epstein: I understand that officials in New York took your ideas about teens quite seriously. What happened?

Botstein: The mayor of New York and then the governor of the state supported the idea of our creating an early college in the public sector, which would take young people out of the eighth grade and give them a real college education. By the time they finished the year that they would normally have received a high school diploma, they would have finished an AA degree. So we developed the Bard High School Early College, which is a public school on the Lower East Side of New York that mirrors the demography of the city. It’s a fantastic success, and it proves the point. The Gates Foundation has now jumped in behind it and has put about $40 million into trying to replicate versions of this early college idea.

Another point that I think is valuable, not only vis-a-vis teenagers, but also adults and government:

Epstein: You have 24 maxims in Jefferson’s Children, one for each hour of the day. I find one of them particularly interesting. It is to “reflect on the exercise of authority.” What does this mean?

Botstein: It’s advice to parents, and it extends to school administrators as well. Authority is terribly important. Everybody wants to feel that they’re in charge of their own lives. But if you observe patrons in a restaurant, you find that people like restaurants in part because they can order somebody around. Some people send the wine back; some people are upset about the service. Ask anyone who works for an airline or in the service professions, where someone has paid for the right to be the boss. Many, many people revel in being the boss. Parenting is often motivated by such desires. Some people have children in order to create pets whom they can order around. Authority is legitimate when you’re causing something to be done that is essential. Sometimes people — teachers, for example — exercise legitimate authority simply by knowing something. But the base of authority should be as transparent as possible, and students, and even young children, should be able to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate authority. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a child is to tell the child you don’t know something — to tell the child that you yourself are self-critical and that you don’t wield authority arbitrarily. So if my son asks me a question and I don’t know the answer, I say, “I really don’t know. I’ve got to find out.” He observes that I’m uncomfortable with not being able to answer his question, and I try to figure out the answer.

This is exactly the problem we have today with Americans, many of whom think that government officials know best. Yet, as I demonstrated yesterday, most government regulators are completely incompetent and clueless about what is going on. Some of them are indeed so clueless that they don’t even know that their policies are not working and that they’re wrong! This is a process that begins in the public education system, where teachers are given dictatorial powers, no transparency, and can never admit to being wrong. I remember quite clearly my math teachers had absolutely no aptitude for math, and in one instance, when I was confused and asked for help, the teacher gave me a solution that I pondered and again did not understand; when I asked her again a second time, she asked “Who wrote this?” and crossed it all out—her own solution. (Maybe that’s why I, too, have no aptitude for mathematics.)

This may seem like a long, long way from four Marines urinating on a corpse in Afghanistan, but what I am trying to say is that eighteen year olds, if not paragons, can be upstanding citizens and responsible, mature adults. Would this incident still have occurred? Possibly—war is hell, after all. But I think we could have a better and more mature military if we appealed to the “inner adult” in every teenager, who are the ones most recruited to go into battle.

If we’re going to fix the problems with our country—and by extension, some Marines doing a dispicable act that endangers our operations—we’re going to have to take the long view and initiate some pretty wide-ranging and deep changes to our society. This can and should be one of them.

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