Childhood Ends at Puberty

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I’ve mentioned before my contention that childhood ends with puberty and that we do young people a grave injustice by branding them as children until they are 18. Worse, we keep them confined in the world’s most ineffective public education system.

Let me contrast that fate with the actions of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, at the age of 8, studied at Boston Grammar School. He was withdrawn because of poor family finances and finished his formal schooling at George Brownell’s English School — at age 11.

From 11 to 12, he worked in his father’s shop making candles and soap, then tried the cutlery business but came back to his father’s shop. From age 13 to 15, he worked for his brother and wrote broadside ballads. He borrowed books to read, among them John Bunyan, Xenophon, John Locke, various histories and religious polemics, and improved his writing by imitating the essays of Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele in the London Spectator.

What is your 15-year-old reading? I might point out that most students don’t read Locke until they get to college. At age 16, Franklin started his own newspaper, and his career was under way. At 16, our young people are still confined in public schools, and generally without any practical work experience at all. The senior English reading list at the high school I attended contained such difficult works as "Sue Barton, Student Nurse."

Granted, Franklin had a genius IQ, but don’t think there aren’t young men and women today in their teens who also have a genius IQ, and too many of them are being bored to bad behavior by curricula that have been dumbed down to make sure those with below-average IQs can pass. Our public education system is a disgrace. It is the most expensive in the world and produces the worst results.

To stretch out for 12 years so little knowledge is ridiculous. Basic education should be finished by the age of 12 or 13. After that, young people should be apprenticed, enrolled in commercial or vocational schools, freed to work or, if they have the IQ for college, enrolled in the university system. Instead, we, in effect, put off until age 22 when a young person can even get started in a career if it requires a college degree. No wonder the really smart ones drop out.

Franklin’s IQ might have been high, but his experiences were the norm in his time. Childhood ended with puberty, and young men and women were expected to get about the business of life instead of trying to amuse themselves until the age of 18. We would have far less juvenile crime and teen pregnancy if we treated young people as young adults instead of as children. Boredom is the devil’s workshop, and I can’t think of anything more boring that an American public school.

Education doesn’t really take place in an institution. The individual educates himself by reading and thinking. Ideally, a teacher can offer some guidance, perhaps stir some enthusiasm. Most of our public schoolteachers are trapped in an institutional setting where most of their day involves more or less the same duties as a prison guard.

The idea of consolidated central schools is one of the dumbest ones ever to come down the pike, and the field of education is crowded with dumb ideas. Compulsory-attendance laws are another dumb idea. If parents had to face the prospect of living with their own children, instead of dumping them into the public school system, they’d make a better effort to teach them good manners. Without compulsory-attendance laws, a school could set standards and send home any student who failed to meet them.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.

© 2006 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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