The Adolescent “Savage”
To the Editor:
I am impelled to write in response to the review of my book by Edgar Z. Friedenberg [The Adolescent Society, November 1961]. I will not defend those parts of the book that he attacks, but will leave that to those who by accident might read both the review and the book. I want to take issue instead with a naive perspective which runs throughout his review.
One of the major premises underlying the research reported in my book was that the adolescent community (or “subculture” or “crowd”) has a powerful motivating effect on the teen-agers within it. An implicit judgment following upon this was that it behooves the adult society to so structure adolescent institutions that the motivating forces of the adolescent community act in directions desired by the adult society.
Mr. Friedenberg takes the view that this is manipulative, that adolescents must be left free to exercise their spontaneous creativity. The naivety in this “noble savage” view lies in the simple assumption that the present structural arrangements provided for adolescents in our society have no such effect, or indeed that it would be possible for such an effect to be absent. Not only does such an effect exist; the research reported in my book shows that the effect of the structure of high school activities works precisely against the school’s own goals, by making it difficult for the adolescent community to encourage responsible effort on the part of its members—especially in scholarly directions.
If the adolescent community sees as admirable the qualities of hedonism, or destruction, or careless irresponsibility, this is not a spontaneous matter of its own creation, nor a direct mirroring of adult society. It is a response to the specific ways the adolescent’s role has been structured by the adult society.
The adolescent community is no less a creature of adults’ spawning because the parenthood is unrecognized and unintended. The responsibility of the adult society toward its young people will be fulfilled when this parenthood is recognized, and when institutions serving the adolescent are so shaped that the teen-age community serves the long-range interests of its members, rather than impeding them, as it presently does.
James S. Coleman
Johns Hopkins University