The Trauma Of High School And Developmental Psychology

In New York, Jennifer Senior has one of the better examples of the current fad for pop psychology dressed up with neuroscience articles that are so popular now: "Why You Never Truly Leave High School: New Science on Its Corrosive, Traumatizing Effects." In discussing the importance of one's high school years, she points out that too much attention has been paid to early childhood by social scientists:

Yet there’s one class of professionals who seem, rather oddly, to have underrated the significance of those years, and it just happens to be the group that studies how we change over the course of our lives: developmental neuroscientists and psychologists. “I cannot emphasize enough the amount of skewing there is,” says Pat Levitt, the scientific director for the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, “in terms of the number of studies that focus on the early years as opposed to adolescence. For years, we had almost a religious belief that all systems developed in the same way, which meant that what happened from zero to 3 really mattered, but whatever happened thereafter was merely tweaking.” 

Zero to 3. For ages, this window dominated the field, and it still does today, in part for reasons of convenience: Birth is the easiest time to capture a large population to study, and, as Levitt points out, “it’s easier to understand something as it’s being put together”—meaning the brain—“than something that’s complex but already formed.” There are good scientific reasons to focus on this time period, too: The sensory systems, like hearing and eyesight, develop very early on. “But the error we made,” says Levitt, “was to say, ‘Oh, that’s how all functions develop, even those that are very complex. Executive function, emotional regulation—all of it must develop in the same way.’ ” That is not turning out to be the case. “If you’re interested in making sure kids learn a lot in school, yes, intervening in early childhood is the time to do it,” says Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist at Temple University and perhaps the country’s foremost researcher on adolescence. “But if you’re interested in how people become who they are, so much is going on in the adolescent years.” 

The over-emphasis on early years also has to do with the conventional wisdom's hopes for egalitarianism and blank slate social engineering. The younger the child, the harder to measure his capabilities, so the easier it is to theorize that everybody is conceived the same, so All We Have To Do is intervene at 36 months or 24 months or 12 months or 0 months or minus 8 months and 29 days and we can end inequality, especially racial inequality.

Until the Great Depression, the majority of American adolescents didn’t even graduate from high school. ... But these disparate paths did arguably have one virtue in common: They placed adolescent children alongside adults. They were not sequestered as they matured. Now teens live in a biosphere of their own. In their recent book Escaping the Endless Adolescence, psychologists Joseph and Claudia Worrell Allen note that teenagers today spend just 16 hours per week interacting with adults and 60 with their cohort. One century ago, it was almost exactly the reverse. 

Something happens when children spend so much time apart from adult company. They start to generate a culture with independent values and priorities. ... (From the website of the National Home Education Network: “Ironically, one of the reasons many of us have chosen to educate our own is precisely this very issue of socialization! Children spending time with individuals of all ages more closely resembles real life than does a same-age school setting.”) 

In fact, one of the reasons that high schools may produce such peculiar value systems is precisely because the people there have little in common, except their ages. “These are people in a large box without any clear, predetermined way of sorting out status,” says Robert Faris, a sociologist at UC Davis who’s spent a lot of time studying high-school aggression. “There’s no natural connection between them.” Such a situation, in his view, is likely to reward aggression. Absent established hierarchies and power structures (apart from the privileges that naturally accrue from being an upperclassman), kids create them on their own, and what determines those hierarchies is often the crudest common-­denominator stuff—looks, nice clothes, prowess in sports—­rather than the subtleties of personality. “Remember,” says Crosnoe, who spent a year doing research in a 2,200-student high school in Austin, “high schools are big. There has to be some way of sorting people socially. It’d be nice if kids could be captured by all their characteristics. But that’s not realistic.”


The article skims over the central reason that teenage years are so difficult: they are one's introduction to one's value in the sexual marketplace, which is serious, Darwinian business. For many individuals, what they learn comes as a rude shock. 

Some of these differences are innate and permanent, some are situational (smart kids tend to feel their true value can only be recognized by other smart people, which is often somewhat true), and some differences are temporary because kids sexually mature at different rates. 

For example, it's common to see beautiful models/actresses on talk shows, such as Liv Tyler (Arwen in The Lord of the Rings) explaining about how they don't think of themselves as beautiful because they were tomboys who didn't develop or get interested in makeup until after all the other girls, so the self image they retain from adolescence, they claim, is one of gawkiness and lack of sexual sophistication. 

One reason for this is that high-end models need to be tall (Liv Tyler is 5'10"). Puberty tends to shut down growth in height in girls, so fashion models tend to have gone through sexual maturation later than shorter, more buxom girls. But, they get their revenge later in life.

The Harpending-Draper theory from 1982 is that girls from single-parent families tend to sexually mature faster than girls from intact two-parent families. I haven't seen much subsequent research on this, but it could help explain why the white American class system has become so focused around intact families keeping their kids away from the kids of broken families. Two-parent families want their children to grow up in an environment encouraging slow sexual maturation so they'll finish their education before having children of their own. 

Differential rates of sexual maturation help explain why liberal white parents are so averse to sending their children to junior high schools and high schools with large numbers of blacks. The earlier sexual maturation of blacks puts their kids at a disadvantage at a tender age. They especially don't want their sons to develop inferiority complexes that can be hard to shake. 

Thus, the fashion for redshirting one's son so that he doesn't enter first grade until age seven and grows up being bigger, stronger, smarter, and cooler than his younger classmates. The idea is to get him used to being socially dominant as a child so he stays that way as an adult.

In Back To Blood , Tom Wolfe points out that this dynamic emerges well before high school and has massive political implications. Cowardly and long-winded but insightful newspaper editor Edward T. Topping IV functions as Wolfe's mouthpiece explains:

If you ask me, newspaper reporters are created at age six when they first go to school. In the schoolyard boys immediately divide into two types. Immediately! There are those who have the will to be daring and dominate, and those who don’t have it. … But there are boys from the weaker side of the divide who grow up with the same dreams as the stronger … The boy standing before me, John Smith, is one of them. They, too, dream of power, money, fame, and beautiful lovers. Boys like this kid grow up instinctively realizing that language is like … a sword or a gun. Used skillfully, it has the power to … well, not so much achieve things as to tear things down – including people … including the boys who came out on the strong side of the sheerly dividing line. Hey, that’s what liberals are! Ideology? Economics? Social justice? Those are nothing but their prom outfits. Their politics were set for life in the schoolyard at age six. They were the weak, and forever after they resented the strong. That’s why so many journalists are liberals! The very same schoolyard events that pushed them toward the written word … pushed them toward “liberalism.”

Much of modern liberalism consists of people trying to get revenge on the football players they felt inferior to in school. 

Of course, this raises the question: but aren't blacks more likely to be jocks and bullies? So, how do white liberals resolve this conflict?

A. Keep themselves and their kids away from the black masses.

B. Don't think about it and get angry at anybody who does.

C. Vote Obama!