Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Mon 10/25/2004 3:49 AM
Random Thought: Are Students Really Adults?

I was walking in the cool autumn air this morning, and I couldn't get an image out of my mind. Thursday morning I was walking down the hall heading for class. Approaching me was a female student, books in hand, heading for class, dressed in black from head to toe, her black boots reached to her knees, her baggy shorts were held together by polished metal brads, chains draped from her waist connecting to her boots. Her jet black hair was spiked. She wore heavy, black makeup that would make the rock band KISS jealous. She sported a pair of huge, sweeping, black, mesh butterfly wings that made everyone in her path duck!

I chuckled an "ah, youth." It was an interesting sight that fed had an interesting question. I've always described students as "adults in training." Recent, however, I've been asking in a more serious tone, "Are students really adults?" Now, I am not talking about those who fall into the vague, jargonized category of "non-traditional student." I'm talking about the "traditional" 17-22 student fresh out of high school. And, the answer may not be as plain and simple as a lot of us academics love to assume and have assumed for a long, long time. I know. If you're old enough to blow out the candles on your 18th birthday, old enough to vote, old enough to shoot a gun, old enough to have personal privacy, old enough to be tried as an adult, you're an adult. Period! End of discussion!

But! In the last few years, I have chosen to teach only in those challenging but excitingly potential and critically important first year classes. Let me tell you that so many of them more often "kid" around and don't act "adult-ish." At times, a lot of times, I wonder alone over a glass of wine: "Where were they?" "Did they listen?" "How could they not understand?" "Don't they care?" "Don't they respect themselves?" "Where are their priorities?" Now, maybe I have an insight to those question.

Most academics perceive students through some ideal, normal socio-bio-brain model. "They are adults," is the normal proclamation. This pronouncement assumes that the brain finishes its growth during puberty and then settles into its adult impulsive constraining form by the time the student comes into collegiate classes. This assertion declares that students ought to be completely self-disciplined, totally responsible, excellent time managers, outstanding priority organizers, unqualified committers to excellence, pure pursuers of learning for the sake of learning. Heck, a lot of us academics don't reach the summits of those heights, but that doesn't stop us from moaning about students when they are not. After all, students are adults.

Anyway, this pronouncement says that at some magical point during the summer between June high school graduation and that first August day on a collegiate campus something in the vacationing water triggers a selective but endemic mutation. The impulsive, spontaneous, immature, undisciplined, naive adolescent genetically transforms into a mini, experienced, thoughtful, responsible, self-disciplined, measured, "knows better," scholarly adult dressed in teen clothing. No matter about the belly button rings or pierced tongues or eyebrows or lips or nipples or wherever, no matter the tattoos or gothic dress and "interesting hair styles," no matter coming to class in pajamas and other "interesting" styles of dress, no matter the binge drinking, no matter the wild parties, no matter the impulsiveness, no matter the casual sex, no no matter the musical chair dating, no matter the drunken driving, no matter whatever. Students are adults.

I was reading a written code of student conduct from one institution. It said, ".....assumes students are adults and responsible for their own conduct." It goes on to say that the institution expects students "to behave in ways which demonstrate care and respect for the personal dignity, rights and freedoms of all members of the community, and to demonstrate care and respect for College property and the property of others. As members of the ...... Community, we all share responsibility for safeguarding the rights and freedoms of other members and for maintaining community standards." Sounds great. Like heaven on Earth. It was written by academic adults that a lot of academic adults with all our experience, years, learning, resumes, and reputations find hard live up to that ideal. And, then, we expect our 17-21 years old to do that? Why not. One college goes so far to differentiates itself from high school by the simple statement that "most college students are adults and all high school students are adolescents." There's that mutation causing water.

Well, what's sharpened by thoughts on this matter is some material I've been reading lately about the work by neurobiologists and psychologists that seems to rattle the conventional view of these academics who see these young people as competed adults. The studies seem to indicate that it isn't that simple, that "students are adults" may not be as undeniable an undeniable fact as many conveniently suppose, that it simply may not be that simple, that to think of students and treat them as miniaturizations of ourselves doesn't make it so. But the use of that word, "adult," is used by many academics to shirk their responsibility in the learning process that often creates a chasm between them and the student. How many times have you heard, read, or said, "I teach; they learn" or "Students are responsible for their own education" or "It's your, not my, responsibility for you to learn" or "I don't spoon feed" or "It's not my job to hold their hand." What if it wasn't that one-dimensional, that one directional, that cut and dry?

Deborah Yurgelun Todd of Harvard Medical School and Boston's McLean Hospital and others show it may be a tad more complicated than most people think. She shows how the brain changes during adolescence and into adulthood. The latest brain research has found strong evidence that when it comes to maturity and organization and control, key parts of the brain related to judgment and "thinking ahead" haven't kicked in. Some scientists would place the threshold over which a person enters adult maturity at about 22 or 23! Her recent work suggests that teens' brains actually work differently than adults' when processing emotional information from external stimuli. A teenager is not going to take the information that is in the outside world, and organize it and understand and respond to it the same way we adults do or the same way we educated adults do. t just may be that road to maturity and insight for our young students may be far slower and more arduous than we academics have suspected. Don't I know that!

This research may--I repeat, may--go part of the way to explain the miscues between adult teachers and young students. It may indicate why it so often seems that the two don't seen to be talking and listening to each other. Now, I don't think Deborah Yurgelun Todd would argue that her work provides THE answers. Nor would I. But, it sure does raise some tantalizing questions. And, it equally may cause us to examine our educational methods and attitudes. It sure may strengthen the need for empathy in the teacher's arsenal. It may call for the "I" and "you" in teaching and learning to be forged into a "we." Food for thought.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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