About 250,000 years ago, homo sapiens became a species separate from their early hominid ancestors. About 100,000 years ago, we began to migrate as clans, tribes, extended families. Children learned by watching adults, trying things out for themselves, performing small tasks, developing skills and experience, taking responsibility. There were no teenagers: you were either a child (who did limited work and could not produce children), or you were an adult (who did the work of an adult, and could produce children). As humans moved into permanent settlements and developed wealth, special attention was paid to promising children. Other children tended to the animals, worked the fields, and helped the adults. But not everyone. And not everywhere.
In Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, and other early civilizations, there were schools, the start of numeracy and literacy, and instruction in arts, crafts, and music. There were sports competitions. As villages emerged, they often included some sort of school. As more young people survived the early years of childhood and more people moved to cities, children began to attend school in larger numbers. Social movements discouraged child labor on farms and in factories. Now, children now belonged in school. Gradually, social policy took shape: there would be public schools with required attendance, and private schools, too. The job of instructing children migrated from families and communities to teachers in school buildings.
Along the way, according to TEEN 2.0 author Robert Epstein, we decided to treat teenagers—those capable of doing the work of an adult, capable of producing children—as if they were children themselves. Warehoused in middle schools and high schools, limited in their freedom, frustrated by their inability to do productive work, we have severely constrained their role in community. Adolescents are community members with abundant discretionary time, powerful energy, superior physical ability and physical resilience, a relentless need to socialize, the greatest combination of curiosity and desire to succeed. They are the next generation of scientists, business innovators, college professors, small business owners, parents. Mostly, we’ve organized their community participation as high school sports and the occasional high school musical. We have provided some of them with part-time jobs in occupations unrelated to their career plans. Ridiculous!
More than any other group of students, adolescents should benefit from the freedom and flexibility of the 20-hour framework. They can use school and its facilities as home base, but they should be doing things, trying, exploring, devising and constructing, building relationships, cajoling other community members into joining and supporting their adventures. Not once in a while, but nearly all of the time. Teaching, too. Not just here and there, but throughout the community. Day, night, and on weekends, too. Imagine what they could accomplish. Imagine how transformative this would be! Forget about the familiar behavior problems—teenagers are built to be engaged, involved, busy, creating, making things, figuring things out, not spending day after day in classrooms. If we don’t allow them to behave in natural ways, they will misbehave. Wouldn’t you? Didn’t you?
One of the best places to view the disconnect between community and school is on the edge of the pandemic. It’s 2020, and parents were stunned to find themselves suddenly responsible for their children. Adults did not prepare systems of community support. Teenagers were accustomed to being treated like children, so they were unwilling and unable to carry much of the load. Parents formed pods with children whose families pledged to limit potentially dangerous exposure, or plopped their children in front of a screen for hours a day, offering educational support when their work schedules allowed. Where were the teenagers, capable of doing the work of adults, capable of producing children of their own? They’re part of the population of children, not grown-ups.