The anthroposophical understanding of adolescence and the challenges of the early 21st century
The loss of control and the emotional turmoil that accompany puberty have long been thought to be caused by changes in hormone levels. During the last decade, focus shifted to maturational changes in the brain. Scientific data appear to not only provide an explanation for changes in teen behavior, they make it seem inevitable. Teens are thus granted dispensation for their rebellious or erratic behaviors and their chaotic maturational phase rationalized. Seldom does anyone, like the American psychologist Robert Epstein question this rationale and suggest that our civilization itself is responsible for the dramatization of this “state of emergency”:
“The discomfort that we observe today among adolescents is the result of an artificial extension of childhood beyond the beginning of puberty. In the course of the 20th century we have infantilized our young people by treating them like children and isolating them from adults.” (1)
Naturally, when explanations idealize the past in order to emphasize a contemporary problem, the essence of what is a noteworthy statement is in danger of being diminished by countering what appears to be a process of cultural decline through depictions of historical witnesses that show that the problem was always there: “Today young people love luxury. They have bad manners, disregard authority, they have no respect for older people, and are content to gossip when they should be working. Children contradict their parents, swagger about in society, gobble down the sweets at the table, cross their legs and terrorize their teachers.” (2)
This quote is attributed to the Greek philosopher Socrates (469 - 399 BCE) and seems to prove: The biographical transformation from childhood to adulthood with all its accompanying phenomena - emotional turmoil, boundary issues, rebellion, chaos, risk taking, irrationalism, distancing, search for identity, verbal outbreaks, experimental role play, forming cliques - challenges both adolescents and those around them to find ways to nurture peaceful forms of social interaction.
The philosopher Rebekka Reinhard described with empathy the underlying reasons for this transformation and new awakening:
“The young adolescent loses the ability to think in harmony with himself. Logic is buried by emotions, passions and ideals. One thinks with one’s heart during puberty in a way that has never happened before and will seldom happen again. Each of her thoughts is like a mythologically significant event roiling the depths of her soul: love, hate, anger, fear. The psychological intensity of the experienced thoughts can reach the point that it becomes destructive and descends into indifference. In other cases, it leads to remarkable insights…The young adolescent thinks and feels in the extreme, excessively, without limits, radically. The ideas are big, all-consuming: death, fame, wisdom, love, etc. He gets caught up in them and has to work them through, almost monomaniacally, to the last detail (or until they disappoint him or become boring). Only then is it possible to let them go and move onto the next great notion. […] Since these are uncorrectable positions, asking them “to be reasonable” is usually not helpful. We have to understand that the utter madness that separates the adolescent from the adult serves the process of discovering one’s identity.” (3)
The adolescent’s judgements and criticism ride on a substratum of existentially experienced feelings. The existential nature of this experience is both bodily and and idealistic. Thinking unfolds on the wings of emotion and extends, although it is naturally deeply subjective, far beyond the personal.
Against this background contemporary insights concerning adolescence, although marginalized by Epstein, are interesting in that they give rise to theses like : ”Puberty is the bioreactor for future-pointing innovation”. (4) Such statements seem to agree with Steiner’s position that social renewal arises in the process of individuation of each new generation. (5)
Research in the USA and Germany (6) revolutionized the view that the primary development of human brain was limited to childhood and that everything that followed simply refined what had been formed in the early years. In fact, through processes of neuronal growth and decay, the possibility of structural remodeling arises. These processes of transformation take place through the reductive specification of an excess of possibilities. By the sixth month of pregnancy some 100 billion neurons are produced, about half of which have died off four months after birth. On this foundation, during the next 12 years an inestimable number of synaptic connections are formed which comprise the so-called gray matter of the brain. The initial excess can be understood as the expression of open potentiality.
At 12 years of age another drastic metamorphosis occurs. Many of these neurons and their synaptic connections (up to 30,000 connections per second!) are pruned and during the entire phase of adolescence ‘white matter’ is eliminated. The “white matter” is formed through the myelination of synaptic connections between different area of the brain, which isolates these connections bringing about increased speed in the movement of nerve impulses as well as stabilizing them. The formation of this network is known as synaptogenesis. The capacity of the brain is increased over a short period by about 3000 times. This increase follows the principle “Use it or lose it”, which means that what is used is further refined and what is not used is eliminated. The brain goes through a process of specializing itself in relation to the activity of the individual. This process appears to culminate at around the age of 20, some researchers say 24.
To the extent that this is true, each sustained learning process is embodied in the neuronal organism or in the formation of the brain. This appears to be of pedagogical significance, because work and living habits are being re-structured at a time when personal self-management is at a low point. This aspect of pubescent transformation is marked by the loss of the neuronal connections established in childhood. The interplay between areas of the brain is going through a structural remodeling. The interplay between the areas of the brain which support intentional perception and movement is stabilized relatively quickly. Next come language and spatial orientation. The latter appears to remain unstable until interplay between the temporal lobes and the frontal lobes are stabilized. In concert with the adolescent growth spurt, this offers insight into the awkwardness, the lack of consciousness of their bodies’ boundaries, and the lack of fine motor skills often noticed in teenagers.
Restructuring the connections between those areas of the brain that support self-control, rational action, or mature self-responsibility takes the longest time (up to 20 years of age). In other words, neurologists view the missing connections between neuronal areas related to emotions and reason as the cause for the inability of teens to judge risks, for the lack of emotional control, and for the uncontrolled swings of emotions that are common in the middle of adolescence. (6) Since empathy is rooted in the interplay of the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex this also explains the inability of many young people to pick up on other people’s cues. What they lose is something that was natural as for them as children: the capacity to correctly identify the gestures and facial expressions of another person.
Naturally, neuronal remodeling must be seen in relationship with organic and hormonal changes. For instance, adolescent risk taking is not only due to a lack of impulse control and poor judgment, but also to the fact that roughly a third of the receptors for dopamine, the neurotransmitter of pleasure, are lost, which means that the it takes more of a kick to experience pleasure. Herein lies a danger: If, at an age at which the brain and the body’s motivational reward system is being restructured, behavior is focused on thrills and drug use, addictive structures are more easily established than as adults.
Changes in sleep habits, for instance the desire to sleep in, are also based on neuronal-hormonal processes. Melatonin, the hormone that makes us tired, is secreted some two hours later during adolescence. Adolescents go to sleep later and are inclined to sleep later in the morning.
Dawirs and Moll (7) point to the cultural significance of this characteristic new beginning in adolescence. In contrast to the higher animals, among which sexual maturity is the beginning of “adulthood”, because the animal has now established its behavioral patterns in its environment, with puberty the human being enters a phase of maximum disorientation. Puberty is not only the expression of sexual maturity, it brings about a process of emancipation from the socio-cultural environment that characterize childhood. Based on this the essential developmental challenges towards a new orientation, self-direction and individualization in adolescence become clear:
Dawirs characterizes puberty as an anthropological-cultural phenomenon, that he places alongside attaining uprightness, the emancipation of the arms and the hands, and language in its significance for the human being. He recognizes adolescence as the developmental phase during which members of the coming generation are initiated into the cultural knowledge of a society and thus become co-carriers of its cultural memory. In addition to the genetic stream, a cultural stream spanning the generations is established. (8) Because the human being does not simple grow into maturity and the capacity to reproduce through imitation, but rather through a process of somatic and neuronal transformation she has to find anew her relationship to herself and with her surroundings. In contrast to the animals she emancipates herself to some extent from the biological conditions of evolution. By having to grapple anew with cultural values and through the development of the capacity to reflect and think through the exercise of the forces of memory, the individual develops the requisite capacities to engage intentionally in the cultural context. One of the conditions that makes this possible is a space of cultural freedom that allows for individual creativity. To this extent Dawirs and Moll recognize this process of metamorphosis that also brings itself to expression in neuronal restructuring as an principle of human evolution. It only because cultural norms are not inherited but rather adapted on the basis of reflection that renewal or “future-oriented innovation” (9) is possible.
This is most apparent in societies that are based on individuation rather than collective consciousness. In cultures that are more or less closed systems with a collective consciousness puberty and the transformative processes that accompany it flow into forms of initiation into the collective wisdom of the society. A child enters adult society when he or she becomes sexually mature. This transition from childhood into adulthood essentially changed first with the development of European/American society towards the end of the 19th century. The complex challenges posed by the modern industrial and service oriented civilization can no longer be met simply by having children follow in the footsteps of their parents. Children need more space to develop potential abilities and insights to be able to place themselves in the rapidly changing societal conditions. Only in the 20th century did we discover the period of youth to be a potential phase of development. (10)
Depending on which societal concept is operative, the sense of awakening, potentiality, enthusiasm, and idealism is either instrumentalized in a totalitarian youth culture or organized as a space for individual development and experience. As societal change led to the dissolution of fixed expectations of socialization, collective rites of initiation that with their cultural variations accompanied the transition from childhood to adulthood also disappeared. At present, in western civilization adolescence is seen as a period of self-experience and individualization in a context of a testing of oneself. In reality two factors stand in opposition to this:
Adolescent orientation in the industrialized countries is to a great extent commercialized through an ever increasing focus on consumerism. Adolescents are seen as a profit potential and at the same time the adolescent is enticed to exercise her skills as a consumer. The scaffolding of traditional forms of socialization through cultural roles has disappeared. This has been replaced by the a focus on competitiveness.
Individual self-discovery and the initiation to one self thus confront addictive consumerism and the pressure from outside to compete and find a job. The latter pressure is based on an understanding of competition rooted in neoliberalism or darwinism and permeates modern adolescent education and culture. Against this background Epstein’s position that the freedom of today’s adolescents is a form of societal decadence reveals itself to be the continuance of traditional thought:
“Isolated from adults and wrongly treated like children, it is no wonder that some teens behave, by adult standards, recklessly or irresponsibly. […] What they lack is not the opportunity to do what they like when they like it - but the opportunity to take responsibility and prove themselves in society.” (11)
There is no doubt that Epstein is correct when he says that adolescents need to develop their sense of identity in the concrete encounter with life. If however we understand the developmental space between childhood and adulthood that is attained step by step through cultural evolution - an epigenetic process - as a decisive precondition for self-realization and a healthy social future, we will do as little as possible to close this space but recognize it as a chance for productive individuation. The developmental challenges that accompany it must be met through an approach to education that is rooted in respect for the individual being of the growing child and the intentions of the adolescent and strives to nurture their embodiment in the world in manifold ways.
Rebekka Reinhard suggests that an approach, which recognizes adolescence as a opportunity for individuation and can in this sense affirm the accompanying turbulence and questioning has an innovative effect on the existing culture as well as the adult bearers of the cultural impulse: “What is incomplete and still in the process of transformation in the adolescent serves to cleanse the adults of their dis-attachment. In fact: It challenges adults to re-think their relationship to the world. (12) She recommends: “The adult needs to preserve his or her own inner adolescence.”
Translated by Jon McAlice
Michael Zech, Dr., Professor of Cultural Studies and their Didactics at the Alanus University for Art and Society in Bonn/ Alfter, Germany. National and international lecturer in Waldorf Education, History and Literature since 1992. Since 2006, he has been leading the teacher training seminar for Waldorf Education in Kassel/Germany. Research and publications in the fields of Waldorf education and didactics, in particular didactics of history.
(1) Epstein, Robert (2009): Der Mythos vom Teenager-Gehirn. In: Gehirn und Geist, Serie Kindesentwicklung NR. 4, P. 41 – 42
(2) Socrates (470 - 399 BCE)
(3) Reinhard, Rebekka (2016): Pickel, Negation und Setzung. Fünf Thesen zur Pubertät. In: Hohe Luft. Philosophie-Zeitschrift 2-2016, P. 61
(4) Dawirs, Ralph/Moll, Gunther (2011): Endlich in der Pubertät: Vom Sinn der Wilden Jahre. Weinheim, Basel: Beltz
(5) Steiner, Rudolf (GA 24): The renewal of the social organism, Spring Valley, N.Y, London: Anthroposophic Press, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1985
(6) Giedd, Jay et al. (1999): Brain Development During Childhood and Adolescence. A Longitudinal MRI Study. In: Nature Neuroscience 2 (10), P. 861 - 863; Koch, Julia: Rätsel Pubertät. Nebel hinter der Stirn. In: Spiegel Wissen 2/2010: Die Pubertät, P. 20/21
(7) Dawirs, Ralph/Moll, Gunther (2011): Endlich in der Pubertät: Vom Sinn der Wilden Jahre. Weinheim, Basel: Beltz
(8) ibid., P. 123 – 132
(9) ibid., P. 147
(10) Wiehl, Angelika (2017): Jugendpädagogik in der Waldorfschule, Pädagogische Forschungsstelle beim Bund der Freien Waldorfschulen
(11) Epstein, Robert (2009): Der Mythos vom Teenager-Gehirn. In: Gehirn und Geist, Serie Kindesentwicklung NR. 4, P. 41 – 42
(12) Reinhard, Rebekka (2016): Pickel, Negation und Setzung. Fünf Thesen zur Pubertät. In: Hohe Luft. Philosophie-Zeitschrift 2-2016, P. 62