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Inviting Youths to Claim the Power of Their Imaginations

Excerpt from Inviting Youths to Claim the Power of Their Imaginations


When we consider youth in the context of evolution, we know that the oldest fossil record of anatomically modern humans is the Omo remains that date to 195,000 years ago.  We reached full “behavioral modernity” around 35,000-50,000 years ago. For almost all of our tens of thousands of years as a sub-species, humans became adults once they reached puberty. Humans in the ages 13/14-19 lived as adults, worked as adults, had children, and took on all of the responsibilities of adults.        

While Hall coined the term “adolescence” in 1904, the first significant “adolescent” population did not appear in the United States and other industrial nations until the post-World War II baby boomers began to enter their teens in the late 1950s. In 1900 barely 10 percent of the 14-17-year-olds were enrolled in school, the key social marker of the teen ghetto lock-out between childhood and adulthood. During the next five decades school enrollment in this age group in the United States exploded from the atypical to the norm: to 31 percent in the 1920, 50 percent in 1930, 73 percent in 1940, 76 percent in 1950, and 87 percent in 1960. During these decades, “adolescence” evolved from an uncommon experience available mainly to the male children of the wealthy to the normative cultural experience for youths, male and female, in the United States. Other industrial, modernist nations have followed a similar trajectory of change.         

The key insight in these data is this: within our long history as a sub-species, “adolescence” is a startlingly new phenomenon—and it’s not surprising at all that we don’t know that much about its potentials.

What did adults do with these tens of millions of adolescents when they first appeared without warning? They sentenced them to 30+ hours each week in secondary schools plus more hours for homework, even though the paradigm of the academic high school had been created for a very different purpose and a much smaller fraction of the population. Adults excluded youths from most of adult life and, instead, dumped them into the age ghetto that quickly became youth culture, where they became easy targets for corporate manipulation.               

It’s not at all surprising that our initial social and cultural responses to the sudden appearance of tens of millions of youths were so misguided. The manifestation of “adolescence” on a mass scale was a radically new evolutionary step for homo sapiens. For the first time in our existence as a species, we had an opportunity for tens of millions of individual humans to explore and develop their human potential, to find their gifts and their callings, and to evolve into a much more complex and articulated consciousness. Right on schedule, the human potential movement—part psychology, part spirituality—emerged in the 1960s culture and began developing tools for this evolutionary step upward. At the very same time, spiritual teachers from Asia came to North America and western Europe in some numbers and began to teach the tools for evolving consciousness that are embedded in most Asian spiritual traditions. 

But the men with power—and they were almost all men—in our industrial society had no insight into either evolution or human development. They feared the human potential movement and ridiculed Asian spiritual traditions, and they fought to delegitimize these insights and destroy this initial evolutionary flowering. They worked hard in this campaign—and they are still working harder than ever—to keep youths in conventional, industrial-paradigm schools, youth culture ghettos, which block both the development and maturation of individuals and the evolution of the species. 

Every political, corporate, and educational leader who wants every youth to learn the same material at the same time as every other youth is an obstacle to the evolution of our species that our times demand.

So here we are now, three generations into “adolescence,” and as a culture we are ignoring or repressing this profound evolutionary possibility.  


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Learn more about David’s Marshak’s previous book on Evolutionary Parenting:


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