When does a boy become a man or a girl become a woman?
Indulge me the idealism for a moment to believe that the primary purpose of all education, formal and informal, is to facilitate the metamorphosis into adulthood. We can define adult by the way we make choices and the cultural expectations upon the way we make choices. The ways of the child are abandoned for the ways of the man or woman.
Education, then, is a process of helping young people learn how to make adult choices. Here rises the specter of our American education model, the curriculum metaphor. We picture education as a racecourse (as for chariots called curricles), a specific, defined, and rigid path over which students compete. The design of the racecourse is called pedagogy, named for the slaves who walked the students to school. We attempt to teach children how to make decisions by making their decisions for them.
Is it different at home? Yes, it usually is. Many parents work very hard to encourage children to make decisions within constraints. Very good. Others abdicate and allow children to make far too many decisions, learning only by trial and error.
Between the two, out “there” where adolescents learn way too much way too soon, our culture abandons them. Try watching TV again, or going to the mall, the movies, or (if you dare) a youth party.
There are many ways of making choices: Religious doctrine, ideological dogma, Divine inspiration, gang persuasion, methods of science, critical thinking, etc. One way or another, every boy decides what rules of manhood he will adopt, and every girl chooses her own rules of womanhood. Our cultural problem is we rarely give them a deadline for making that choice. Even worse, we seldom give them recognition for actually choosing. We ignore rites of passage.
I would like to step back to share a bit of personal theory. I believe we experience many phases of development rather than just the two. Childhood is not the first, and adulthood is not the last. Furthermore, there are several different forms of adulthood, several different life paths, each demanding specific ways of making choices. Teachers, soldiers, priests, and farmers do not (cannot, safely) use the same techniques for deciding actions. If we find ourselves on a path where our personal style of choosing fits the demands of our path, we are fortunate. If not, we probably made a bad choice of path—unless we learn something valuable.
This theory also includes the observation that as individuals approach a transition, they seem to move into a necessary, although annoying, egocentric phase. They seem to think mainly of themselves as they move through their own process of choosing or becoming the new person in the new stage of development. Terrible twos and puberty are two. Menopause and retirement are two more. I have also noticed the high school senior year and whatever year in college a major is actually chosen. Several occur in adulthood.
This is why rites of passage such as Confirmation and graduation are so important, not as celebrations of something completed, but as acknowledgment of a metamorphosis similar to a rebirth. The rites are for the observers so that we look at the individual in new ways fitting her/his new identity. We must change our expectations. I believe we need a whole lot more rites of passage.
There are times when major choices have to be made. 1968 was one of mine. I was in my last semester at UW, accepted into Graduate School, and already employed by a professor. I quit to join the Army—dropped out of school and raised my hand. I was liberal even then, rather anti-military, but totally
committed to democracy as a way of governing, and my government was calling me.
That was a very difficult choice, but not my toughest one.
After I was sworn in and all my tests completed, I gave up my guaranteed enlistment option as a Chemical Staff Specialist and chose a path to become an Infantry Officer even though I knew it meant a tour in Vietnam. I still wonder why I did that, but it was not my toughest choice.
When I completed Infantry Officer Candidate School and before I went on to Airborne School and Special Forces Officer Training, I had to make one more big choice. I could not raise my hand and swear in as an officer until I knew I could do what I would be telling others to do. The most difficult choice of my life was not made in Vietnam but at Fort Benning, Georgia, when I made the personal commitment to killing another human being.