New Age for Coming of Age
There are longstanding cultural assumptions in the United States that adolescent coming of age is fraught with difficulties and that public high schools often do not go far enough to ensure smooth passages to adulthood. It was Margaret Mead (1928) who popularized the belief that American teenagers go through an especially turbulent period of “storm and stress” made worse by a culture “woven of so many diverse strands [and] numerous contradictions [that young people confront] a confusing world of dazzling choices” (p. 204). She was quite pointed in her criticism of high schools for failing to transmit cultural certainties to young people who are uncertain about how to adjust to adult life.
The assumptions remained, prompting another anthropologist, Robert Redfield, many years later, to pose the question “What should education in the United States do in order to enrich the human potential of every single individual and to allow each person to achieve the good life?” (1963, p. 71). The query challenged educational anthropologists to explore the cultural development of children and youths more thoroughly and to think about how schools might do a better job of facilitating cultural processes that nurture individual potentials and create genuine opportunities for young people to live good, meaningful lives.
Now, at the beginning of a new millennium, adolescent passages to adulthood are just as perplexing and, some are convinced, much more troubling. There is growing concern that public high schools, especially those in impoverished urban areas, are less than effective in their original mission to provide some kind of a common cultural grounding for young people with widely diverse backgrounds. The question Redfield asked has