sunnydale-high-schoolWhile we’re on the subject of young people, Jennifer Senior’s “Why You Never Truly Leave High School” in New York Magazine is an absolute goldmine on the topic of identity. High school has long been understood as an incubator for identity formation, but it’s still fascinating to read about the research behind it, particularly why it makes for such a lousy incubator. Everyone knows that we bear the scars we receive during those years for a lifetime; to see them tracked and quantified is pretty scary. As if we needed another reminder of how identity can be a prison! (One is also reminded of this past Sunday’s lectionary reading, which had something to do with the release of captives…). Anyways, one of the key neurological findings that Senior shares is how adolescents have proven to be far less capable of dialing back their fear response than children or adults. Een-teresting in chicken and egg kind of way–Lord knows that the Law of Who We Should Be is never more palpable and fear-inspiring than during those four years, Freaks and Geeks being Exhibit A-Z. In fact, Senior wisely sought out FnG creator Paul Feig and Mbird fave Brene Brown for comment. Suffice it to say, the article draws out the tension between how we naturally think of identity–as something that’s in our power to create/control/earn–and the reality of it as something that is given, for better or (more often) for worse. A strong argument in favor of imputation, and a must-read for anyone who works with students (or former students), not to mention a great explanation for why I’ve been listening to Weezer all morning:

“If you’re interested in making sure kids learn a lot in school, yes, intervening in early childhood is the time to do it,” says Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist at Temple University and perhaps the country’s foremost researcher on adolescence. “But if you’re interested in how people become who they are, so much is going on in the adolescent years.”

It has long been known, for instance, that male earning potential correlates rather bluntly with height. But it was only in 2004 that a trio of economists thought to burrow a little deeper and discovered, based on a sample of thousands of white men in the U.S. and Britain, that it wasn’t adult height that seemed to affect their subjects’ wages; it was their height at 16… Our self-image from those years, in other words, is especially adhesive. So, too, are our preferences. “There’s no reason why, at the age of 60, I should still be listening to the Allman Brothers,” Steinberg says. “Yet no matter how old you are, the music you listen to for the rest of your life is probably what you listened to when you were an adolescent.” Only extremely recent advances in neuroscience have begun to help explain why.

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It turns out that just before adolescence, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-¬reflect—undergoes a huge flurry of activity, giving young adults the intellectual capacity to form an identity, to develop the notion of a self. Any cultural stimuli we are exposed to during puberty can, therefore, make more of an impression, because we’re now perceiving them discerningly and metacognitively as things to sweep into our self-concepts or reject (I am the kind of person who likes the Allman Brothers). “During times when your identity is in transition,” says Steinberg, “it’s possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability.”

One of the reasons that high schools may produce such peculiar value systems is precisely because the people there have little in common, except their ages. “These are people in a large box without any clear, predetermined way of sorting out status,” says Robert Faris, a sociologist at UC Davis who’s spent a lot of time studying high-school aggression. “There’s no natural connection between them.” Such a situation, in his view, is likely to reward aggression. Absent established hierarchies and power structures (apart from the privileges that naturally accrue from being an upperclassman), kids create them on their own, and what determines those hierarchies is often the crudest common-¬denominator stuff—looks, nice clothes, prowess in sports—¬rather than the subtleties of personality.

perksofbeingofawallflower-graduationThough adolescents may want nothing more than to be able to define themselves, they discover that high school is one of the hardest places to do it. At the time they experience the most social fear, they have the least control; at the time they’re most sensitive to the impressions of others, they’re plunked into an environment where it’s treacherously easy to be labeled and stuck on a shelf. “Shame,” says Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, “is all about unwanted identities and labels. And I would say that for 90 percent of the men and women I’ve interviewed, their unwanted identities and labels started during their tweens and teens.”

Shame, on the other hand, is a much more global, crippling sensation. Those who feel it aren’t energized by it but isolated. They feel unworthy of acceptance and fellowship; they labor under the impression that their awfulness is something to hide. “And this incredibly painful feeling that you’re not lovable or worthy of belonging?” asks Brown. “You’re navigating that feeling every day in high school.” Most of us, says Brown, opt for one of three strategies to cope with this pain. We move away from it, “by secret-keeping, by hiding”; we move toward it, “by people-pleasing”; or we move against it “by using shame and aggression to fight shame and aggression.” Whichever strategy we choose, she says, the odds are good we’ll use that strategy for life, and those feelings of shame will heave to the surface, unbidden and unannounced, in all sorts of unfortunate settings down the road.

One of [Faris’s] findings is obvious: The more concerned kids are with popularity, the more aggressive they are. But another finding isn’t: Kids become more vulnerable to aggression as their popularity increases, unless they’re at the very top of the status heap. “It’s social combat,” he explains. “Think about it: There’s not much instrumental value to gossiping about a wallflower. There’s value to gossiping about your rivals.” The higher kids climb, in other words, the more precariously balanced they feel, unless they’re standing on the square head of the totem pole. It therefore stands to reason that many popular kids don’t see themselves as popular, or at least feel less powerful than they loom. Their perch is too fragile.

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In 2005, the sociologist Koji Ueno looked at one of the largest samples of adolescents in the United States, and found that only 37 percent of their friendships were reciprocal—meaning that when respondents were asked to name their closest friends, the results were mutual only 37 percent of the time. One could argue that this heartbreaking statistic is just further proof that high school is a time of unrequited longings. But these statistics also suggest that teenagers cannot tell when they are being rejected (Hey, guys, wait for me!) or even accepted (I thought you hated me). So much of what they think they know about others’ opinions of them is plain wrong.

Robert Faris puts an even finer point on this idea. “If you put adults in a similar situation”—meaning airlifted into a giant building full of strangers with few common bonds—“you’d find similar behaviors.” Like reality television, for instance, in which people literally divide into tribes, form alliances, and vote one another off the island. “And I think you see it in nursing homes,” says Faris. “In small villages. And sometimes in book clubs.” And then I realized, having covered politics for many years: Congress, too. “It’s not adolescence that’s the problem,” insists Faris. “It’s the giant box of strangers.”

Maybe, perversely, we should be grateful that high school prepares us for this life. The isolation, the shame, the aggression from those years—all of it readies us to cope. But one also has to wonder whether high school is to blame; whether the worst of adult America looks like high school because it’s populated by people who went to high school in America. We’re recapitulating the ugly folkways of this institution, and reacting with the same reflexes, because that’s where we were trapped, and shaped, and misshaped, during some of our most vulnerable years.