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Mind FieldsReview - Mind Fields
Adolescent Consciousness in a Culture of Distraction
by Thomas J. Cottle
Peter Lang Publishing, 2001
Review by Kevin M. Purday
Sep 17th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 38)

            This book is number sixteen in the Adolescent Cultures, School and Society series. This series has an overtly ideological aim, which is to study every aspect of adolescent life in all cultures, to look at the problems faced by adolescents, especially in post-industrial societies, and to address the issues in a way that is free of the constraints that contemporary orthodox conservatism would like to impose. The approach of authors contributing to the series is deliberately interdisciplinary, melding together insights from psychology, anthropology, sociology, etc. Thomas J. Cottle’s latest book is a distinguished addition to the series. He brings to the subject a lifetime working as a clinical psychologist, sociologist and educator.

            The background to the book is that to-day’s adolescents are so bombarded with data, surrounded by gizmos, inundated with invitations to buy (“When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping”!!), swamped with visual images of actors, athletes and other ‘famous’ people, that adolescents are not given the opportunity to spend time quietly reflecting. Cottle maintains that without the time to enter their own innermost caves, as he puts it, and to discover who they are, adolescents are going to grow up into adults who will have no secure basis for their own being, who will fail in their intimate relationships with others and who will become pond skaters skimming the surface of life. The book’s title refers to the areas of inner life which the adolescent must explore while the sub-title refers to the bombardment which would prevent her/him from doing so.

            The ideological slant of the book becomes apparent when the author admits that the American consumerist society is extremely happy to have its adolescents permanently distracted by ever-changing fashions, rapid developments in technology and all the other factors which make up the whirl of materialistic demand. Permanently distracted, adolescents are going to fall easy prey to clever marketing. Cottle is sincerely and desperately concerned to find a way out of the superficiality that such a society would impose. A plea for reflective thought which will bear fruit in an individual’s judgments, relationships, career choice and whole lifestyle is his best shot at an answer. However, he is in something of a cleft stick for he openly acknowledges that a culture’s ideology largely moulds the adolescent’s perceptions: “Thinking is shaped in great measure by the world in which adolescents reside.” (p.203) If that is the case, how does the adolescent swim against the flow and carve out the time for serious reflection? His solution appears rather like the answer imposed by a god at the end of a Greek play dealing with an intractable problem. Only three pages after the above quotation he states vis-à-vis adolescents that “… a culture – its values and belief systems and, ultimately, its history and ideology – has no more power to shape their thoughts and actions than they themselves through (self-reflective) thought and action have the power to shape these very same values and ideologies, this very same history.” (p.206) In other words, he both accepts that culture largely moulds the individual and that the individual can resist this moulding. This is the central tension within this book.

            Those who have studied social anthropology know that pre-industrial societies, when left free to do so, tend to nurture their young very carefully. They try to ensure that they are open to benign influence and protected from malign. Rites of passage are then frequently used to initiate adolescents into full adult membership of the group along with all its norms and mores. Applying this scenario to American society, many people, like Cottle, are going to be worried that the apparent need of a democracy for well-educated, thoughtful, caring, moral and principled citizens is flatly contradicted in practice by the overpowering demands of consumerism. The latter leads to paper qualifications without genuine achievement, mindless behaviour, selfishness and citizens who believe that the only true principle in life is not to be found out. We see this on our televisions and read it in our newspapers every day. Cottle is absolutely right to be concerned. He is also right that time and opportunity for self-reflection and thought about our relationships with one another and with the natural world are essential. This is in tune with the philosophy that underlies the International Baccalaureate’s insistence on a critical thinking course as part of its 16 – 18 diploma course that is offered in so many good American schools. It was the idea that lay behind the introduction of philosophy courses in many American city high schools. It is also why the French gave philosophy pride of place in their educational system for so long. The weakest point in his argument is precisely the problem as to how feasible it is for an individual to resist the distracting demands and to go caving or meta, as he sometimes describes it. Does there not need to be a social/educational framework to encourage and support the process? It is easy to point out this weakness but, short of that cultural shift, has anyone got a better suggestion?

 

© 2002 Kevin M. Purday                      

Kevin M. Purday teaches at Worthing Sixth Form College, in the UK, and is currently a distance-learning student on the Philosophy & Ethics of Mental Health course in the Philosophy Dept. at the University of Warwick.


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