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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.
Cottles latest book is a distinguished addition to the series. He brings to
the subject a lifetime working as a clinical psychologist, sociologist and
The background to the
book is that to-days 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 books 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 individuals
judgments, relationships, career choice and whole lifestyle is his best shot at
However, he is in something of a cleft stick for he openly acknowledges that a
cultures ideology largely moulds the adolescents 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
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 Baccalaureates 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
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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