In actuality, of course, much value transmission does occur through the air, not via magic or wishful thinking, but rather through the airwaves that transmit signals from television, radio, cell phones, and wireless connections to the internet. And the values that are transmitted via these airwaves are often a 15
distorted caricature reflecting the worst of American culture—and certainly a far cry from the values most parents would seek to inculcate within their homes. But the social vacuum in which large groups of adolescents live and interact is not just one of values, but also of meaningful activity. Social psychologists have long recognized that our values are often as likely to follow from our actions as to precede them (Bem, 1972). What is striking about adolescence as it currently plays out in our society is the near total absence of opportunities to engage in actions that truly contribute to others in society or even to have an impact within it. From this perspective, large numbers of adolescents are placed together with their peers in a vacuum not only lacking contact with adult values but also lacking opportunities to meaningfully engage in the larger society. One way to get a feel for the impact of this vacuum is to imagine as an adult engaging in one’s current job but being told that everything about the job was hypothetical. A teacher would be teaching only to a video-camera that recorded the teacher’s actions. Doctors would treat only actors with hypothetical illnesses. Mechanics would work only on mock-ups of real cars. Every 3 months or so, these workers would get feedback on their performance in the form of 5 letters printed on a piece of paper indicating how well they had done. And they would be told that this process would continue for 5 to 15 years, that they should learn as much as possible from it (though much would not be relevant to their ultimate work), and at the end of it the work they would then be allowed to do would be somewhat influenced by these letter grades. It is not difficult to speculate that under these conditions, many adults would be far less motivated and have far less positive values toward their work—or perhaps even toward the society which created this scenario for them. In some ways, the real situation that adolescents confront is even worse, as they must face a very similar enforced sequestration from meaningful work at the same time that they are reaching their absolute peak in terms of levels of physical energy and 16
intellectual processing speed. It is not accidental that in other periods of history, 15- to 20-year-olds could take on tremendously central roles in society, often commanding large armies and running governments (Barzun, 2000). Today, the only armies teens can command are on the screens of their video games and the passion they bring to these games is in all likelihood just an echo of the passion once brought to truly meaningful activities.
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