As I keep reading StrengthsFinder 2.0 and work through the assessment, I find myself once again pondering the ideas of Emerging Adulthood and identity explorations in teens. I went back and reread Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s chapter on “The Road Through College,” and I think this is where I have my biggest problem with the whole concept of emerging adulthood as a good thing. Here’s how Arnett describes the American system of higher education.
“College in the United States is for finding out what you want to do. Typically at four-year colleges, you have two years before you have to make a definite decision and declare a major. During those two years you can try out a variety of different possibilities by taking classes in areas you think you might want to major in. And even after you declare a major, you can always change your mind — and many emerging adults do.
“Their college meanderings are part of their identity explorations. In taking various classes and trying various potential college majors, they are trying to answer the question ‘What kind of job would really fit me best, given my abilities and interests?'” (118).
See, I have a problem with that. I don’t know of any college or university that would advertise themselves as a place for “meanderings” and “identity explorations.” As I’ve said in an earlier post, I don’t inherently mind the undeclared major, but I do mind when people are complacent about it. And, as Arnett demonstrates through both research statistics and multiple personal stories, students who take an unfocused approach to college often take five or six years to earn a “four-year” degree. In fact, that chapter is chock full of stories from young people that had no idea of what they wanted to study when they enter college, and so end up drifting from major to major, taking much longer than two years to settle on one, or ultimately dropping out because they weren’t prepared to make a decision and do the work. Despite all this, Arnett ends the chapter by praising the flexibility and freedom of the American higher education system, because he contrasts it with the European system, which asks students to make decisions at much younger ages and offers little opportunities for changing their minds. He says,
“It is difficult for me to believe that most people can know themselves well enough at the age of 14 or 15 to make a decision about what career path to follow for the rest of their lives…. Most people simply have not developed their identity well enough by that age to make a permanent decision about love and work.” (127)
While I agree that young people may not know themselves well enough to choose a major at age 14, I think 14 is a great age to begin the exploration process, given the right guidance. Because while they may not understand themselves well yet, teenagers are talented. The building blocks of potential strength are already in place. So why do they have to wait until their second year of college to discover them?
The problem is not the teen’s ability to develop an identity – the problem is an education system that doesn’t provide the right guidance to help the discovery take place. StrengthsFinder 2.0 describes a “strength” as a combination of talent (natural ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving) and investment (time spent practicing skills, and building knowledge base). We see this happen over and over in teen athletes, musicians, and artists. Combine a natural talent with the passionate investment of the adolescence, and teens accomplish amazing things. So why don’t we believe they can do the same thing with their own future careers?
ALL teenagers have this capacity in some field or another. It just hasn’t been discovered, tapped, and explored yet for some of them. What would happen if we teachers helped them find it? What would college look like for them? Would they spend two years meandering from subject to subject, or would they enter prepared and purpose-driven?