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Jordan Hartmann “Advocating for Adolescence”

Jordan Hartmann is a Media Arts major from Boise. He loves all aspects of audio and video production, including camera work, technical directing, and post-production. He hopes to go into a career behind the scenes in film or TV production, preferably in live TV broadcasting. When not studying, he enjoys making and watching videos, playing with his dogs, and tabletop gaming.

A manipulated image of the author with birds flying out od the side of his face.

Jordan Hartmann

Advocating for Adolescence

Kids these days! When they’re not partying, smoking weed, or having kids by the time they’re in high school, they’re so busy looking at their phones that they don’t even realize there’s a whole world outside of their Twitter feed! Or at least, that’s the picture we are usually presented in the media. But I don’t believe that the image we’re presented is an accurate one. Adolescents are actually much more intellectually capable than we tend to give them credit for, and it is important that we realize this when attempting to educate them. Pretending that adolescents are not able to think critically does them a disservice by negatively impacting the ways in which they are taught and advocated for.

Modern media has invented an image of adolescence that portrays teenagers as incompetent bags of raging hormones, to be contained and feebly directed until they finally reach “adulthood” and can begin making “real” decisions. Pamela Sissi Carroll points out:

Movies, television shows, and even thirty-second advertisements that portray teenagers as unintelligent dolts who are interested only in themselves, their looks, cars, music, or sex irritate me. If I were a teenager today… I would be insulted to know that the adults who create those media images portray me as having the manners of a muskrat and the intellectual curiosity of a rutabaga. (Carroll 121)

Teenagers are rarely portrayed as being intelligent, caring, or deliberate. In fact, the portrayal of adolescence prevalent in the media dehumanizes adolescents and causes adults to view them not as fellow complex human beings with less life experience, but rather as proto-adults who will eventually settle down and magically mature into a “proper” adult. This understanding of adolescence actually negatively impacts adolescents’ ability to gain that life experience and make impactful choices. As Lewis and Petrone state, “how adolescence is understood significantly affects the ways young people are advocated for/with, intervened on behalf of, and organized and taught in schools” (398).

Professors Mark Lewis and Robert Petrone discuss in their paper “‘Although Adolescence Need Not Be Violent…’: Preservice Teachers’ Connections Between ‘Adolescence’ and Literacy Curriculum” how impactful this manufactured image of adolescence is on adolescents’ education. They note that “these conceptions homogenized adolescents by denying their diversity and neglecting their personal histories, thus working to produce an ‘invented adolescent’ for these prospective teachers – one who is either an ‘uncivilized beast or as a disembodied hormonal surge’” (398). They argue that the concept of adolescence being a natural life stage is not a universal scientific truth, but a socially constructed image, and that an important aspect of adolescent literacy education is making known the systems of reasoning related to adolescence (399). They also reference Nancy Lesko’s argument, that “high schools both assume and reify dominant discourses of adolescence by maintaining an expectant mode for teenagers that keeps them forever young and renders them as incomplete, incompetent, and in need of help” (399). In other words, by propagating an image of adolescents as helpless, incompetent and child-like, high school (and in a broader sense, the media in general) actually helps ensure that adolescents will conform to that image. After all, if adolescents are thought to be unable to reason, or seek and listen to advice, then why should that advice be given in the first place?

This socially-constructed view of adolescents negatively impacts the education that adolescents receive. If teachers understand adolescence as a temporary period of pardonable hormone-fueled insanity, then they will not engage with their students or respect their intellectual capabilities. If, however, teachers understand adolescence as a time of identity formation and a time in which many dangerous situations are faced and dealt with, then teachers have a prime platform to actually make a significant difference in the lives of adolescents. One of the most important ways in which teachers can make this impact is through using fictional texts as vehicles for adolescent transformation and connection, using adolescents’ engagement with the texts to help them make sense of themselves as adolescents (Lewis 401).

Lewis and Petrone collected writings from a class taught by Lewis, in which preservice teachers read a selection of young adult and adult fiction, then used those books as foundations for building sample lesson plans and curricular units (400). One of the books chosen for this course is John Green’s Looking for Alaska.

Looking for Alaska tells the story of 16-year-old Miles Halter, who leaves his home in Florida in order to seek the “great perhaps” of Culver Creek, the Alabama boarding school his father attended. When he arrives, he befriends a group of pranksters led by his roommate, the Colonel, and Alaska Young, a smart and beautiful feminist. As the school year goes on, Miles develops an intense crush on Alaska, even though she already has a boyfriend, and even though it becomes evident that she has a troubled past and intense self-destructive urges (at one point, when asked why she smokes so much, Alaska responds “Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die”).

Looking for Alaska deals with many serious issues faced by adolescents. It features teens participating in underage drinking, smoking, and sex, and does so in a very frank and honest way. As a result, many parents are not comfortable with their children reading the book in school – According to the American Library Association, Looking for Alaska was the number 1 most challenged book of 2015, due to “offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group” (“Frequently Challenged Books”).

The passage which is most frequently cited when challenging the book begins when Lara, Miles’ girlfriend, asks him “Have you ever gotten a blow job?” (Green 126). She then places Miles’ penis in her mouth and lies there, stock-still, until both of them realize that they don’t know how to continue. They go to Alaska and ask how it is done, and after laughing at them, she demonstrates on a tube of toothpaste. They return to Miles’ room, where Lara successfully gives a blow job to Miles, and then they quickly and awkwardly return to doing homework.

The whole scene lasts about two pages. It is awkward, cold, and wholly unerotic. Both characters are obviously uncomfortable, and neither are entirely sure of what to do. The entire scene is described in very cold, clinical language, and only contains one adjective – “nervous”. (“On the Banning”). Green included the scene in order to serve as a contrast with the one which immediately follows, in which Miles kisses Alaska and feels her clothed breasts, but never goes any further (“I am Not a Pornographer”). This second scene ends with the words “We didn’t have sex. We never got naked. I never touched her bare breast, and her hands never got lower than my hips. It didn’t matter. As she slept, I whispered, ‘I love you, Alaska Young’” (Green 131). While the first scene has a lot of physical intimacy, it is emotionally very empty, and the next scene, while it doesn’t have the same physical interaction, has a much more intense emotional connection (“I am Not a Pornographer). Green himself says “The argument here is that physical intimacy can never stand in for emotional closeness, and that when teenagers attempt to conflate these ideas, it inevitably fails” (“I am Not a Pornographer”).

This scene is often read out of context and used to challenge the book, claiming that the sexual content is not appropriate for adolescent readers. Challengers of the book also cite its use of language, and scenes where the characters smoke and drink in excess. Challengers believe that Looking for Alaska, in presenting these scenes, is clearly advocating for teenagers to have sex, smoke cigarettes, and get so drunk that they puke. But when one reads the book in whole, one understands that the book is showing these examples in a negative light – showing how unfulfilling and destructive these things can be. As Green himself said:

It doesn’t take a deeply critical understanding of literature to realize that Looking for Alaska is arguing against vapid physical interactions, not for them… Some people are gonna say that kids don’t have the critical sophistication when they’re reading to understand that. And I have a message for those people: Shut up and stop condescending to teenagers! Do you seriously think that teenagers aren’t able to read critically? When they read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, do they head out to the pig farms to kill all the pigs because they’re about to become communist autocrats? When they read Huck Finn, do they think that Huck should turn Jim in because the demented conscience of the community says so? (“I am Not a Pornographer”)

And as he says in his 2016 video responding to Looking for Alaska being the most challenged book of 2015, “Teenagers are critically engaged and thoughtful readers. They do not read Looking for Alaska and think ‘I should go have some aggressively unerotic oral sex’” (“On the Banning”).

It is important for us to realize that adolescents are, in fact, very much able to read critically. It is the entire reason we have them read books like Animal Farm or The Great Gatsby. But adolescents can handle even more “risque” books, like Looking for Alaska. They understand that the author is presenting these activities not in an effort to encourage teens to participate in those activities, but to show the risks and consequences involved in them. Adolescence is a period filled with all sorts of dangerous situations and self-destructive urges. And if we hope to help adolescents face these situations, we need to respect their intellectual capabilities. By allowing teenagers to read this book, they are able to experience vicariously the consequences of short-term thinking, without having to actually go through those consequences themselves. This helps them develop their own set of ethics, and lets them have a framework to understand the impact of the choices they make. Allowing adolescents to engage in honest depictions of the pitfalls of adolescence helps them develop their own answers to the important questions they will face in life.

As Green says in an interview with Jayme Barkdoll in The English Journal:

People get upset about sex. I think that sexuality is an important facet of ethics. But too often sexual ethics become a stand-in for a comprehensive system of ethics. It is fine and good to say that you won’t (or will) have sex before you get married, but that’s not the most important question you’re going to have to answer in life. There are much more important, and more interesting, questions: What is the purpose of being alive, if there is one? … What is the role of suffering in the world? How do you respond to the radical injustice inherent to the human experience?

Telling a story that includes drinking, drug use, and sexuality can be a platform for discussion… To me, the significance of the drinking and the drugs is that these kids are experiencing self-destructive impulses (as so many teenagers do) and are trying to find ways to respond to those impulses… That’s what I find interesting as a discussion topic, not sex and drinking in and of themselves.

If we hope to prepare teenagers to be able to answer those important questions, it is imperative that we respect the cognitive capabilities of adolescents and allow them to read literature that allows them to raise and answer these questions. By treating adolescents as if they need to be sheltered from the world, or as if they are not yet developed enough to actually understand it, we completely disempower them. And by doing that, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the most we expect out of teenagers is for them to be hormonal, incompetent, helpless, and stupid – and when we attempt to stifle the opportunities given to those teens who don’t willingly accept those labels – then teenagers have no real option but to settle into the mold we have forced them into.

Adolescents have the same cognitive capabilities that you and I do – the only difference is that they have less life experience. To that end, it is critical that we allow them to gain that life experience, especially through reading books which present situations that they may not otherwise get to experience, or which present potential answers to important questions that they may face in life. If we expect adolescents to become well-rounded and learned members of society, the only way we can do that is to stop holding them back and treating them as though they are helpless.

Works Cited

Barkdoll, Jayme K., and Scherff Lisa. “”Literature Is Not a Cold, Dead Place”: An Interview with John Green.” The English Journal 97.3 (2008): 67-71. Web.

Carroll, Pamela Sissi. “Bold Books for Teenagers: Intelligent Choices for Intelligent Readers.” The English Journal 95.2 (2005): 121-24. Web.

“Frequently Challenged Books.” American Library Association, n.d. Web. 8 June 2016.

Green, John. Looking for Alaska: A Novel. New York: Dutton Children’s, 2005. Print.

Lewis, Mark A., and Petrone Robert. “”Although Adolescence Need Not Be Violent…”: Preservice Teachers’ Connections between “Adolescence” and Literacy Curriculum.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 53.5 (2010): 398-407. Web.

Vlogbrothers. “I Am Not A Pornographer.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 30 Jan 2008. Web. 8 June, 2016.

Vlogbrothers. “On the Banning of Looking for Alaska.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 12 Apr 2016. Web. 8 June, 2016.