Culture, Identity, Adulthood

Reprinted from the Liberty Valley School (LVS) Journal

For some time now I have been thinking about a bunch of questions that turn out to be related to each other. Here are some of the questions, in no particular order: Why is it so rare these days for my life to be deeply affected by a book, movie, song, or artwork? Why is the bulk of our commercial culture directed at people under the age of 24? Why do the kids at LVS (and other Sudbury schools) spend such an enormous amount of time doing art, listening to music, playing games, reading books, and discussing movies?

I think it is fair to say that the more resolved your cultural identity, the less you need culture. When I was young, the music of the Beatles was so much more than a collection of songs – it was a vision of what life could be. When I was 17, Elvis Costello and the Punk Rock movement told me what to do with my broken heart, my cynicism, and my shattered ideals. After movies, I remember actually spending time thinking about the characters and their decisions as if something important in the real world was riding on it.

Once I was in my 20's, I kept listening and watching, but since I was living my life the way I wanted to live it, I no longer had anything big at stake in the way a song or a movie turned out. Directors and composers were just other people muddling through.

When you are young, especially when you are on the brink of adulthood, a teenager, the all-important question is what kind of a life you want when you grow up. You search for the attitudes of, and about, a thousand different archetypes; Grifter, Honest Dealer, Punk, Badass, Nice Guy, Cop, Priest, Champion, Sucker. Each one of us is a complex mix of all of this and more. Bits and pieces that we saw and liked, things we identified with. A bit of John Lennon's idealism, a bit of Monty Python's sense of discontinuity, and suddenly, you have sorted out the missing pieces of your world view.

Yet how little credit the average kid gets for his/her dedication to a favorite band/actor/author. Kids who supposedly have difficulty with focus and discipline will memorize the lyrics to hundreds of songs and discuss the meaning of their content at great length. One of the odd defining characteristics of youth culture since the birth of rock and roll is that part of its legitimacy for kids is that your parents hate it. On the one hand it refutes and expresses discontent with the established culture; on the other hand, it is a tool for building your identity in that same culture. Parents have been equally upset by Elvis Presley, Death Metal, and Marilyn Manson over the years. Kids have to embrace what makes their generation distinct. In many ways the world they are entering is fundamentally different than the world their parents grew up in. My parents did not have TV. I did not have the Internet. Like most people, I tend to underrate or ignore that which I do not understand, but the time that young people spend in the culture that defines their world view is crucial. Most adults seem to have all but forgotten their own long search for identity via culture. But think about it; how many of the most important books, movies, songs, thoughts, did you have before the age of 25? At LVS, kids have their priorities straight, and that is why they spend so much time watching, creating, and discussing culture.

The views expressed on this page are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Sudbury Valley School.