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Chapter Nine: Adolescence and Education

Section 4: Identity Formation



Hula Dance by Island Moves to the music of Kapalaikiko at Polynesian Festival, Santa Cruz Wharf, August 23, 1998. Anson, Kaui and Miss Kahaku.


One's identity is constantly being formed and reformed throughout life. Yet, because the adolescent has experienced and is experiencing radical physical, psychological and cognitive changes which allow one to consider society, the future and ideals, one is challenged to develop a conception of who one is relative to all this. No longer a child, but not yet ready to enter the adult world (in Western societies), the adolescent is provided with what Erik Erikson calls a "moratorium" to explore oneself and one's relation to society. The adolescent is faced with impending commitments to lifestyles, careers, and marriages. One of the reasons that adolescent love involves so much talk- is that the couples are helping each other to get to know themselves.


In many primitive cultures adolescence is not a stage. The transition from childhood to adulthood is made in short order and is often marked by dramatic rituals. The society determines the identity of the new adult, so the "identity crisis" is a culture-bound phenomenon. However, some dramatic break from tradition is desirable in a changing society to facilitate the evolution of ideas and values in the society. Whether the break has to be as dramatic and wrenching as it is with many American youth is doubtful. Japan seems to be progressing with less adolescent stress. The difference may be due to the fact that Japanese treat their children more like adults all along. Thus, the transitions are more gradual, and since the Japanese children are less dependent to begin with, the shift to independence is less violent.


According to Erikson, the danger at this stage is role diffusion -- the inability to pull together a coherent identity. This can lead to "dropping out" and immersing oneself in superficial identities and pleasures. To combat the threat of loss of self, adolescents often form tight-knit peer groups, which act as a substitute for an individual identity. One takes on the characteristics of the group in order to belong and in order to prop up one's sense of self.


Because identities are insecure, the pressure for conformity is very great. There is a tendency for adolescents to be very intolerant of others. This suggests that progress in accepting differences and other cross-cultural goals may be hard to achieve at this time. However, if the population is culturally diverse from early childhood, perhaps the identities will draw from several cultures, breaking down some of the barriers of the adult world.


Influencing identity formation through education faces several obstacles. The adolescent is often so overcome by the power of one's emerging abstract thought that one begins to expect reality to conform to theory rather than vice versa. When the world fails to conform to the beautiful images created by the unleashed adolescent imagination, there is a tendency to blame some evil forces rather than the inexactitude of one's understanding of human nature. Often the target of blame is "the establishment" since it is in power. Psychodynamically, hostility toward the establishment and other authority is connected to one's rejection of one's parents and the feelings of dependency one feels toward them. These factors, connected with the general intolerance of identity-seeking adolescents, make adult intervention into the identity formation process precarious at best. Again, the Japanese approach, with its smoother transitions, may provide some solutions. The trade-offs of each system beg for further examination.






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