Semester six of eight, coming up tomorrow.
It’s an extension of childhood, really. Childhood is that period of an animal’s life where it’s dedicated to becoming. It learns, through lessons and play, the skills which it needs to be an adult of its species.
But we’ve fiddled with the script. Because what the animal needs to do, as an adult, is survive, reproduce and nurture. And having a long childhood – if you’ve got conditions which allow you to safeguard it – is a great idea for this. It allows the development of more complex skills, deeper relationships, greater knowledge. Which is why we’ve evolved to have such long childhoods. What – twelve, thirteen, fourteen years? A dog lives its life in that kind of span. A cat reaches senility. A fly is relentlessly reincarnated.
But then, juvenility-junkies that we are, we take it too far. Extending childhood beyond sexual maturity? What’s the earthly point in that? Let’s peg fourteen, conservatively, as reproduction age. By fourteen, you’re pretty bright. Certainly bright enough to survive: seek our natural prey (Tesco), hunt it (work), and avoid our species’ major predators (bears, falling anvils, Anthony Hopkins). So you can survive, you can presumably hold a baby the right way up, and as Jeremy Kyle will attest, you can reproduce. You are, under the precepts of animalia, an adult.
Yet we’re not content with this. We extend education (childhood) to a minimum of sixteen years. By we, I mean the British school system here, and I believe the school systems of much of the first-world. Tribal communities around the world may have much younger adult-thresholds, and so obviously we regard them as primitive, because that helps us get over our lingering suspicion that they might be doing things properly.
So, sixteen. Let’s bypass the argument for a minute and assume that that’s sensible. A nice safety net, to make sure everyone’s caught up, and that even the slow developers are primed and ready to litter the world with their bawling progeny.
Thus prepared to go out and be, we—many of us—don’t. We stay on at school, and then we take things to the point of parody by chasing the stick further than it was even thrown. We go into higher education. And those who don’t, who take the world as it is and start behaving like evolution suggests, are looked at with a mixture of scorn and pity. Teenage parents? Little better than scum, really, aren’t they? Behaving like animals.
Maybe it’s because we are the noblest of animals (hyperion to a satyr, how infinite in faculty, paragon of, yes, we know, enough Shakespeare, get on with it). Maybe it’s those higher human instincts that John Stuart Mill went on about in Utilitarianism. I don’t have my copy in this country so I can’t check the wording, but effectively he argues that we gain greater satisfaction from high-minded, noble things which exercise our humanity (appreciating art, I guess? Loving thy neighbour, making Airfix planes, complaining about BBC3) than in following our base, animal side. I’ll confess I’ve always seen this as a weak passage (in an utterly brilliant work), but then I did think that while sitting and reading a work of 200-year old philosophy to no obvious benefit to my survival, child-raising or reproductive instincts, so maybe there’s a germ of truth involved.
In which case, I can skip merrily off back to university smugly knowing that I’m bettering my ill-defined higher human instincts – and given that, once I’ve finished this ramble, that’s exactly what I’m going to do, we should really just call it quits here and go find some art to appreciate. But perspective is a valuable thing, and I don’t think I can in all conscience return to my oh-so-elongated childhood without acknowledging that it’s all a bit silly, at least.
Because it is. Now I went straight from school to uni, and let’s assume for a moment that I don’t do postgraduate childh study. Even then, I’ll be 22 by the time I walk out of education – which, if you accept the childhood/education link (which you should, because otherwise reading this has been even sillier as a use of your time), equates to finally walking through the door marked “mature specimen of Homo Sapiens Sapiens”. And that’s, what, a quarter of the way into my potential lifespan? A bit more? Let’s go back to dogs: call ‘em a puppy for a year, and say they live to fifteen. While we (I) spend 25% of my existence—quite unnecessarily—learning how to be what I am, they call time on childhood somewhere before the 7% mark, and spend a good ninety-three per cent of their life romping around as a fully fulfilled…thing.
The paragon of animals, indeed. So infinite, so infinite in faculty. But undeniably, inherently…silly.
And now, I have some readings to do. Because next week, I’m going back to class.