• U.S.

The Boys and the Bees

4 minute read
Lance Morrow

We have installed two colonies of Italian bees in a clearing beyond the apple orchard. They have settled into the hives, and, with a single-mindedness that is funny and impressive, go about the business of their miraculous, strange little universe. I watch them with almost parental affection–the buzzing, teeming clockwork, the workers cleaning cells, guarding the front door, foraging for nectar; the short, fat drones, fatherless and stingless and indolent, swaggering about, hoping to get lucky with a virgin queen.

The analogies between keeping bees and raising adolescents are interesting. Both form highly developed societies that seem an alienated parody of our own. In both we glimpse, through the looking glass, intricate social lives and blind cruelty, the tendency to swarm occasionally, the secret language of waggle dances, the cliques, the stings, the feckless love lives of the drones.

One difference is that bees in the hive are ruthlessly serious about work–even, in a daffy Darwinian way, the drones, which, in any case, pay dearly for their sexual pleasures. They die as they ejaculate, killed by the queen, who merely requires their sperm. Their function fulfilled, they die. In the human hive, the drones carry condoms in their wallets. Bees do their jobs; if they do not, the whole outfit dies. From birth, bees are very serious about being bees.

Humans, on the other hand, have turned the long stretch from puberty to autonomy into a suspended state of simultaneous overindulgence and neglect. American adolescence tends to be disconnected from the adult world and from the functioning expectation (the hope, the obligation) of entering that world and assuming a responsible place there. The word adolescence means, literally, growing up. No growing up occurs if there is nothing to grow up to. Without the adult connection, adolescence becomes a neverland, a Mall of Lost Children.

In an op-ed article in the New York Times last week, Bard College president Leon Botstein had this suggestion: “The American high school is obsolete and should be abolished.” It’s a thought. As Botstein says, “At 16, young Americans are prepared to be taken seriously… They need to enter a world where they are not in a lunchroom with only their peers.”

Maybe we should abolish adolescence altogether. Not the biological part, of course–the turbulent growth spurt and mental/physical/social adaptation. We are stuck with that. But it would be nice if we could get rid of the cultural mess we have made of the teenage years. Having deprived children of an innocent childhood, the least we could do is rescue them from an adolescence corrupted by every sleazy, violent and commercially lucrative fantasy that untrammeled adult venality, high-horsing on the First Amendment, can conceive.

Our deeper trouble should be sought at sources that lie upriver, a generation in the past. Abolish adolescence? We should have thought of that 30 or 35 years ago and terminated what became the prolonged adolescence of the baby boomers. The grownups in charge in the ’60s lost control of American society. The moral center of gravity shifted from middle-aged authority to youthful impulse. So did the commercial center of gravity: the boomers were a gold mine. Now we live in an enduring vacuum of grownups, taken from us in the way that blight obliterated the American elm.

We struggle, wistfully, to re-create some vanished adult faculty of judgment, remembering bits and pieces of commonplace old wisdom as we go (insights such as this: maybe kids need supervision). Robert Bly had it right: “Adults regress toward adolescence; and adolescents–seeing that–have no desire to become adults.” We defined adulthood down.

I think of Bill Clinton, who came out of a ’50s world and as a teenager had enthusiastic, precocious relations with grownups. But oddly, he stayed a precocious boy. His entire life has been a dramatization of the grownup problem. His struggle to become an adult has played before the world in excruciating detail. The other day I took The Catcher in the Rye up to the edge of the bee yard and sat reading it for the first time in 35 years. J.D. Salinger’s book, published in 1951, is one of the founding documents of American adolescence, I guess–and an early source of the baby boom’s self-image of sanctified youth. I was startled to find an exchange I had forgotten. Holden Caulfield, being expelled from prep school, is wearing a long-billed red hat. A pimply kid named Ackley jeers at it, saying it’s a “deer shooting hat.” “Like hell it is,” Holden replies. He squints, as if taking aim. “This is a people shooting hat. I shoot people in it.” Holden is kidding, of course.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com