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Explaining the Peter Pan Complex

Have you ever wondered why there seem to be so many adults who seem to be, well, immature? A new scientific theory purports to explain this. Bruce Charlton, a biologist at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, suggests that today’s society places a premium on flexibility. Ours is a mobile culture on which people may change jobs, and even careers, multiple times in their lives. This means learning new skills, adapting to new locations (workplaces, cities, or even countries), and making new friends.

A “child-like flexibility of attitudes, behaviors and knowledge” is probably adaptive to the increased instability of the modern world, Charlton believes. Formal education now extends well past physical maturity, leaving students with minds that are, he said, “unfinished.”

But along with the virtues of childhood come its vices:

"People such as academics, teachers, scientists and many other professionals are often strikingly immature outside of their strictly specialist competence in the sense of being unpredictable, unbalanced in priorities, and tending to overreact.”

Come to think of it, this might explain why I get along so well with my pre-teen nephews.

Discussions - 11 Comments

A very curious thing about this phenomenon is those who are often most afflicted with the inability to function outside their chosen area of competency - teachers and scientists, for example - have also been among the best at insulated themselves from the unpredictability that most of the rest of us have to face. For instance, outside of academia, where else in the modern business world do you see a system equivalent to tenure? The closest thing now is civil service and even that has become less of a guarantee than it once was. Perhaps, part of the immaturity one encounters in these groups is the fact that they are protected from, and naturally resistent to, the dynamics of change that most other people have to face on a daily basis.

This explains the "adult ADD" phenomenon, doesn’t it? I have been surprised by the number of adults who complian that they have that. And if the fast-paced society, instability of the modern world, vast quantities of input, makes adults unstable, perhaps this explains even the apparently increasing pool of children with ADD issues as well. Is it not true that in familes where the parents turn off the TV and even eliminate it, also limit computer gaming, children with ADD may not need the drugs to calm them? I embrace this because it worked in my family. Calming the level and volume of input has a very good effect on children. Also, children, boys especially, just need to hop about when there is a lot going on, and giving them time and space to do so just makes sense. Schools do not do that anymore, which is a pity.

There’s a class action in progress called Tay Karamee v. D. L. Widit Yousef.

It also explains Bush’s foreign policy...(just kidding). In all seriousness though, it certainly explains the partisan bickering in Congress....

A very curious thing about this phenomenon is those who are often most afflicted with the inability to function outside their chosen area of competency - teachers and scientists, for example - have also been among the best at insulated themselves from the unpredictability that most of the rest of us have to face.

Sure, tenure insulates those who have it, but what is often overlooked by those outside academia is how it adds to the unpredictability and insecurity of life for those who don’t have it. Between 1995, when I received my PhD, and this year, when I finally received tenure, I had four different jobs (only two of which were teaching positions) in four different cities. I hardly feel as though I was "insulated" from the pressures of the marketplace.

Congratulations on attaining tenure Professor Moser. Well-deserved. Sounds as though the history department at Ashland is starting to make some good decisions.

Thanks, Fred--that’s very kind of you.

The way it’s described, I vote for neoteny. What is adulthood...having an outlook on life that has the allure of a worn-out pair of brown shoes?

How’s this for a counter-theory. In the past people had so little control over their lives that they tended towards fatalism, meaning that they accepted their lot in life with a minimum of complaint. As control over our lives has increased...through better medicine, nutrition, and the choices allowed by affluence...we become a society of very flexible people with a tendency to 1) become enthusiastic over change, and 2) whine a lot when things don’t go right. Why? Well, increasingly we live in worlds that are governed by the social rather than the physical. Whining is an appeal to the "powers" that can change things for the better.

I guess this may be similar to what the researcher is saying...but I wouldn’t put a great value on "adulthood." Basically "growing up" is trying to make lemons less sour by habituation...oh joy.

What we call "modernity" seems to be predicated on the sentiments of childishness. For instance, Adam Smith departs from the traditional "admiratio" literature by having surprise constituent admiration. What is old cannot be admired.

Professor Moser, regarding comment 5, I’m not sure if it addresses the point I was trying to make. The post makes a generalization about the attitude and behavior of the members of certain professions. I was simply offering the idea that tenure contributes to that behavior. It seems to me that your experience as an untenured professor is not inconsistent with my proposition. After all, I hypothesized that tenure, not the lack of it, is what contributes to insularity among academics.

In addition, I would also propose that your experience of having 4 different jobs after obtaining your PHD over a period of 10-11 years is not inconsistent with the experience of people in the competitive market environment noted in your original post. If anything, it seems to me that your experience points out why tenure is inconsistent with our modern environment of change and competition of ideas.

I think that I would agree with Doug, in a small sense. I can see how tenure (or a similar concept) is valuable in a setting that punishes someone for having an unpopular idea. Obviously, the academic world would be very different if professors were not granted a certain amount of academic freedom, which I would imagine is supported by tenure. Moreover, I believe that there is a strong benefit to having a longstanding (not lazy) professor -- giving him experience, an opportunity to develop ideas, etc.

Yet, I would also argue, that the concept has been distorted in many of today’s universities, where professors have interpreted tenure as a license for asinine behavior (in ways not connected to academics). I’m not a historian, so perhaps the problem has always existed, but from a standpoint that I find less objectionable. I’ll defer to the newly tenured professor of history for insight on that one. Congrats, BTW.

That fact notwithstanding, I think perhaps the concept of tenure is quite twisted, particularly in what I’ve seen (or read) from some of the more prestigious universities. And, I am concerned that it is rampant through education as a whole. Someone mentioned civil service, but I would point specifically to the teachers’ unions. The power of the teacher’s unions is as irrational and counterproductive as that of the AARP. Opposing the NEA is tantamount to political suicide (which is tricky, because its message is contradictory a large chunk of the time). And the NEA (and state affiliates) have been doggedly determined to protect their members at tremendous cost to education as a whole. Go to a large city and look to the payroll where you will probably find numerous educators without teaching assignments. A little digging will show some pretty horrible reasons -- teachers found to have been involved with students in inappropriate ways (drinking, sexual behavior, etc). But the cost of fighting the union is so great that a district is better off keeping the employee on the payroll (but isolated) than even attempting to fire mid-contract.

This is not intended to be a rant against educators or even unions. My point (which I have taken a long time getting to) is that I wonder how the professors’ unions are corrupting the concept of tenure as we see it in high-profile institutions and whether academia has the power to restrict that corruption. More personally, are AU’s professors unionized?

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