Foreign Exchange Students Debate Whether American Teenagers Have Too Much Freedom (1954)

The teenag­er was invent­ed in the 1950s. Of course, the stages of phys­i­cal devel­op­ment that char­ac­ter­ize those years tak­ing us from child­hood to adult­hood haven’t fun­da­men­tal­ly changed as long as Homo sapi­ens has exist­ed. But even though there were “teenagers” in, say, ancient Rome, they weren’t teenagers as we’ve known them over the past three or four gen­er­a­tions. It hap­pened amid the eco­nom­ic growth of the years after World War II, first in the Unit­ed King­dom and even more so the Unit­ed States: ado­les­cents, espe­cial­ly high-school stu­dents, turned from mere imma­ture adults into a dis­tinct demo­graph­ic group with its own tastes, pol­i­tics, spaces, mobil­i­ty, and cul­ture.

Before teenagers invad­ed the rest of the world, they must have struck vis­i­tors to Amer­i­ca as by turns thrilling and trou­bling. So it was with the stu­dents in the video above, who came to the U.S. in 1955 — the year of Rebel With­out a Cause — as par­tic­i­pants in the New York Her­ald Tri­bune’s World Youth Forum.

This filmed dis­cus­sion on the curi­ous phe­nom­e­non of the Amer­i­can teenag­er fea­tures Min­ji Kari­bo of Nige­ria, Nas­reen Ahmad of Pak­istan, Paik Nak-chung of South Korea, and Ava Lei­t­e­nan of Fin­land, all of whom had just spent a few months vis­it­ing Amer­i­can schools. Lei­t­e­nan begins on a pos­i­tive note: “I did­n’t know there would be so much smile,” she says. “I can just feel the friend­li­ness flow against me.”

But as many a first-time trav­el­er in Amer­i­ca has dis­cov­ered, that char­ac­ter­is­tic (and some­times over­whelm­ing) friend­li­ness masks a more com­plex real­ty. Kari­bo crit­i­cizes Amer­i­can girls who “think it’s fash­ion­able to tell lies about going on dates dur­ing week­ends, when as a mat­ter of fact they sat at home all the time.” After remind­ing every­one that “you can­not judge the amount of free­dom the Amer­i­can chil­dren have by your stan­dard,” Paik admits that “I see such an infor­mal­i­ty between the ages and between the sex­es, I get rather shocked, but the fact that it is shock­ing does not nec­es­sar­i­ly mean it is not good for them.”

None of these exchange-stu­dent pan­elists shows more skep­ti­cism about Amer­i­ca than Ahmad, whose glimpses of dat­ing and edu­ca­tion there have con­firmed her pref­er­ence for arranged mar­riage and sex-seg­re­gat­ed schools. Maybe it works for Amer­i­can teenagers, but “if we were giv­en sud­den­ly this amount of free­dom,” she says, “I’m afraid you would get fear­ful con­se­quences.” How­ev­er much the four dis­agree about the ben­e­fits and dan­gers of that free­dom, they all seem to believe that Amer­i­cans could stand to reflect on how to make bet­ter use of it than they do. “I think it is a lack of intel­lec­tu­al capac­i­ty to use their free­dom prop­er­ly,” says the young Paik, try­ing del­i­cate­ly to pin down the prob­lem with Amer­i­can life.

After the World Youth Forum, Paik trav­eled the world before fin­ish­ing high school in Korea. He would then return to the U.S. to study at Brown Uni­ver­si­ty before start­ing his career as a lit­er­ary crit­ic and pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al in his home­land. In 2018 he gave a speech at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go on Kore­a’s “Can­dle­light Rev­o­lu­tion,” and this past sum­mer he pub­lished a new book on D.H. Lawrence, which Kore­an-speak­ers can hear him inter­viewed about here. He’s one of the suc­cess sto­ries among the many par­tic­i­pants in the World Youth Forum, more of whose 1950s dis­cus­sions — on race, on social rela­tions, the Mid­dle-East con­flict — you can watch on this Youtube playlist. 65 years lat­er, no mat­ter our age or nation­al­i­ty, we all have some­thing of the Amer­i­can teenag­er about us. Whether that’s good or bad remains a mat­ter for debate.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Life Was Like for Teenagers in Ancient Rome: Get a Glimpse from a TED-ED Ani­ma­tion

1950 Super­man Poster Urged Kids to Defend All Amer­i­cans, Regard­less of Their Race, Reli­gion or Nation­al Ori­gin

How Fin­land Cre­at­ed One of the Best Edu­ca­tion­al Sys­tems in the World (by Doing the Oppo­site of U.S.)

Niger­ian Teenagers Are Mak­ing Slick Sci Fi Films With Their Smart­phones

In Japan­ese Schools, Lunch Is As Much About Learn­ing As It’s About Eat­ing

Pak­istani Immi­grant Goes to a Led Zep­pelin Con­cert, Gets Inspired to Become a Musi­cian & Then Sells 30 Mil­lion Albums

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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  • catherine bishop says:

    For more on this forum look out for my forth­com­ing book ‘The World We Want: Cre­at­ing Glob­al Cit­i­zens in the Cold War’ — a his­to­ry of the Her­ald Tri­bune World Youth Forum — com­ing out in 2022 with Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press!

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