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Stanford humanities scholar examines "the youngest society on Earth"

Young and old faces Over the past decades, our society has undergone a process of "juvenescence" that, according to Stanford professor Robert Harrison, PhD, makes it the "youngest on Earth." For the first time in human history, he says, "the young have become a model of emulation for the older population, rather than the other way around" (as quoted in Stanford Report). The post-war period "has unleashed extraordinary youthful energies in our species and represents one of the momentous revolutions in human cultural history."

Harrison is a professor of Italian literature whose new book Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age examines the cultural forces that have brought about this development. The term "juvenescence" draws on the biological concept of neoteny, or the retention of juvenile characteristics through adulthood. Harrison's research spans literature, philosophy, and evolutionary science.

His basic argument is that "juvenescence" can refer to either a positive or a negative change, and it isn't clear which more accurately describes our current situation. The positive sense is one of cultural rejuvenation, while the negative one denotes juvenilization. Harrison explains, citing examples from his book:

Rejuvenation is about recognizing heritage and legacy, and incorporating and re-appropriating historical perspective in the present – like the Founding Fathers did when they created a new nation by drawing on ancient models of republicanism and creatively retrieving many legacies of the past... Unlike rejuvenation, juvenilization is characterized by the loss of cultural memory and a shallowing of our historical age.

...I feel ambivalent about where we are culturally in this age of ours.  It is hard to say whether we are on the cusp of a wholesale rejuvenation of human culture or whether we are tumbling into a dangerous and irresponsible juvenility.

Several aspects of our society suggest juvenilization. Most citizens of the developed world today enjoy the luxury of remaining childishly innocent about what they operate, consume, and depend on in daily life, while "in terms of dress codes, mentality, lifestyles and marketing, the world that we live in is astonishingly youthful and in many respects infantile." Our culture's emphasis on innovation and change honors the youthful drive that brings renewal and progress, but, without firm roots in the stability and wisdom of older generations and longstanding institutions, this risks being a meaningless chase after novelty. Youth's genius is a luxury that requires solid foundations.

However, there is marked potential for this juvenescence to become rejuvenation, in the tradition of platonic philosophy, the spread of Christianity, the Enlightenment and the founding of America. What do these cultural watersheds have in common? Older legacies adopted younger forms, "thanks to a synergy between the synthetic forces of wisdom and the insurgent forces of genius." It was innovation, but not isolated, not for its own sake; the truly new recognizes its legacy.

The implications for medicine, science, and technology are evident. Within these fastest-changing fields, where innovation reigns, we aspire to products that profoundly alter daily life, procedures that shift the boundaries of life and death, and strategies on which the health of our planet depends. What is the foundation upon which these novelties rest? What is the long-term cultural context in which we innovate, and how do we relate to it?

As a society, how do we influence ourselves towards rejuvenation and away from dangerous juvenility? Through education and an awareness of cultural history, Harrison concludes in his book. Education increases the age of young people "exponentially," making them "hundreds, if not thousands, of years older than they were when they entered the classroom or sat down with their student's lamp to enlarge their minds. For it is through books, or other forms of writing, that a culture transmits the inner core of its historical age."

Photo by Laurence Mouton/Getty Images

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