The Spirit of Youth, May 30, 1909

By Jane Addams

THOSE of us who live in Chicago are obliged to confess that last year there were arrested and brought into court 15,000 young people under the age of 20, who had failed to keep even the common law of the land. It is said, indeed, that practically the whole machinery here of the grand jury and the criminal court is maintained and operated for the benefit of youths between the ages of 13 and 23. Men up to 90 years of age commit crimes, but they are not characterized by the recklessness, the bravado, and horror which have stained our records in Chicago. An adult with the most sordid experience of life and the most rudimentary notion of prudence, could not possibly have committed them. Only a utilization of that sudden burst of energy belonging partly to the future, could have achieved them. Only a capture of the imagination and the deepest emotions of youth by what men call religion could have prevented them.

And yet these 15,000 children had all been subjected to some sort of religious instruction. It had failed, either because it had been perfunctory in its nature and did not result in any psychic impulsion at all, or because it was too detached from life, their teachers forgetting that the young are ever impatient of creeds which do not inspire them to conduct, and that it must be grand, vague, and noble conduct at that.

Of Lincoln's enlistment of 2,500,000 soldiers, 2,000,000 were under the age of 21, 1,000,000 under the age of 18, and 100,000 under 15. Even in those stirring times, when patriotism and high resolve were at the flood, no one responded as "the boys" did, and the great soul who yearned over them, who refused to shoot the sentinels who slept the sleep of childhood, knew as no one else knew, the precious glowing stuff out of which his army was made. But what of the millions of boys who are now searching for adventurous action, longing to fulfill the same sort of high purpose?

It is as if we ignored a wistful, overconfident creature who walked through our city streets calling out, "I am the Spirit of Youth, with me all things are possible." We fail to understand what he wants or even to see his doings, although his acts are pregnant with meaning and we may either translate them into a sordid chronicle of petty crimes or turn them into a solemn school for civic righteousness. We may either feed the divine fire of youth or we may smother it. We may tend it into a lambent flame with power to make clear and bright our dingy towns, or we may stand stockstill, stupidly staring at the murky fire of crime. --From Religious Education.

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