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G. Stanley Hall (1844–1924)

The "father of adolescence," G. Stanley Hall is best known for his prodigious scholarship that shaped adolescent themes in psychology, education, and popular culture. Granville Stanley Hall was born in a small farming village in western Massachusetts, and his upbringing was modest, conservative, and puritan. He began his scholarly work in theology, but traveled to Germany to study physical psychology. He would produce over 400 books and articles and become the first president of Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts, but his greatest achievement was his public speaking about childcentered research, education, and adolescence to a society in transition.

With the 1883 publication of "The Contents of Children's Minds," Hall established himself as the leader of the "child-study" movement, which aimed to utilize scientific findings on what children know and when they learn it as a way of understanding the history of and the means of progress in human life. Searching for a source of personal and social regeneration, Hall turned to the theory of evolution for a biologically based ideal of human development, the optimum condition of which was health. His pure and vigorous adolescent countered the fragmented, deadening, and routinized qualities of urban industrial life. Hall theorized adolescence as the beginning of a new life and welded this vision to a scientific claim that this new life could contribute to the evolution of the race, if properly administered.

Hall's work lent scientific support to the "muscular Christian" approach to education, an intersection of morals, physical health, and economic productivity that was popular among the reformers who started the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), Boy Scouts, and other character-building organizations. Central to this view of health attainment was a rational inventory and investment of limited energies in profitable activities. The reformers of boys were vigilant in their denunciation of masturbation as wasteful sexual activity. As president of Clark University, Hall sponsored Freud's visit to the United States in 1909 and likely accepted Freud's ideas about sexuality, motivation, and the problems of repression. However, Hall also believed that freely expressed sexuality would too often lead to debauchery, so the sexualized energies of boys needed to be promoted yet protected, managed, and channeled.

Fittingly, Hall recommended schooling that mixed Rousseau's emphasis on covert control of male pupils with a strict social efficiency attachment to education for future lives and roles. Hall's educational prescriptions for adolescents emphasized the following six areas:

  • Differentiated curricula for students with different futures, that is, an efficient curriculum, includingan education for girls that emphasized preparation for marriage and motherhood
  • The development of manhood through close supervision of the body, emphasizing exercise and team sports and minimizing draining academic study
  • An education that drew upon and utilized the expression of (boy-stage) emotions through emphases on loyalty, patriotism, and service
  • A curriculum sequence informed by recapitulation theory or cultural epochs (i.e., study of the stages believed to have been key developmental points of the race. A cultural epochs curriculum focused upon "great scenes": sacred and profane myths and history, from folklore and fairy tales to Robinson Crusoe and bible studies, ending with St. Paul and Luther and the powerful stories of reformation and nationalization. Stories of great men would be used throughout to draw boys into the tales and to build on their natural interest.)
  • A school program that kept boys as boys and discouraged precocity or assuming sexual adult roles at a young age
  • An administrative gaze schooled to watch youthful bodies

Hall and other "boyologists" identified play as central to creating young men who had disciplined spirit and would obey superiors. Play was revered for making children and adolescents moral and strong via direct and efficient processes, unlike the passive, unfocused, and feminized school curriculum. Cognitive approaches to civilized behavior were deemed unsatisfactory. Play invoked muscles directly, and muscles were believed to be the location of automatic, instinctual morality. Muscles, if properly prepared, carried civilized morality, instantly accessible. Expertly organized play would promote discipline and control, qualities lacking in the immigrant children who were the play reformers' main targets. The play reformers, like the Boy Scouts, consciously nurtured peer relations to replace "unsatisfactory" families and extend expert influence by promoting boys watching over other boys.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, public schools, private philanthropic endeavors, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, and juvenile courts participated in an enlarged and intensified discourse about adolescence. Modern facts of adolescence, produced by G. Stanley Hall and his colleagues and students, emerged in a social context of worries over degeneracy and progress. Although adolescence had been demarcated before the late 1800s, the youth/adult boundary became sharper, more intently watched, and democratically applied to all youth. Hall emphasized adolescence as a new birth and the last chance for race improvement. Slow, careful development at adolescence must be vigilantly guarded; precocity had to be prevented. He and his colleagues issued "pedagogical imperatives," that is, disciplinary and instructional techniques that were essential for each stage of boyhood and adolescence. Thus, laissez-faire approaches to youth were deemed likely to lead to moral anarchy, and the administrative gaze of teachers, parents, psychologists, play reformers, scouting leaders, and juvenile justice workers was cultivated everywhere.

Hall's work has commonly been assessed as discredited and outdated, buried along with recapitulation theory by the 1930s. However, Hall's ideas and their applications in education, scouting, and team sports remain foundational. Hall's work defined adolescents in modern, scientific terms, that is, as natural and outside of social relations and history. The shapers of the modern, scientific adolescent made growing bodies and sexuality primary foci and the measures to prevent precocity enhanced youth's economic dependence. At a time when movie theaters, dance halls, and other new, urban pleasures beckoned, public focus on youth revolved around misuse of leisure time. Finally, Hall contributed to scientific knowledge about adolescents that catapulted youth ever more firmly into their peers' company (expertly guided by psychologists, social workers, and teachers). Hall's ideas continue to shape contemporary discussions of adolescent biology, growing bodies, peer-orientation, and problematic leisure time.


BEDERMAN, GAIL. 1995. Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

HALL, G. STANLEY. 1883. "The Contents of Childen's Minds." Princeton Review 2:249–272.

HALL, G. STANLEY. 1903. "Coeducation in the High School." National Education Association Journal of Proceedings and Addresses 42:442–455.

HALL, G. STANLEY. 1904. Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education, 2 vols. New York: Appleton.

HALL, G. STANLEY. 1977. Life and Confessions of a Psychologist (1923). New York: Arno.

LESKO, NANCY. 2001. Act Your Age! A Cultural Construction of Adolescence. New York: Routledge Falmer.

ROSS, DOROTHY. 1972. G. Stanley Hall: The Psychologist as Prophet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

STRICKLAND, CHARLES, and BURGESS, C., eds. 1965. Health, Growth, and Heredity: G. Stanley Hall on Natural Education. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.


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