Friday, June 18, 2004

It's all so very high school

The Atlantic Monthly reviews 3 books on high school culture, and does a pretty poor job of it. At least, Tom Carson doesn't ask any of the interesting questions arising from the scenarios he presents.

Maybe there's nothing to the issues that spring automatically to my mind, and I guess I'll never know because I'm certainly not likely to look at these books myself. I rather hoped a review would undertake the investigation for me.

The basic difference is that our fellow developed countries treat secondary school as the beginning of responsibility. If little Jean-Pierre's fate is to be a mechanic, the stench of cooked goose is mingling with the incipient reek of motor oil by the time he turns fifteen. But for American teens high school is the beginning of freedom — their first crack at making choices. The autonomy involved is restricted, though not as much as parents might wish, and its purposes are generally frivolous — from the outside, anyhow. But the project of self-definition thus gotten under way is neither.

Strong statements here from our reviewer. Why is it that Europeans see secondary school as a lesson in responsibility and Americans see it as an exercise in freedom? Is Jean-Pierre's fate really sealed by age 15? Where do you get your wacky ideas? Did you learn that in high school?

Carson dismisses the "obvious" research and theories in Freaks, Geeks, And Cool Kids: American Teenagers, Schools, and the Culture of Consumption, by Murray Milner Jr.

Carson is so much a product of this school system that he seems unable to step back from it. Everyone "knows" what high school is like — why bother studying it? He seems happy enough with one of the other books he "reviews," which seems merely to identify and illustrate types (the star athlete, the homecoming queen) we encounter in school. You obviously don't care what makes the American high school unique from others.

"Perhaps the thing that American secondary education teaches most effectively is a desire to consume," Milner asserts early on, and 150-odd pages later, the case still unproved, he's only grown more insistent: "I am suggesting that high school status systems have played an important role in the development of consumerism in the United States." Note that both sentences are structured to slide over the niggling question of agency.

He criticizes Milner, that:

to reduce adolescent behavior to consumerism alone, or to status-seeking alone, discredits the loose and variegated social order that emerges even from this monotonous study. (I suppose stoners are consumers in a sense, but I doubt that's really what Milner has in mind.) Don't we all understand that high schoolers' self-devised categories and peer comeuppances, including the petty cruelties Milner deplores, are just tools for the basic project of adolescence, which is a hunt for identity?

Do European adolescents not hunt for identity? Do they hunt for it elsewhere than in high school? Do they not need to hunt one because it is already defined for them? By which forces?

Conspicuous consumerism does indeed set American culture apart from others. It could be a factor.

How is it that European manage to grow up educated, self-assured, career-minded, and ambitious, all without the identity-forming trappings of an American high school?

Carson learns from this book the obvious, that teen social hierarchies exist. However, Milner had stated that "what I have learned about how status systems operate from studying [Indian] castes significantly clarifies what goes on in our high schools." Carson entirely ignores the question of how and why teen cliques come about in the context of American society. He doesn't seem to realize that might be what the book is trying to be about, and he doesn't care.

The book may have missed the boat, but so does Carson's review.

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