The Kids Are All Right

Teens aren't as warped as some of the books about them

In no other culture does secondary education evoke the enchantment and trauma that high school does for Americans. As the single collective experience that most of us in this diffuse society are likeliest to share, it's also our handiest analogy for virtually every social realm we encounter as adults, no matter how exalted. Showbiz? High school with money, People and Entertainment Weekly tell us. Politics? High school with power—and man, could Grover Norquist use a wedgie. For all I know, the people in today's military call it high school with guns—which, after Columbine, I realize may sound redundant.

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.

Consciously or not, we take it so much for granted that high school is a social education, with the formal kind eating dust, that we have no idea how exotic a spectacle it presents to the rest of the planet. "I always thought all of the notions about cliques and crowds, and the preoccupation with fashions that I had seen in American movies was the invention of Hollywood," says a Turkish grad student quoted in Murray Milner Jr.'s Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids. "Then when I came to the U.S. for the first time as an exchange student my junior year in secondary school, I was stunned to see that many of the images actually existed." Perhaps predictably, a professor from Germany, hearing our author expatiate on "the importance of parties and proms," gets downright icy: "We don't have that kind of thing in our schools; we tend to business."

I have to admit it took a lot out of me not to transcribe that "we" as "ve," and you'd like to imagine it took something out of Milner, too. But good sociologist that he is, he gets sheepish about even including "this very anecdotal information." For the reader, its inclusion is a blessed interlude—one of several when a topic more intriguing than the one he's beavering away at fleetingly materializes. High school as American exceptionalism in the bang of a locker is a fetching idea, but unfortunately, Milner's specialty is pecking orders: his best-known work, Status and Sacredness (1994), examined India's caste system. As his eye turns to pseudonymous "Woodrow Wilson High," he believes he's detected an intriguing resemblance: "Both Indian castes and adolescent subcultures are systems in which status is the key resource." This is certainly stop-the-presses stuff; dare he go further? He does: "I am claiming that what I have learned about how status systems operate from studying castes significantly clarifies what goes on in our high schools." In other words, teen social hierarchies exist; he's got the field reports to prove it. Unless you were home-schooled, it's not easy to share his intellectual excitement. In fact, you may feel like a citizen of Newcastle watching the coal caravan pull up.

Not that I mean to be rude, but does any other discipline depend so much on vaunting its own methodology—especially when it's being used to confirm the obvious? As he shares the results of his painstaking investigations (adolescents seem to care a lot about clothes), Milner doesn't want anyone to be confused by his subject's arcana. Cheerleading, he explains, "usually involve[s] a mixture of verbal phrases and routinized physical movement," and you wonder: Usually? What in hell do the exceptions do—kick a possum to death in stony silence? (And by the way, does their team win?) On a bolder note, here's Milner analyzing high school gossip: "It is clear that rumors can be an integral part of gossip ... the tone of rumors and gossip is usually negative." A paragraph later he suffers a brief and endearing crisis of confidence: "Of course," he admits, "most people intuitively 'know all of this.'" The quotation marks are the charm.

Yet "all of this" is just window dressing, because Milner has a larger thesis to share—or, rather, since it's only tenuously connected to much of the behavior he elaborates, a rant. People in his field aren't known for picking their subjects in order to whoop it up about this wonderful world, so it may go without saying that he finds teen rivalries, faddishness, and in-groups pernicious. The two epigraphs from Rousseau (yes, really; it's kind of sweet) give you one guess as to the villain: the false values of our competitive, acquisitive consumer society. "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.

I'm no great capitalism booster myself, and I'm more than sympathetic with some of Milner's specific beefs. A generation ago only a satirist would have imagined corporate logos and junk-food vending machines on school premises. But 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? In his preface he confesses to being "a bit amazed" that he came to respect and like (I assume that's what he means by "enjoy") the students who participated in his research. But you can't help thinking they'd be better off not going to Uncle Murray with their problems, since he immediately warns us that he's not going to get sticky about it—his focus is on their "strategic importance for my intellectual concerns and for the operation of our society." In that order? Doesn't he have tenure?

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Tom Carson is a columnist for GQ and the author of Gilligan's Wake, a novel.

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