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?

To be fair, Milner does understand that one basic reason high school kids get fixated on evaluating one another is that making up their own yardsticks for what's cool and what isn't is their only source of power. Yet when prescription time rolls around, which you kind of knew it would, he unsurprisingly turns out to be that familiar figure, the progressive as Martian. High school is a reckoning not least because adolescents need it to be, and he's unable to grasp that any mandated substitute for teendom's self-invented rules and ordeals misses the point. There's a positively Kucinichian cluelessness to his calls for introducing—imposing, actually—"norms emphasizing solidarity and equality rather than inferiority and superiority" (his italics). Some of Milner's pet notions are unwittingly delightful, though. After a modest proposal to break up those evil cliques by assigning rotating seats at lunch hour, he suggests that students might object less "if this was made part of a graded educational process." They could be "required to interview and report on the cultural background of two students they had never talked with." Like little sociologists!

Then again, at least Milner is trying to be of use; he's an old-fashioned kind of fogy that way. The contributors to the British academics Glyn Davis and Kay Dickinson's anthology Teen TV, in contrast, are the kind of cultural-studies semiotics junkies for whom establishing the purpose of their analysis would be hopelessly quaint. If you haven't seen, say, Dawson's Creek or Smallville, you might never guess from this baker's dozen of feminist, queer-theory, and truth-or-Derrida glosses that teen soaps are entertainment—fairly frothy, at that —and not the Dead Sea Scrolls. I've written a good deal about teen TV myself; I think it's some of the richest programming around—far more expressive and socially acute than all the dreary cop and legal dramas cluttering up adult-oriented prime time. But I wouldn't give a damn about these shows' undercurrents if I weren't first and foremost entertained, and I've never understood the point of reducing a show as ingeniously conceived and witty as Buffy the Vampire Slayer to a "text" whose enjoyability is irrelevant to its meanings—meanings that in this kind of criticism are always inadvertent, and hence the critic's "discoveries," even though every adolescent who's seen Buffy knows (and relishes) how highly self-conscious it is.

The comedy of most of Teen TV's essays is that their authors are obviously addicted to this stuff as the cotton candy it is. Even in academia nobody becomes an expert on Party of Five out of selfless intellectual zeal. It's just that admitting as much might give their work a dangerous human dimension, tempting us to mistake them for fans or something equally ignoble. Funnier still, the pea under their mattresses of jargon turns out to be that schoolmarm favorite, the belief that art should be pedagogic; the shows are essentially evaluated for their benefits as propaganda. For the conversion of drool into claptrap, it's hard to top Matt Hills, of Cardiff University, on the protagonists of dewy Dawson's Creek: "If the Dawson/Joey (D/J) relationship is viewed as a rather unremarkable pop-cultural representation of 'true love', then what might we make of the show's transition into (and back out of) a Joey/ Pacey (J/P) relationship?" One thing we might make of it is that Hills spent a few lonesome nights in Cardiff rooting for Pacey to score.

After suffering through Milner's dehumanized concern and Teen TV's identity-politics inanities, it's a relief to turn to a book that's at least competently written. Far from being only that, Michael Bamberger's vivid, engaging Wonderland is both the perfect corrective to the invidious abstractions of Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids and—hello, Dawson's Creek—something of a real-life teen soap; its intertwined storylines and folkloric personalities certainly draw you in the same way. A reporter for Sports Illustrated, Bamberger spent the 2002-2003 school year embedded in Pennsbury High, an economically diverse (straddling Levittown and more-upscale areas), racially homogenous (85 percent white) Bucks County, Pennsylvania, school whose elaborate senior prom has become both an all-around community celebration and a regional legend. Unlike Cameron Crowe's Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the book isn't a stunt; that is, Bamberger didn't pass himself off as anything other than a journalist. He must be a wizard at bonding, though. Wonderland isn't just an uncommonly rich and intimate look at high school life; it's the best piece of decent-minded, unpatronizing Americana I've read since Jim Wilson's Vietnam-themed The Sons of Bardstown (1994).

What's attractive about the students, teachers, parents, and administrators whose lives Bamberger tracked is that they're at once eternal types and idiosyncratic, surprising individuals, from Pennsbury's longtime principal, Mr. Katz—conscientious and devoted, but so recessive that the door to his private office lacks an outside knob—to star athlete Bobby Speer, who finds out he's not a good enough quarterback to interest Division I college recruiters. It's impossible not to be touched by, among others, homecoming queen Alyssa Bergman, who visits an assistant principal after she's crowned to earnestly ask what her "special responsibilities" are—visiting hospitalized children? distributing food to the poor? Best of all, and clearly Bamberger's favorite, is go-getting junior Bob Costa, an irrepressible fast-talker who wangles his way into everything from interviewing Patti LaBelle at a Philadelphia Eagles game to shaking hands with Bill Clinton.

The prom, inevitably, is the clinching event, but the beauty of the book is that nothing especially remarkable happens once we get there. The episodes along the way are the story, from unexpected tragedies—it's a shock when one promising student Bamberger's been following gets killed in a car accident in Florida—to equally unexpected moments of glory, particularly the scene in which a skinny, unprepossessing senior named Jeff Heinbach musters up the nerve to challenge the visiting district congressman, Republican Jim Greenwood, on his support for the Iraq War. (Greenwood's disdainful reply to the upstart got him in hot water with the local media and turned Heinbach into a Pennsbury hero.)

Bamberger's treatment of the kids is very gentle and—so one assumes, anyway—discreet. We're told in general terms that Pennsbury has its share of promiscuity and drug use, but with only one or two murky exceptions, nobody's shown doing anything scandalous. We also aren't introduced to anybody particularly unsympathetic, which certainly doesn't tally with my high school memories. But otherwise it's nice to learn that the old verities still apply. These teens aren't status-hungry, consumerist little vipers in the making; they're engaged in the same round of small defeats, gratifying discoveries, and struggles for self-articulation as ever. One way you know Wonderland is true to their experience is that it's all about learning—and I can't recall a single scene set in a classroom.