High School's Adolescent Society (page 5)
Excerpt from: Teachers, Schools, and Society: A Brief Introduction to Education p. 89-93
Rock singer Frank Zappa said, "High school isn't a time and a place. It's a state of mind." Sociologist James Coleman says that high school is "the closest thing to a real social system that exists in our society, the closest thing to a closed social system." Sociologist Edgar Friedenberg points out that most high schools are so insular that they have their own mechanism for telling time — not by the clock but by periods, as in "I'll meet you for lunch after fourth period." Author Kurt Vonnegut says that "high school is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of." In his inaugural speech before Congress, President Gerald Ford confided, "I'm here to confess that in my first campaign for president—at my senior class at South High School—I headed the Progressive party ticket and I lost. Maybe that's why I became a Republican." More than forty years later, Gerald Ford still remembered high school. No matter where we go or who we become, we can never entirely run away from high school. It is an experience indelibly imprinted on our mind.
More than 13 million students arrive at twenty thousand public high schools every day. These schools run the gamut from decaying buildings plagued by vandalism and drugs to orderly, congenial places with educators who hold positive expectations and high standards for their students. They vary in size from fifty to five thousand students, who spend days divided into either six or seven 50-minute periods or perhaps fewer, longer blocks of time.
In his book Is There Life After High School? Ralph Keyes stirs up the pot of high school memories and draws a very lively picture of what life was like during that time and in that place and state of mind. In researching his book, he asked many people, both the famous and the obscure, about their high school experiences. He was amazed at the vividness and detail with which their memories came pouring out—particularly about the status system, that pattern of social reward and recognition that can be so intensely painful or exhilarating. High school was remembered as a caste system of "innies" and "outies," a minutely detailed social register in which one's popularity or lack of it was continually analyzed and contemplated. In The Adolescent Society, James Coleman notes that a high school "has little material reward to dispense, so that its system of reward is reflected almost directly in the distribution of status. Those who are popular hold the highest status."
In a major study conducted almost a quarter of a century after Coleman wrote The Adolescent Society, John Goodlad reached a similar conclusion; the junior and senior high school students he researched were preoccupied not with academics but, rather, with athletics, popularity, and physical appearance. Only 14 percent of the junior high and 7 percent of the senior high students said that "smart students were the most popular." Thirty-seven percent of the junior high students said that the "good-looking" students and 23 per-cent said the athletes were the most popular. (See Figure 3.3.) In senior high, 74 percent of the students said that the most popular kids were "good-looking" and "athletes."
When junior and senior high school students were asked to identify the one best thing about their school, they usually said, "My friends." Sports activities ranked second. "Nothing" ranked higher than "classes I'm taking" and "teachers." In some secondary schools, peer group interests bubbled so close to the surface that they actually pushed attention to academic subjects aside and almost took over the classroom. When asked to describe her school, one high school junior said,
The classes are okay, I guess. Most of the time I find them pretty boring, but then I suppose that's the way school classes are supposed to be. What I like most about the place is the chance to be with my friends. It's nice to he a part of a group. I don't mean one of the clubs or groups the school runs. They're for the grinds. But an informal group of your own friends is great.
Most informal groups are rigidly homogeneous, as becomes apparent in the seating arrangements of the secondary school cafeteria. A student in one high school described the cafeteria's social geography like this: "Behind you are the jocks; over on the side of the room are the greasers, and in front of you are the preppies—white preppies, black preppies, Chinese preppies, preppies of all kinds. The preppies are the in group this year; jocks of course are always in and greasers are always out."
In some cases, entire sections of the school are staked out by special groups. In a suburban high school near Chicago, the vice principal easily identified the school's different cliques. The "scums" were the group of students who partied all the time and were rebelling against their parents. Next to the cafeteria was "Jock Hall," where the male athletes and their popular girl-friends could be found. Close to the library was the book foyer, where the bright kids got together.
Perhaps high school students flock to others most like themselves because making their way in the adolescent society is so difficult. David Owen is an author who wanted to find out what life in high school was like in the 1980s. Although he had attended high school from 1969 to 1973, he returned under-cover, almost a decade later. Posing as a student who had just moved into the area, he enrolled in what he calls a typical American high school, approximately two hours out of New York City. During his experience, he was struck by the power of the peer group and how socially ill at ease most adolescents are. He likened adolescents to adults who are visiting a foreign country and a strange culture. Experimenting with new behavior, they are terrified of being noticed doing something stupid:
Relationships among teenagers are founded on awkwardness more than most of them realize. When a typical high school student looks around at his classmates, he sees little but coolness and confidence, people who fit in better than he does. That was certainly the way I thought of my old high school classmates much of the time; no matter how well adjusted I happened to feel at any particular moment, other people seemed to be doing better. At Bingham, though, I saw another picture. Everyone seemed so shy. The kids hadn't learned the nearly unconscious social habits that adults use constantly to ease their way through the world. When kids humped into each other in the halls, they almost never uttered the little automatic apologies—"Oops," "Sorry"—that adults use all the time. They just kept plowing right ahead, pretending they hadn't noticed. One day, when I was hurrying to my history class, I realized I was on a direct collision course with a girl coming the other way. Each of us made a little sidestep, but in the same direction. Just before we humped, an expression of absolute horror spread across the girl's face. She looked as though she were staring down the barrel of a gun. The bubble of coolness had been burst. She probably brooded about it for the rest of the day. ... Being an adolescent is a full-time job, an all-out war against the appearance of awkwardness. No one is more attentive to nuance than a seventeen-year-old... . When a kid in my class came to school one day in a funny-looking pair of shoes that one of his friends eventually laughed at, I could see by his face that he was thinking, "Well, that does it, there goes the rest of my life."
The memory of high school rejection is powerful, even for generations of the rich and famous. Actress Mia Farrow recalls a high school dance at which every girl was on the dance floor except her. Cartoonist Charles Schulz never forgot the day the yearbook staff rejected his cartoon, and actress Eva Marie Saint recalls the time she did not get a part in the class play. No matter where we were in the high school system, few of us have egos so strong or skins so tough that we fail to get a psychological lift when we learn that beautiful ac-tress Ali McGraw never had a date during high school, that actor Gregory Peck was regarded as least likely to succeed, that singer John Denver was called "four-eyes," or that no one wanted to eat lunch with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
For those who remember jockeying unsuccessfully for a place within the inner circle of the high school social register, it may be comforting to learn that the tables do turn. No study shows any correlation between high status in high school and later achievement as an adult. Those who are voted king and queen of the prom or most likely to succeed do not appear to do any better or any worse in adult life than those whose yearbook description is less illustrious. What works in that very insular adolescent environment is not necessarily what works in the outside world. One researcher speculates that it is those on the "second tier," those in the group just below the top, who are most likely to succeed after high school. He says, "I think the rest of our lives are spent making up for what we did or did not do in high school."
Most students know the feeling of being judged and found wanting by high school peers, and some spend the rest of their lives trying to compensate or get even. Comedian Mel Brooks sums it up well:
Thank God for the athletes and their rejection. Without them there would have been no emotional need and ... I'd be a crackerjack salesman in the garment district.
For some students, the impact of rejection does not lead to such positive outcomes. These students struggle to break through clique walls that are invisible but impervious. As one student stated: "I've never really been part of any group. I suppose I don't have anything to offer."
Being part of a group continues to he a challenge for today's adolescents. While historically, entire communities participated in child care, and ex-tended families guided and monitored children, today this social fabric of adult supervision has disappeared. With increased mobility, the generations have been separated, and traditional child care is gone. Two-parent wage earners provide less supervision, and the absence of widespread quality day care has added to the stress of growing up in America. These societal shifts demand a restructuring of the nation's approach to raising children—but that has not happened. In this social vacuum adolescents have created their own, separate culture.
In A Tribe Apart: A Journey Into the Heart of American Adolescence (1999), Patricia Hersch shares the story of three years she spent with seventh through twelfth graders in suburban Reston, Virginia. What Hersch discovered was troubling: the development of a more isolated, intense, and perilous adolescent culture, where drugs, alienation, and violence represent ongoing threats. It is a teenage society unknown to many parents. Today's teenagers are less likely to form the tight teenage cliques that adults remember from their own childhood. Contemporary adolescent friendships appear to he more fluid: teenagers may have one group of friends in a drama club, another from math class, and a third set from sports activities. Today cross-gender friendships are also more common as boys and girls do a better job of developing relationships without the need for a romantic attachment.
But even as the number of friendships grows, the quality of adolescent relationships remains a problem. Today's teenagers, both girls and boys, report that although they have many friends, they lack intimate, close friends. Teenagers say that there is no one that they can really confide in, no one with whom to share their deepest thoughts. In the midst of a crowd, they feel alone. It is a disturbing admission, and some educators believe that schools can and should do something about it.
Reprinted with the permission of McGraw-Hill Companies.
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