Youth and the Social Order
Society and the Adolescent Self-Image
The Social Context of Ambition
During the past months there has been a fortunate shift in the kinds of books that are being published about youth. What has previously been most common were manuals for solving “teenage problems,” and guilty soliloquies whose remorse never extended as far as condemnation of the social structure itself. More recent work, however, based on serious research, though the investigations vary in quality and significance.
All three of these authors have made empirical investigations of youth in relation to some aspect of society. They collected their data, however, in different ways. Musgrove, the least systematic of the three, studied various groups of British adolescents: his largest sample consists of 778 boys and girls between the ages of nine and fifteen—though very little of his book is devoted to what he learned from them. Rosenberg had 5,077 questionnaires administered to students in a stratified random sample of high schools in New York State. Turner gathered his data by means of more interesting and coherent questionnaires to which 2,793 seniors in ten Los Angeles high schools responded.
Taken together, these studies by their common assumptions reveal some important truths about the place of youth in British and American society. None is an investigation of education as such. Each is concerned with social issues that transcend any single institution like the school. Yet all three authors gathered all their data about adolescents from students in secondary schools (though Musgrove also presents some findings obtained by posting questionnaires to a random sample of adults taken from election rolls.) It is obviously a great administrative convenience to use “adolescent” and “secondary school student” as interchangeable categories for research purposes. But what is significant about it is that the practice is probably justified by the facts of life in this country. As Paul Goodman has so often stressed, we simply no longer tolerate any other way of growing up—dropouts are fugitives—and that fact is more important than any finding reported explicitly in these books.
What is equally distressing is that none of these writers on youth deemed it necessary to talk to a single young person from their sample. All made use of questionnaires which were sent to the schools and administered there, presumably by other persons. Both Americans rely on what is called “multivariate” analysis: they posed many simple questions to large numbers of students and then analysed the answers to see which were similar, and which seemed to separate the youngsters into groups with different characteristics. (To do this they had to start with huge samples, so that each subcategory they could shake out of their data would have enough people in it to give mathematically stable results.) The Englishman, Musgrove, has written the best book of the three because he struggles less to be scientific and objective. He makes comments in his own right—sardonic and compassionate value judgments—about the fate of the British adolescent, whom he quite rightly perceives as a social invention rather than as a fact of nature. His questionnaire is simple, while Rosenberg’s is fatuous, and Turner’s is sophisticated and imaginative. But the fact remains that three distinguished sociologists in two countries, spending God knows how much grant money and how many hours of their time and that of nearly ten thousand adolescents, managed totally to avoid observing the lives of their subjects.1
Such studies based on large masses of questionnaire data are thought of as being hard and scientific; social scientists maintain that this approach reduces interference with the phenomena they are studying and permits them to estimate and control the influence of chance observations. This is true, but analysis of this kind gives no hard information at all as to why one group of responses differs from another. The sociologist, then, must either be content with presenting sets of comparative tables without explanation, or interpreting those tables far more speculatively than he would have had to do if he had risked the messiness of observing what actually went on. This is particularly evident in Rosenberg, who comes out with a variety of provocative findings and no way of being sure what they mean. Thus, he interprets his discovery that “respondents whose fathers were members of the armed forces, policemen, or detectives, or sheriffs and bailiffs had unusually low-self-esteem”:
Fathers in these occupations may well possess an affinity for an authoritarian occupational structure as well as a willingness to face and to utilize violence. Perhaps the occupational imperatives influence the individuals personality; more likely, the personality helps draw the individual to the occupation. Of course, even if these fathers do have authoritarian personalities, we do not know how such personalities influence the self-conceptions of the children. Nevertheless, it is an interesting finding, and one worth further investigation…
And so it is.
There are a lot of other such findings in Rosenberg’s book, all equally interesting, and all equally unexplained. Why is membership in high school choral groups associated with low self-esteem, when all other kinds of group membership are associated with high self-esteem? Why do boys with a lot of older sisters think so well of themselves as to be almost impervious to failure? And so on. Rosenberg’s book can be read simply as a collection of little gems, but in approaching it, the reader should bear in mind that it is grossly overtitled. “The adolescent self-image” cannot be reduced to eleven scales made up of such items as “I feel I have a number of good qualities,” (strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree); “Human nature is really cooperative” (agree, disagree); “Criticism or scolding hurts me terribly” (agree, disagree); “Would you say you discuss international matters?” (A great deal, A fair amount, Very little, Not at all); and “Are you ever bothered by pressures or pains in the head?” (Often, Sometimes, Almost never, Never). The answers to such questions are all Rosenberg has to work with, and no research can improve upon its own data by sheer analytical resourcefulness.
Turner’s work is in another class altogether. Though he sheds as many fascinating sidelights as Rosenberg, he is centrally concerned with a genuine and important question: Do ambitious adolescents really have to wrench themselves away from their own social class and its values, rejecting these and their old friends and associates, in order to get on? Or does the very fact that ambition and status-seeking are ubiquitous values that transcend social class in our society cushion the youngsters’ transit by making it more acceptable both to old and new acquaintance and to themselves? Is there, moreover, enough overlap among the values held by all social classes in this country to keep success from being as alienating as Joe Lampton, say, found it to be in Room at the Top?
Turner finds that there is such overlap, and that ambition is indeed a prevailing folkway at all social levels in this country; he concludes that the process of social mobility ought therefore cause youth in transition comparatively little sense of infidelity, or culture-shock. He examines the values associated with different patterns of ambition, and reports that it is primarily youth who conceive self-advancement as a way of improving their standard of living and income-level—in contrast to those who are more interested in achieving a higher educational level and enjoying more complex cultural advantages—and who explicitly prefer to think of themselves as smooth operators who win every round. As far as it goes, this is reassuring. But it does not really resolve the moral ambiguity at the core of the mobility-issue. The real difficulty is not that the upward mobile person must abandon his old friends and early self and replace them with a succession of ill-fitting prostheses; but that his whole orientation throughout life must be that of a commercial traveler—though not necessarily a particularly ruthless or dishonest one.
This is a depressing issue which becomes, as Turner examines it, a source of insight. Why, for example, don’t the hedonistic, short-range, anti-intellectual attitudes expressed by many of his subjects result in greater hostility to their more ambitious schoolmates or to those who value eminence and high achievement? Turner, like James S. Coleman in The Adolescent Society2 observes that the youth culture ought seriously to impede youngsters from making the more demanding adjustments of American adulthood. But, unlike Coleman, he perceives that it clearly does not; and he concludes that the youth subculture is weak because youngsters are never really committed to it. They make it up and adhere to it ritualistically precisely because they have already accepted the necessity of playing shifting roles in a shifting group for the rest of their lives. They seek in the shallow cohesion of the “peer-group” a substitute for the deeper loyalties and more lasting friendships a different kind of society might afford them. Turner puts this in italics, and in sociologese:
Youth culture emerges out of the children’s efforts to reinstate a primary-group system of identities and relations and controls in the context of constantly shifting peer associations.
But what this means is that high school students develop fads and a pseudoculture in order to conceal from themselves the knowledge that they already fully intend to do what the larger culture requires of those who want to be successful. There is not much conflict; but rather more guilt.
Of the young American, Turner notes:
[In] the large, impersonal and heterogeneous high school, he is forced to cope for the first time with a genuine Gesellschaft. Here, for the first time, he is without a well-defined and continuous identity, known to himself and his associates and passing with him from situation to situation.
But this is the essence of the American Way of Life, and Turner’s basic conclusions amount to confirmation that it is really the peer group that socializes the youngster to ambition and weeds out the unsuitable, while presenting itself as fun-loving and frivolous. This is the sharpest point of contrast between the American adolescent and the British, as Musgrove sees it.
The American peer-group has the job which in England is undertaken by the system of educational selection and segregation. The English peer-group is consequently of less importance and, within a particular type of school, can afford to be “democratic” in its membership.
This is probably true, and means that British adolescents probably do have deeper and warmer friendships, especially among members of the same sex, than American youngsters. But their plight seems grimmer. As Musgrove dryly observes:
The issues of status had been insufficiently explored in the extensive literature which deals with the young. Role has been analyzed without sufficient attention to the underlying status which helps to explain it.
That status is low, both here and in Britain. But American society is, on the whole, not quite so laden with ressentiment, if only because it is richer. Here even the kids are, among other things, customers; which sets a limit to how far down they can be put.
Still, there isn’t much difference. Musgrove’s harshest wit is directed against the stultifying personnel of the grammar school, whose shabby-genteel pretensions to share in the public school spirit and tradition require an Angus Wilson to do them justice—though Musgrove does well enough. American high schools are not so overtly hostile, as a rule. But the hostility is there in the culture. There is currently a bill before the California legislature—it has been favorably reported out of the Education Committee—to revoke the drivers’ license of any person under 18 who leaves high school before graduation. Musgrove’s empirical data establish that, while British teen-agers have a neutral-to-benign attitude toward adults, and are, like our youngsters, mostly conservative and rarely rebellious; the adults are virulently hostile toward them, and regard them as undisciplined delinquents. But this, though cruder, is not very different from what Hess and Goldblatt found in a classic little study in Chicago a few years ago;3 though their sample showed more mutual mistrust and misunderstanding than hatefulness. In both cases, however, the adolescents took a far more generous and tolerant view of their elders than their elders, who believed themselves to be the object of hatred and contempt, could imagine.
Musgrove’s final statements seem to me completely justified, whether applied to his country or ours.
“In general, our adolescents are older than we think, our treatment of them barbarous and insulting…It is not possible to end this book on a note of hope. Demographic circumstances, economic conditions, educational strategy and provision, and the institutionalized power of adults make it unlikely that any of the changes in the treatment of the young which have been advocated above, will come about…Indeed, it is precisely as the maturity of the young has been accelerated, since the middle of the last century, that we have kept them in ever longer tutelage and dependence. This is a tribute to the power of social institutions and the organization of the mature. Perhaps, indeed, they have been kept in ever longer subordination just because they are more mature and consequently threatening to the old…It is, indeed, the height of naiveté to suppose that in this matter, logic—or even humanity—will prevail.”
Rosenberg did interview thirty-six adolescents, but not from his own sample. Musgrove and Turner both had some questions that required written answers from the students. ↩
New York, The Free Press, 1961 ↩
Robert D. Hess and Irene Goldblatt, “The Status of Adolescents in American Society: A Problem in Social Identity.” Child Development, 28, 459-68, 1957. ↩