Youth and the Social Order
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 …