A Time and Place for Teenagers

By Bess Keller — February 24, 1999 23 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

High schools and adolescence grew up together. Before the modern high school took shape in the 1920s, hardly anyone thought about “adolescents” as a defined group.

Young people, for the most part, were simply “children” until at some point in their teenage years they left school, married or got a job, and joined the world of adults.

In Middletown, Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd’s 1929 study of Muncie, Ind., the terms even for high school students are “children” or “boys and girls"--not “adolescents” or “teenagers.” The notion of a distinct age group, the members of which were more like one another than they were like children or adults, was only just taking hold.

Not that the older generation hasn’t always heaped hopes and fears on the rising one, expecting it both to carry on what adults value and avoid their mistakes. Teenagers reflect what we are and suggest what we will become--with all the energy of youth. No wonder that adults have often wrung their hands over teenagers, sounding alarms that to later generations seem quaint.

“The growing custom of steady dating among teenagers is a matter of concern to educators, parents, and teenagers,” fretted the staff of the Ladies Home Journal in 1949. “Psychologists say it can have a permanent emotional effect on teenagers that makes later marriage anticlimactic.”

The emergence of the term “adolescence” gave adults a repository for their strong feelings about the teenage years. By the 1920s, the changes in young people wrought in adolescence by biological and social forces might have resembled those of an earlier time, but there was a new spotlight on them.

Likewise, by that decade, an institution was forming that would define the teenage years like no other: the new “comprehensive” high school concerned with the problems and talents of the vast majority of adolescents, instead of a privileged few.

By the early part of this century, school people and policymakers had begun to distinguish between education that would prepare students for college and schooling that would prepare them for the workplace and life. Earlier, secondary education in most public and private schools had been organized around academic disciplines. Tough mental training was thought to be good preparation for any respectable future, from running a dry goods store to attending Yale.

But as more students from working-class families found their way to high school, the schools added classes in “manual training” and eventually linked whole sequences of courses to jobs. In the same building, then, students could receive either a general education or a specific one, something like an apprenticeship.

Most high schools today fill much the same mold. These large schools, populated by a diverse group of teenagers, seem quintessentially American. And now as then, they are places where students can variously broaden their horizons, slip through the cracks, fraternize with “the wrong types,” or tune out their surroundings in a haze of alienation.

Tradition vs. Change

High school has become a venerable institution. Like any institution, especially a long-standing one, it is liable to distraction from its mission.

Some of the serious questions being asked about high schools here at the end of the century reflect this concern:

Are many high schools so large because that size offered the best chance for a good education? Or because such schools provided more and better-paid jobs for specialists and administrators, who in turn favored big schools? Or because taxpayers require less costly operation achievable through economies of scale?

Are high schools too often boring for the “average” student because the best teachers teach the high achievers? Or because savvy, affluent parents demand a top program for their children?

Is the high school day broken into 50-minute blocks because teenagers learn better that way or simply because that’s how it has always been done?

“The rituals of high schools, whatever their shortcomings, appeal to many people who suspect that substantial reform would undo the essence of teenhood,” suggests “Breaking Ranks,” a 1996 report on high schools from the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Tradition for tradition’s sake and vested interests have surely shaped American high schools. But democratic impulses and genuine understanding of youth have played their roles, too.

Like any modern marriage, the match between high schools and adolescents needs more than occasional work. Largely to the degree that the schools have grasped important things about teenagers and their times, they have served them.

When high schools have viewed adolescents as an alien life-form, and when they have failed to respond to changes in the world teenagers inhabit, they have done less well.

Shifting Demands

Once, in this country, it was relatively easy to tell when childhood ended. A boy abandoned his knickers for long pants and took up adult work, or left to find his fortune; a girl married or left home or both.

But as the 19th century closed, more children enjoyed for a longer time the protected status of childhood, in part because the industrialization and commercialization of work favored formal education, and in part because more families could afford to extend their material support. (“Changing Versions of Childhood.”)

Educators and policymakers were reconsidering the nature of secondary schooling. They took their cue from everyday life, arguing that schools should prepare students for the workplace.

Meanwhile, teenagers got, if not their own institution, their own place. By 1924, the high school in Muncie, for example, had become “the hub of social life” for the town’s young people, according to the Lynds, who spent more than a year studying the community.

To gauge the relative importance of the classroom and extracurricular activities at the school, the Lynds examined yearbooks from 1924 and 1894. Both books allocated the most space to class data, but athletics came second in 1924, while faculty and courses had occupied that position in 1894. In addition to team sports for boys, a swarm of school clubs vied for attention, the most prestigious of which were unofficial versions of college and adult fraternities and sororities.

Not surprisingly, many teenagers cited their social life as the thing they liked best about school, and the Lynds observed many of the common social features and rituals of teenage life associated with high schools today: classrooms and hallways humming with chatter and primping, annual banquets, “school spirit,” athletic heroes, school publications.

Changing Fashions

Not long ago, I quizzed my mother about two portrait photographs taken around the time she graduated from high school in 1935. “You dressed up for the pictures?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” she replied. “That’s what you wore to school every day--silk stockings, high-heeled shoes, silk dresses. You wanted to look grown-up.”

She added that “it was only later, in college, that I wore saddle shoes, skirts, and sweaters.” By then, fashions had changed; the “bobby-soxers” of the 1940s--the first “teenagers"--were about to be born.

In fact, the 1930s were probably the last decade when the dress of high school students might be mistaken for that of their teachers. From that decade onward, with most teenagers now brought together as a group in high school, students started looking to each other rather than their elders for style--and eventually for much, much more.

In a sense, the trend had begun earlier, when the years around puberty first came to be considered as distinct from both the adult world and childhood. Following the publication in 1904 of Adolescence, an encyclopedic treatment of the psychology of teenagers by educator and psychologist G. Stanley Hall, that period began to be widely known as “adolescence.”

The notion had roots in the 19th century, as various experts pondered the impact of urbanization and industrialization on children around the age of puberty. Those years, they declared, were a dangerous time of life that needed careful watching. They doubted that children could navigate the shoals of adolescence by merely observing adult models. And they were especially leery of “precosity"--adult experience too soon. So adolescence was a time to protect teenagers from a hard world and their own confusion.

But how many years does adolescence comprise?

That question was not settled in the popular mind until the 1920s, when educators began to equate adolescence with secondary school attendance. From that time hence, “adolescence” was most often taken to extend to 18 or 19 years old.

In Elmtown’s Youth, A.B. Hollingshead built upon the foundations laid by Middletown and other studies, looking notably at the issue of social class among adolescents in a Corn Belt community of 6,000. His study, conducted in 1941 and 1942, foreshadowed some of the problems of adolescence that emerged in the postwar period and that have drawn so much attention since then: smoking, drinking, and sexual activity. In 1941, many of Elmtown’s male adolescents indulged in all three, but even a common activity like drinking was hidden from adults--and many adults winked to avoid seeing it.

But Hollingshead’s book primarily explored the links between social class and the lives of the town’s teenagers. Perhaps most important, it exposed class--determined by the parents’ position in the town’s social structure--as the best predictor of who would go to high school and who would graduate. The book gave a sad picture of dropouts before the word was in use.

Hollingshead told, for example, an anecdote about two teenagers who ran afoul of a new rule at their high school: Any tardy student--no excuses accepted--was to be sent to detention.

When Kathy, the daughter of a prominent middle-class family, skipped detention to get her hair fixed for a dance at the country club the next evening, the principal mildly reproved her. The day Kathy was scheduled for detention, her mother had talked “casually” with the school superintendent’s wife.

Things went differently, however, for “Boney,” the son of a laborer at the local fertilizer plant, after he committed the same offense. The principal shoved him into the building, grabbed him by the collar, and as Boney fought, hit him with the heel of his hand. The superintendent slapped him, and eventually the two administrators shoved Boney out the door. “You’re never coming back until you bring your father,” yelled the principal. Back in his office, the superintendent said, “That boy is a troublemaker. ... Look at the gang he’s running with.”

Limited Opportunities

Overwhelmingly, Hollingshead discovered, students from the top rungs of the social ladder were in school. But only six out of 10 working-class teenagers of high school age and a dismal one out of nine poor teenagers were in school.

As Elmtown illustrated, poor adolescents and their parents regarded a high school education as not worth the trouble and expense, and educators and solid citizens alike compounded that view by making school life different for students according to their backgrounds. Compared with their middle-class counterparts, poor and working-class students received harsher discipline, lower grades, and less help from teachers. They were shut out of extracurricular activities by social networks that didn’t include them, as well as a lack of money, transportation, and time.

To school authorities in Elmtown, the dropouts seemed invisible. They insisted that the compulsory-attendance law was enforced and that the “few kids” who weren’t in school were either country people--whose parents didn’t believe in education beyond 8th grade--or past their 16th birthdays.

Neither was true. In fact, almost three-quarters of the young people who had withdrawn from school did so before they were 16.

All this coexisted with the view, prevalent not only in Elmtown but also across the nation, that a high school diploma reflected a young person’s capacity to hold a white-collar job. The diploma had become a mark of middle-class respectability, and those without it often paid a price in opportunity.

Concern that poverty and discrimination can narrow chances for success in school has not gone away. Indeed, high schools have long been criticized as providing an inferior education to minority students, sometimes through the mechanism of tracking. Today, Hispanic students do not graduate from high school at nearly the rate of black or white students, and black students have only recently caught up with whites.

By the 1950s, a solid majority of teenagers were earning high school diplomas. And not only the proportion, but also the number of students kept rising as baby boomers flooded schools during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Before the pace slackened in the 1980s, the nation’s public schools had seen eight decades of growth.

Generation Gap

Up on the screen in a darkened movie house, the camera pans over acres of new, low-slung houses in the California sunshine. “Nice homes, very respectable,” intones actor Gig Young.

Then comes a shot of “Dawson High School"--where full-skirted girls and tie-wearing boys carrying books under their arms flood the steps after the final bell. “Nice kids, well-clothed,” Young tells the audience.

“But beneath the surface--trouble, plenty of it.”

This short preview was made to promote “Rebel Without a Cause,” the 1955 hit movie that spoke to a generation of young Americans who were beginning to feel alienated somehow from the world of their parents. The film presaged the upheavals to come in the youth culture of the 1960s and quickly made its charismatic star--James Dean, dead later that year at age 24--an icon of teenage confusion and angst.

The movie, according to its makers, asks the question “What makes kids from nice homes” act like “slum kids”?--racing cars, getting drunk, arming themselves with knives, running away.

The answer seemed to be: their neglectful, confused, and ineffectual parents. Parents drove teenagers to turn to each other for emotional sustenance, forming--as the preview says when the trio of characters played by Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo appears--"makeshift families.”

In the early part of the century, middle-class adolescents, at least, had generally turned a conforming and acquiescent face to the older generation. Teenagers’ pastimes, like their taste in music and clothes, often resembled those of their parents: clubs, dances, movies.

In the ‘40s, when advertisers and merchandisers popularized the word “teenager,” adolescents thrilled to the same swing music that got adult feet tapping. The older generation showed some exasperation at bobby-soxer fashions and fads fueled by the spending money of postwar prosperity, but adults could reassure themselves that at bottom adolescents shared their values. When teenagers transgressed, they kept it under wraps.

‘A Cultural Minority’

But by midcentury, things were beginning to change. Holden Caulfield, in J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel, The Catcher in the Rye, hinted at the turmoil to come when he declared war on everything “phony.”

By 1955, when “Rebel Without a Cause” exploded onto the scene, teenagers had started to become incomprehensible to adult onlookers. Dean’s angry performance touched a nerve: Even “nice kids” from “nice homes” could pose a threat.

As if to confirm their parents’ suspicions, teenagers’ taste in clothes began to reflect working-class style--leather jackets and blue jeans. And their musical preferences drew from even lower down the social scale: African-American rhythm and blues. Soon there was raucous rock ‘n’ roll. And crime committed by teenagers was on the rise: The rate has tripled since World War II.

Most adults still thought adolescents should be protected, but there was more of a feeling that teenagers also were to be feared.

Economic forces soon tapped into the emerging teenage culture, speeding the process that was pulling adolescents away from adults.

What started out as a group demarcated primarily by age and secondarily by class had developed its own styles, rituals, and entertainment. By the early ‘60s, the sociologist Herbert J. Gans, in a study of Levittown, N.J., could write: “Teenagers are a cultural minority like any other.” But, he scolded their parents, “whereas no Levittowners expect Italians to behave like Jews, most still expect teenagers to behave like children.”

Like other minorities, teenagers were sick of it.

Era of Turmoil

In October 1969, a high school in Syracuse, N.Y., with a country club image was the scene of a riot. When the principal tried to stop it, he was clubbed and went to the hospital with a fractured skull. The rioters were mostly working-class or poor black students, who had recently been moved to the school under a desegregation plan, and a group of their friends.

The origins of the melee were traced to an incident in which members of an all-white fraternity at the high school had told several black students to “get out of our school.”

Soon after the riot, 600 students and their parents--black and white--met to discuss the situation. Black students and teachers generally said the school was pervaded by racism. Their white counterparts talked of fear and territoriality. The next year, the school closed 10 times because of violent clashes.

Those events, described by Gerald Grant in his 1988 social history of the school, The World We Created at Hamilton High, were far from unique. High schools all over the country, like colleges, were turbulent in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

New Problems, New Mission

By the ‘70s, high schools had come to seem increasingly out of step with the informality, openness, and tolerance that many students celebrated (and flaunted) in their lives away from school.

As schools struggled to re-establish order, they also were expected to shoulder much of the burden of creating a society with opportunity for all. As their mission evolved, high schools added social services to handle the needs of a student body that had grown more mixed in terms of race, language, and disabilities.

“In many ways, what happened in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was a long-overdue questioning of the schools,” the education historian Robert L. Hampel says. Many high schools emerged from the ‘70s with an atmosphere that Hampel, a professor at the University of Delaware, calls “mellow.”

They accorded students more rights, thanks in part to court rulings. And they sought students’ cooperation, not their unswerving obedience. Groups of students that had been neglected began to receive more attention.

Meanwhile, the problems with which schools had to deal mounted. During the ‘70s, the age at which young people first had sex dropped significantly. The increasing availability of contraception and legal abortion made sex less risky for girls, while the media provided ubiquitous reminders of sexual pleasure. Yet despite the availability of birth control, the birthrate for unmarried teenagers climbed (and didn’t stop climbing until this decade).

Drug use among high school seniors, as measured by the proportion of those who reported they had used illegal drugs in the past month, rose from 31 percent in 1975 to 37 percent in 1980.

Adults, meanwhile, divorced in record numbers in the ‘70s and ‘80s, often creating less stable environments for their offspring. During those same decades, the rate of adult crime went up, and adult confidence in the institutions of society went down. If teenagers seemed to be having a rough passage, so were many of their parents.

Need for Realignment

With the nation wearying of social conflict, peace had returned to most high schools by the end of the ‘70s. But the peace, the more relaxed atmosphere, and the fairer shake for more students came at a price.

The tolerant high school also tended to be value-neutral, and as high school offered more things to more people, achievement suffered.

In the 1980s, a flurry of national reports decrying the state of schools drew attention to the problems.

In many schools, students who in another generation might have dropped out found that the path of least resistance was simply to tune out. Many did only the minimum needed to get a diploma--or to win admission to college.

But for those who wanted it, there was usually good teaching far removed from old-fashioned drill and textbook memorization. There were sports and activities that would teach them as much as many classes. And there were teachers and students alike who valued high-quality work.

But if they didn’t want it, the institution didn’t care, as portrayed in the 1985 book The Shopping Mall High School: Winners and Losers in the Educational Marketplace, by Arthur G. Powell, Eleanor Farrar, and David K. Cohen. That seminal book uses the metaphor of the shopping mall to describe schools full of choices about what courses to take, what degree of rigor to seek, what path to follow, but little guidance about what choices are the most worthwhile.

Hampel--whose The Last Little Citadel: American High Schools Since 1940 emerged from the same highly regarded study as the Powell-Farrar-Cohen book--is speaking almost as much of high schools today as those of 20 years ago when he says: “Engagement is often optional. It’s there if you want it, but you don’t have to, and the burden is on you to pick and choose.”

‘On Their Own’

It has always been hard for adolescents to balance the autonomy they crave with the experience they lack. And now as in earlier times, teenagers from poor or troubled families suffer more than the rest.

Still, at century’s end, many experts agree that there has been no harder time in the past 100 years--with the possible exceptions of the Great Depression and World War II--to be a teenager.

Patricia Hersch, a journalist who spent three years befriending eight teenagers in suburban Reston, Va., to write her 1998 book A Tribe Apart, pleads with adults to get past their stereotypes and their fears of young people and to see the adolescent’s world as it is.

Ten years ago, Hersch contends, that world was “a circumscribed portion of childhood--a place to stop in-between, a place to stay before becoming an adult.” Issues like drugs, divorce, and vandalism a decade ago were “surrounded by a sense of the unusual.” Not so today, according to Hersch. The dividing line between “good kids” and “bad kids” is blurred. “Good kids” engage in many of the same behaviors as “bad kids"--sexual intercourse even before the high school years, lying to parents, cheating on tests, illegal drinking--but they do so less frequently.

Other observers, Robert Hampel among them, question whether the statistics on teenagers today justify the message that the news is bad and probably getting worse. He says the sharp rise in risky behaviors may have come more than 25 years ago, after the sexual, political, and social upheaval of the 1960s and early 1970s, but before most of the statistics were routinely collected. He points to “facts that should be more frightening” than the trend lines for teenage drinking, suicide, dropping out, and out-of-wedlock births--all of which have dropped or leveled out.

He worries instead about the prevalence of part-time jobs, peer pressure to do no better than moderately well in school, and hours of television-watching.

The historian Grace Palladino, the author of Teenagers, a 1996 history of 20th-century adolescents in the United States, also counsels against a crisis mentality. She contends that teenagers without a talent for schoolwork and a stable family risk a bleak future, but notes that it has always been so. Such young people are, she writes, “more or less on their own--as they have been ever since the rise of high schools a century ago.”

Seeking Solutions

Part of what could be better, many observers agree, is the fit between high school and today’s adolescents. Gerald Grant has argued, much as Hersch did in her book, that a big part of what is missing in the lives of teenagers is sustained, meaningful contact with adults.

Without the chance to work alongside adults--in jobs or helping with child-rearing--teenagers often find them distant, and their own long period of dependency galling. Adults have compounded the problem, Hersch and others say, by giving in to the convenient and self-protective beliefs that adolescents no longer need or want adult connections and that they are not interested in contributing to their families or communities.

Grant, in a 1983 article in the journal Educational Leadership, suggested mandating a semester or a year of voluntary service for all high school students. In doing real-world work, he wrote, they “would have an opportunity to learn more by giving more, to develop other sides and aspects of themselves in a noncompetitive environment, to gain dignity and a heightened sense of self-worth by being useful to others, and to build a wider network of mentoring relationships with adults.” The state of Maryland and some school districts have taken a step in that direction by including service requirements as part of the curriculum. Another 10 states encourage service by allowing districts to award credit.

A more radical proposal has come recently from Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, who contends that the last two years of high school should be abolished. By that time in an adolescent’s life, he argues, high school “becomes like a jail, holding them back, age-segregating them.”

In his 1997 book Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture, Botstein notes that today’s teenagers reach sexual maturity two or three years earlier than their counterparts at the beginning of the century. For educators not to recognize that fact, or the sophistication that modern communications and transportation have brought adolescents, is to shortchange teenagers, he believes. “High school retards, misses a major opportunity to motivate young people,” Botstein says. The greater freedom available to today’s teenagers, while holding risk, can also inspire discipline and ambition.

Coupled with the reduction in the years of schooling (and the reconfiguration of elementary school, with high school including grades 7-10) would be a set of standards that must be met for a high school diploma.

Under Botstein’s scenario, graduating teenagers would chose from among a community college, a four-year college, the job market, national service, and an array of vocational programs. Inner-city high schools would be converted into 24-hour educational centers and emergency shelters offering safe havens from drugs, violence, and street life.

Botstein does not underestimate the ambitious scope of the change he is suggesting, and many experts such as Hampel have serious doubts about the likelihood of major changes in an institution that has changed remarkably little in nearly 100 years.

“Orderly schools with tight discipline matter more to many people than orderly thinking. And therefore change, which is neither tidy nor orderly, will probably continue to be slow and uneven,” Hampel wrote in 1986.

Today, though, the historian says he would be at least a little less pessimistic about the prospects for meaningful change. He says he has been heartened by the sustained attention to education reform since the mid-1980s, and by some of the improvements that have begun to take hold in high schools.

The 1996 NASSP report, “Breaking Ranks,” contained a surprisingly bold set of recommendations from a committee formed mainly of high school administrators. It called for an end to impersonal schools, the archaic system of academic departments, and a day divided rigidly into short segments. Instead, the educators envisioned schools of no more than 600 students, where each would have a “personal adult advocate” and where learning would take many more forms and use more computer technology than it typically does now.

But despite some optimism, Hampel worries that internal squabbling among educators and open battles in public will deflect attention from what should be the central concern of every high school.

All too often, adult agendas and moldy tradition prevail over the needs of students, he says. “The experience of being a teenager gets overlooked.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 1999 edition of Education Week as A Time and Place for Teenagers


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: June 19, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: June 12, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: May 29, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: May 8, 2024
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read