Books: In Review

By William Damon — May 03, 1989 5 min read

The Search for Structure: A Report on American Youth Today
By Francis A.J. Ianni

The Free Press, A Division of Macmillan Inc., 866 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022; 336 pp., $22.95 cloth.

America, as has often been remarked, is a nation obsessed with youth, and at best it is a rather ambivalent obsession. On the one hand, we glamorize--and try hard to emulate--the beauty, grace, and adventuresome spirit of the young. On the other hand, we decry their ignorance and apparent lack of purpose.

Recent popular writings have given the negative view an upper hand. We have come to see today’s adolescents as sexually irresponsible, suicidal, often criminal, and culturally illiterate to the point of philistinism.

Francis A.J. Ianni’s The Search for Structure is a balanced and hopeful treatment of the nation’s young people. It avoids alarmist warnings, caricatures, and easy answers. Instead, it tries to grapple with the full complexity of teenage lives as they are played out in today’s multifaceted society.

Through interview data, anecdotal case material, and assorted national statistics, Mr. Ianni--who is professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and director of the Institute of Social Analysis--takes on the formidable task of representing the full story. It is a story too rich and too untidy for glib generalizations.

Mr. Ianni’s main database is a series of interviews conducted with more than 300 adolescents between 1979 and 1985. The interviews covered subjects’ self-conceptions, their relations with family and friends, their aspirations for the future, and their attitudes toward work.

In addition, extensive ethnographic fieldwork brought him into the homes, schools, and peer communities of his adolescent subjects. He sampled a wide variety of social and economic settings, from affluent suburbia to rural farmland to inner-city melting pots.

In each setting, Mr. Ianni analyzed the intertwining influences of the adolescents’ family, peer, school, and work relations. His overriding theme is that we must look at all of these factors together if we are to gain any insight into the adolescent experience.

He rejects models that emphasize the dominance of one or another particular relation during any period of life--for example, those that assume the family is the key influence in childhood and the school or peer group during later years.

Instead, Mr. Ianni stresses the “synergistic association” of all the relationships in a young person’s life. It is the special pattern of these associations within each community, he argues, that gives shape and texture to the adolescent’s experience and developmental outlook.

Of course, communities differ greatly in the support and opportunities that they offer for young people. In some of Mr. Ianni’s communities--predictably, the more affluent ones--parents, teachers, and civic leaders guide adolescents into productive activities and guard vigilantly against dangerous or illicit associations. In such communities, parental and peer values are largely in synchrony.

There also may be support from other institutions, such as church or civic groups. Mr. Ianni uses the psychoanalytic phrase “good enough environment” to capture the Continued on Page 29

Shaping of Adolescent Experience Studied

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ideal of a community whose various constituents work together toward the nurturing of character in the young.

The problem is that many communities in America do not operate this way. In some cases, there is a general failure of support for the young. There may be no one who is willing or able to express care in any consistent fashion. Or there may be discord in the messages that young people receive from those who do care.

Parents and teachers may feel alien from one another, and both may be objects of antagonism from the peer community. Under such conditions, the web of supportive relationships needed by every adolescent fails to form. Teenagers are left in a state of isolation trying to sort through a bewildering array of mixed messages.

Mr. Ianni introduces the notion of “youth charter” to express his view of how communities ought to function in their relations with the young. The “youth charter” of a community is the totality of its norms, standards, and expectations for conduct among adolescents. This charter, he says, exists nowhere in writing but is widely known and shared by most members of the community.

The youth charter provides an essential structure for the playing out of an adolescent’s goals and aspirations. Naturally, it works best when it is coherent and internally consistent.

Mr. Ianni calls on each community in America self-consciously to examine the youth charter it presents to its young people. He also cites programs--in particular, one in Seattle--where parents and community leaders are doing just that. In such programs, adults work to promote communitywide agreement on the goals that parents, schools, and other organizations hold for youths. Young people are then brought into activities that reflect these goals.

The book’s most appealing quality is its steady focus on the trials and missteps of today’s young. Mr. Ianni acknowledges contemporary problems but works hard to set them in a context of universal developmental patterns.

He clearly believes that communities always have it within their power to improve their relations with adolescents. Along with his many reasonable recommendations, this belief gives Mr. Ianni’s book its underlying current of optimism.

This is a serious and responsible effort, and I hesitate to detract from it, even for the critical function of a book review. Yet one cannot read the newspapers these days without wondering whether the whole story can indeed be captured through a psychological framework that inevitably normalizes problems of character and conduct.

There is a disturbing tenor to the times that cannot be found in Mr. Ianni’s book. Many observers have remarked on rising cynicism and shiftlessness in affluent as well as inner-city adolescents; on renewed racism among “skinheads” and college-bound students alike; on rampant materialism and anti-intellectualism; and on a host of other tendencies that one can only describe as a generalized demoralization of youth. The Search for Structure does not take up these widely cited phenomena.

Reading Mr. Ianni, one comes away with the sense that such problems may be nothing more than aberrant versions of perennial disturbances among young people--and eminently curable ones at that. I hope he is right.

William Damon, professor of psychology and chairman of the education department at Clark University, is the author of The Moral Child: Nurturing Children’s Natural Moral Growth.

A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 1989 edition of Education Week as Books: In Review