The Phantom Economy   /   Summer 2010   /    Book Reviews

The Kids Are Alright

A look at the construction of advantage.

Murray Milner, Jr.

In the stereotypical image, American teenagers are preoccupied with fashion, alcohol, romance, sex, ball games, and partying—rather than academic work. This is an exaggeration even if it captures an important aspect of the social reality. Actually, significant numbers of young people work long hours and feel under great pressure to perform well academically. They have demanding and complicated schedules of classes, tutoring, extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, and—if any time is left—family life and perhaps romance.

Peter Demerath’s book gives a detailed description and anthropological analysis of “Burnham High School” and of “Wilton,” pseudonyms for a suburban high school and community near Columbus, Ohio. This school and community are caught up in what he calls the “culture of personal advancement,” especially in the form of seeking “academic excellence” by means of competition—competition between students for grades and competition between communities to have schools that are seen to be outstanding. These are core premises of what the community considers to be “the Wilton Way.” It is expressed in the high school’s motto, “where excellence is a tradition,” and demonstrated in the impressive array of community organizations that offer money and support for local schools.

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