THR Web Features   /   November 24, 2015

Dispatches from Today’s Youth Culture: Polarization

Murray Milner, Jr.

freaks geeks cool kidsFrom 1997–99—just before social media erupted on the scene—I studied American teenagers and reported the results in Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids (2004). Fifteen years later, I did a follow-up study to see what changes have occurred in teenage culture. I will highlight some of the findings and their implications in a series of short essays. The first two essays focused on how the new technologies have changed the forms of social visibility and invisibility and how this has changed youth culture. The third essay looked at the increased academic pressure due to standardized test and SOLs. This essay suggests that these tests may have increased the gap between lower and higher performing students rather than having decreased it.


You can read all the essays in this series here.

In 1986, Signithie Fordham and John U. Ogbu published a paper entitled “Black Students’ School Success: Coping with the ‘Burden of “Acting White.”’” It suggested that one of the impediments to higher academic achievement of African-Americans was the tendency of black peers to negatively sanction minority students who were too openly concerned about academic achievement—and accuse them of “acting white.”

This article stimulated much debate and considerable research. Quantitative studies have usually found relatively weak evidence in support of this hypothesis. It should be kept in mind, however, that most of these studies are based upon answers that students give to questions about their expectations and goals. Most students from disadvantaged backgrounds are not dramatically different from more privileged (usually white) students in their hopes and aspirations. What people say about their prospects for the future, however, does not always represent their actual feelings. Much less does it measure the level of emotional energy and resources they have to accomplish their expectations. This is perhaps why ethnographic studies continued to find that at least some disadvantaged students seem, if not indifferent about grades and academic matters, less inclined to discuss their academic concerns in the context of peer groups and less committed to academic success.

In my 2013–14 follow-up study, it was clearly the case that those most concerned about their grades were usually Caucasian students from middle to upper socioeconomic backgrounds. Certainly some African-American students cared about their grades and about “learning something.” This is reflected in the conversation between two African-American girls who were students in the program that trained dental technicians.


Emma … started talking to the other two about their “senior portfolios” that were due soon. It sounded like this was a major assignment that included essays, a resume, and some other documents as well…. They chatted about the colleges they were applying to, with Felicia mentioning that she’s applying to Howard and Longwood, among others. Emma remarked that Howard is a “good school.”


They talked a lot about a test they were going to have to take at [a university seventy miles away] … It sounded like a qualification test for some kind of medical certification…. Emma said that she hopes she passes this test, because “at least you get a certification out of it” and that it would make her feel like she “actually accomplished” something in high school…. Felicia got up to leave…. Alexandra and Emma continued talking about their grades and a test they took last week. They talked about an instance where a teacher had to keep stopping class because “people were being stupid,” which I took to mean acting out or trying to cheat during the test…. This worried her because “nobody’s gonna learn anything.”


These girls are obviously concerned about their academic work. In general, however, the students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, who were often African-American or Latino, expressed less interest in academic pursuits and grades. This is reflected in the following conversation:


Nine students at two adjacent tables. One female, eight males. One white male, the rest African-American. Juniors. [Probably mostly] working class—difficult to determine. Phillip … says that he bets their conversations are a lot different from the white students. He then mimics a white accent and says [in a funny, mocking way] “Josh, what did you get on that chemistry test? I got a 97. Isn’t that terrible?” Phillip … says that he doesn’t worry about his grades the way those students do, saying that if he got a 90 on a test “my parents would throw a parade!” He mentioned bringing his English score up from a 19 to a 22 by turning in essays (that he claimed he had a neighbor write for him) and his mom was really proud of him. Charles says he doesn’t even want to think about his English grade.


In the earlier 1997–99 study there were certainly groups that were largely unconcerned about their academic accomplishments. The big change today seems to be how much more many middle- and upper-class students are concerned about their grades. If anything, the pressure they feel may have reduced the academic motivation of many lower socioeconomic status and minority students; the “competition” is so far ahead that it does not seem worth trying. There seems to be a greater polarization of academic motivation and performance. The greater the gap students must overcome, the less likely their expressed expectations are likely to be fulfilled.

It must be emphasized that this is a very impressionistic observation based on our limited ethnographic data. However, this polarization is not unique to this one high school. There is some quantitative evidence that it is part of a national trend and probably not unrelated to the increasing inequality in the distribution of wealth and income.

Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University looks at this issue for the period from 1940–2000 in his recent publication, “The Widening Academic Achievement Gap between the Rich and the Poor.” He summarizes his research question and findings in the following manner:


As the income gap between high- and low-income families has widened, has the achievement gap between children in high- and low income families also widened?


The answer, in brief, is yes. The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five years earlier.


And the University of Chicago’s Susan E. Mayer, in “How Did the Increase in Economic Inequality between 1970 and 1990 Affect Children’s Educational Attainment?,” noticed a similar tendency using a different research design for the period from 1970–1990:


This study estimates the effect of changes in economic inequality between 1970 and 1990 on children’s educational attainment. Data on individual children from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics is combined with other data on state characteristics. Growing up in a state with widespread economic inequality increases educational attainment for high-income children and lowers it for low-income children.


These and other analyses of the relationship between socioeconomic background and academic achievement are complex and the precise patterns and mechanism of causation are not always clear. Such issues to do not have to be resolved in order to note that if anything the increased pressure on students to improve their academic achievement may well have increase the differences between the top students and the lowest performing students rather than having reduced the gap.

As I indicated in the earlier essays, it is not easy to determine the direction of causation between parallel processes in our high schools and those in the broader society. It seems almost certain, however, that an increased polarization of academic skills among young people is unlikely to decrease the growing inequalities of wealth and income (and the accompanying declines in equality of opportunity) that are the growing focus of US politics.

You can read all the essays in this series here.

Murray Milner, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Senior Fellow at IASC. His most recent books are Elites: A General Model (2015), and Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: Teenagers is an Era of Consumerism, Standardized Tests, and Social Media, 2nd Edition (2015) from which this essay is drawn.