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The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence    by Elliott Currie order for
Road to Whatever
by Elliott Currie
Order:  USA  Can
Metropolitan, 2005 (2005)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Sociologist and Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie takes a compassionate and concerned look at American middle class adolescents at risk in The Road to Whatever. It's an articulate well-reasoned perspective, which often speaks directly in the voices of teens who have bottomed out - some who have since recovered their lives and many who have not.

Currie tells us that these kids grew up in a culture of social Darwinism, 'a world in which the values of mutuality and reciprocity that were once an important part of middle-class culture had been overwhelmed by a shoulder-shrugging individualism that excused most adults, and indeed society as a whole, from what we normally think of as adult responsibilities of nurture and support'. He does not buy the usual suspects - erosion of discipline, weakened parental and school authority, media violence etc.. Rather, he agrees with an observation that America has become, for these young adults, the land of the 'nonhelping hand', a society that meets teenagers' emotional problems 'with rejection - or medication.' He has gleaned his information from his own university students, many of whom disclosed personal experiences, and from a study of the lives of adolescents being treated for substance abuse. What did he find that these young people have in common? A 'progressive erosion of the ability to care'.

Currie develops four themes that contribute to this 'Whatever' reaction - the 'Inversion of Responsibility' via varying degrees of parental abdication; the problem of 'Contingent Worth' in which kids are valued for competitive achievements on a narrow set of scales; 'Intolerance of Transgression', with adolescents held to often rigid moral standards; and a 'Punitive Reflex and the Rejection of Nurturance', which often involves exclusion and denies practical help at a time when it is needed most. These teenagers 'cannot slip a little, because there is no one to catch them if they do.' In terms of social service and school support, he compares 'ground truth' versus the offical perspective on how things work. He explores the 'indiscriminate use of medication' from stimulants for ADHD to antidepressants, anticonvulsants etc. without adequate monitoring or follow-up, and he discusses adolescents' harsh treatment in the mushrooming business of schools for troubled teens.

On regular schools, Currie tells us that 'Children's problems at school - especially if they involved a challenge to the authority of teachers or principals - were regarded as evidence of fundamental flaws of character, which called not for assistance but for exclusion.' He explains how concern over statistics can motivate schools to quickly remove troublemakers. He also explores what gives certain adolescents the resilience to rescue themselves from a nosedive (some by firing their parents). He finds two important principles - the recognition that 'It's Not Just Me' and that other factors have contributed to the problem; and the 'Role of Pragmatic Help', usually from nonjudgmental educational sources (not typically high schools) that 'actively nurtured abilities and confronted obstacles to success ... they rarely allowed anyone to fall through the cracks.'

The author closes by stating 'That a society of unprecedented affluence cannot find ways to do better by its young people is not only tragic but scandalous' and suggesting steps in the right direction, in a call for a more supportive community. In The Road to Whatever, Elliott Currie introduces us to troubled teens from a variety of middle-class backgrounds, gives their stories voices, extracts common themes underlying their situations, and suggests societal action that is clearly overdue.

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