The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence
Metropolitan, 2005 (2005)
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Reviewed by Hilary Williamson
ociologist 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.
urrie 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 '
', 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
urrie develops four themes that contribute to this '
' reaction - the '
Inversion of Responsibility
' via varying degrees of parental abdication; the problem of '
' 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
, because there is no one to catch them if they do.
' In terms of social service and school support, he compares '
' 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
for troubled teens.
n 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
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.
he 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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