Dispatches from Today’s Youth Culture: Polarization

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. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: November 20, 2015

hedgehog array logo_FLAT_72dpi[3]Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“Art for All of Us?,” Sarah Ruden
“From my own long observation of fashionable efforts to deal with traumatic memories in post-apartheid South Africa, I have to say that the storytelling-as-therapy premise has got nothing better to recommend it than its convenience.”

“Bloom and Bust,” Phillip Longman
“Inequality, an issue politicians talked about hesitantly, if at all, a decade ago, is now a central focus of candidates in both parties. The terms of the debate, however, are about individuals and classes: the elite versus the middle, the 1 percent versus the 99 percent. That’s fair enough. But the language we currently use to describe inequality doesn’t capture the way it is manifest geographically.”

“Worlds in Waiting: The Promise of Little Magazines,” David Marcus
“In the background to all of this is the question of money.”

“Lucky Jim Bond: Inside Kingsley Amis’s Quietly Subversive 007,” David B. Hobbs
“Now, we tend to think about James Bond as biennial film appointment—another chance to sell explosions and Omega watches to 13-year-old boys, even though today’s Bond fans are typically men over 35. Fair enough. MGM estimates that over half the world has seen a Bond film. But the character was a literary ‘phenomenon’ before Sean Connery sipped his first celluloid martini.”

“Forensic Pseudoscience,” Nathan J. Robinson
“It would be unreasonable to expect any human endeavor to be completely without error, and one might wonder just how systemic the problems of forensic science truly are.”

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Dispatches from Today’s Youth Culture: Academic Pressure

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 and second essays focused on how the new technology and media affect the social visibility of students and reshaped teen culture. This essay focuses in new levels of academic pressure and some of their consequences.

You can read all the essays in this series here.

During the 1997–99 fieldwork, students said relatively little about grades, quizzes, exams, homework, and academic pressure. Of course, many students worked hard and cared about their grades, but these concerns were certainly were not central to conversations at lunch. For many groups it was bad form to say too much about your academic work. While on occasion students studied and did homework during their lunch period this was the exception rather than the rule.

As one young woman, a college student in a quite selective university, said at the time, “Bad grades and fights with my mother were nowhere near as traumatizing as not being included in some social activity.”

The majority of students no longer show such nonchalance about their grades. Here are some examples from our 2013–14 fieldnotes at Wilson High School:

  • Seven white females, one African American female (mixed race), and one white male. All ninth grade. Kelly and Sabrina had been finishing a math exam so they were late to lunch. When Amber, Kelly, and Sabrina joined the table they all immediately take out classwork and start studying.
  • Three white females, one Asian female. Eleventh grade. Upper middle class. Samantha had an AP US history review book out on the table and began leafing through it; Jenna observed that Samantha’s class was using a different book than her class was. Samantha told her that she had bought this book as an additional study aid at Barnes & Noble.
  • Five white females (one may have been mixed race Asian). One male. Middle/upper-middle class. When I arrived at the table Chad was quizzing Luke on a music score and Theresa, Danielle, and Holly were talking about a chemistry quiz they had to take that day.
  • Eleven white females. Ninth grade. Upper middle class. Monica, Kathryn, and Allison were doing homework at the table, and left the table about five minutes into lunch to go to the library and study. Natalie was also working on her Spanish homework during lunch, but she continued to do her work at the lunch table instead of going to the library with the other girls.

These fieldnotes were made shortly after one grading period ended and over a month before the end of the next grading period—so the great concern with grades is not because exams are eminent. In short, compared to 1997–1999, our 2013–14 data show a significant increase in both the number of students concerned about their grade and the intensity of the pressure they feel.

Unsurprisingly, being “smart” became a source of status and snobbery. A girl from a high status public school in the Washington DC area reports, “Those outside of the AP class … were looked down upon for taking the easy ‘joke’ classes or simply not being smart.…”

There are multiple sources of such pressure starting with parents: “Ella said that her dad had yelled at her ‘for like a half an hour’ after her last biology test because she got an 89. Kaylee chimed in she was ‘so bad’ at Spanish because she had a 90 in the class.”

Another factor was the continuing recession and a poor job market. High rates of unemployment continued through the end of our fieldwork in the spring of 2014. This reduced the inclination to drop out or to enter the job market with a poor academic record. Even fast-food employers such as McDonald’s require you to indicate the level of schooling you attended, whether you graduated, your degree or course, and your grade point average—and claim that they will assist you in getting additional education.

It is less clear whether, on average, it is harder to get into college today, but many students certainly think it is. It’s true that a smaller percentage of the applicants are admitted to very selective schools than in the past, but this is in part because standardized application forms, available online, mean most people apply to more colleges than they did in the past.

Another source of pressure is increased enrollments in Advance Placement courses. According the College Board at the end of May in 2013, “… more than 18,000 high schools completed over four million college-level AP® Exams in 34 subject areas ranging from math and science to history and world languages.” If you want to get into a good college, you will probably require good grades in some AP courses. Last, but not least, are standardized exams and related Standards of Learning or SOLs. There is heated debate over the usefulness of such exams, but it is clear many students feel pressured to study for these exams.

These tests lower student morale and make them more cynical about the educational process. Most students recognize that there is a legitimate role for testing and grades: “[Rachel] said she understands that adults need to be able to see what students are learning, but the current testing regime isn’t working.” Of the fourteen students we formally interviewed only one had anything good to say about the usefulness of SOL examinations; most were quite negative. Here are a few of the typical responses:

  • As a ninth grader, Matt … said most of his classes were oriented towards covering only the information on the SOLs, and he thought it made the classes worse because the teachers could not teach what they thought was interesting about the subject.
  • [Jessica] said she knows they cause other students stress, but not her because she’s “responsible and pro-active” about her school work…. “I get done what needs to be done in advance…. [but she said] the SOLs especially are useless.”
  • [Brian] said he personally doesn’t feel much pressure … because he’s exceptionally good at taking standardized tests. But, he enthusiastically added that “SOLs are bad and need to die in a fire.…” [Teachers] end up teaching to the test and aren’t as passionate about the material.

Of course, students’ comments are not unbiased. Most people are anxious about, or suspicious of, the procedures that are used to evaluate them. Nonetheless it is troubling how negative most students are about SOLs and the deep skepticism that even good students express about their usefulness of this kind of pressure.

This narrowing and measuring of performance is not limited to students. There is pressure to measure teachers by how well their students perform on the tests, and schools and administrators on their ability to improve these scores. Nor is the trend limited to education. Many firms are instituting computerized “enterprise systems.” These do such things as count the number of inquiries a call center operator fields and how long they spend on each call, the number of packages a warehouse worker ships per day, or the number of “successful” and “unsuccessful” operations a surgery team completes per month.

Some benefits may come from these various measurement systems. There’s a long line of research that shows when people are evaluated and rewarded on the basis of narrowly measured indicators, the result is often “goal displacement.” They do what they can—including cheating—to improve their scores on what is measured and tend to neglect broader, more difficult-to-measure goals. It is certainly possible that this is what we are training our young people to do.

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.

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The Hedgehog’s Array: November 13, 2015

hedgehog array logo_FLAT_72dpi[3]Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“The Case for Bad Coffee,” Keith Pandolfi
“I’ve devolved into an unexpected love affair with bad coffee.”

“A Sacrificial Goat in Every Pot,” Matthew Walther
“What about the god of the wilderness? Was he appeased by this act of sorcery?”

“Against Lousy Holocaust Novels,” Dara Horn
“Why do we read Holocaust novels? To remember, the pious secularists will intone. But what does that mean?”

“Who’ll Be Last?,” Jenny Diski
“Do I want to live another year or so, or do I want to throw up, feel ill and eat when I haven’t the slightest appetite? That is a new question. I have to digest it before I can begin to answer it.”

“Why Recent Yale Protests Aren’t Radical Enough,” Mark Oppenheimer
“I know that many were offended by the students, seen in videos, who used profanity toward Master Christakis; others were made uncomfortable by the confrontational tone some took toward Dean Holloway. But I saw in those exchanges the beginning of hope.”

Hedgehogs abroad:

Editor Jay Tolson went on WTJU to discuss the new issue. Listen here!

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What’s Behind Trump’s Wall? Or, What We Can Learn from the Know-Nothings

Donald Trump at New Hampshire Town Hall (August 2015). Michael Vadon via flickr.

Donald Trump at New Hampshire Town Hall (August 2015). Michael Vadon via Flickr.

The emergence of Donald Trump as a populist leader took observers of the American political scene by surprise. Dismissed initially as a joke or fringe candidate, he is now a contender for the Republican party’s nomination. Yet even as his star rises, and more and more voters come to support him, he continues to be dismissed. Trump has no real platform, some say—what does he want to do?

But Trump’s platform may be beside the point if there are sufficient numbers of voters who are desperate for someone they think will stand up for what is right and have the guts to make it happen.

To his supporters, Trump is a hero, who, like Howard Roark, Ayn Rand’s protagonist in The Fountainhead (1943), actually builds things. Trump, unlike Roark, is no architect. But he understands the “art of the deal,” as the title of his 1987 memoir put it. Trump promises, in good Randian spirit, to overpower an old, decrepit system that protects the weak. His wealth, will, and intelligence, he proclaims, mean that he will not serve what Mitt Romney called the “takers”—the 47 percent of weak-willed Americans who live off the sweat of the real people.

But if Trump appeals to people for his ability to get things done—to build things in spite of and in the face of other people’s mediocrity—the appeal of his persona has less to do with the fact that too many Americans read Ayn Rand and than with the fact that America’s political elites really do seem to be adrift. Many Americans, facing a changing world, aware that globalization is taking away from them a fair shot at the good life, look in vain to find a candidate who will do something.

And Trump has promised to do something. In good Roark style, he’ll build something. He’ll build a wall to protect Americans from a dangerous world beyond their borders. He has blamed immigrants in his effort to tap into American’s basest nativist passions. “When Mexico sends its people,” Trump said, “they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you, they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they’re telling us what we’re getting.” The wall represents both Trump’s promise to act while others dawdle and his promise to protect working Americans from the forces of globalization. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array—November 6, 2015

hedgehog array logo_FLAT_72dpi[3]
Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“Humans of New York and the Cavalier Consumption of Others,” Vinson Cunningham
“HONY joins organizations like TED and the Moth at the vanguard of a slow but certain lexical refashioning. Once an arrangement of events, real or invented, organized with the intent of placing a dagger—artistic, intellectual, moral—between the ribs of a listener or reader, a story has lately become a glossier, less thrilling thing: a burst of pathos, a revelation without a veil to pull away.”

“Satan in Poughkeepsie,” Alex Mar
“Satanists make use of ritual—not in a spiritual way, but as psychodrama, a way to use taboos to get their adrenaline flowing.”

“Ghosts Stay Near Home,” Thomas W. Laqueur
“Charles Darwin wanted to be buried in his village churchyard, and the dean of Westminster Abbey would have been just as happy if he had had his wish. But he did not. The world of science needed him in the Abbey.”

”Buster Keaton’s Cure,” Charlie Fox
“Here he is, a little man in his trademark outfit of porkpie hat and rumpled suit. He ignores all conversational prompts, playing dumb and nodding a little as if out of beat with the situation, mid-daydream. ”

“Pilgrimages to Paris,” Victoria Olsen 
“On my last day in Paris I stopped in Père Lachaise, the famous cemetery — or rather, the cemetery for famous people. I was looking for someone, though I wasn’t sure what seeing her tombstone was going to do for me.”

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From the Archives:
“Violence and Religion: Cause or Effect?”

René Girard’s signature. Via Wikimedia Commons.

René Girard’s signature. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It is with great sadness that we here at the Hedgehog Review hear of the death of René Girard. We were honored to call him a contributor to our pages. In memory of his life and work, we’ve brought a piece he wrote for us in 2004 out from our archives: “Violence and Religion: Cause or Effect?”:

The question of violence and religion arouses a great deal of justified interest today. It is a difficult and complex question. If we simply ask, “is this or that religion violent or peaceful?,” we do not take into account the fact that violence comes from us human beings. We all believe this regardless of whether or not we believe in God. The question of religious violence, therefore, is first and foremost a human question, a social and anthropological question, and not a directly religious question.

Read the rest of the piece here.

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Enchanted Embroidery: An Interview with Hinke Schreuders

Two works by Amsterdam-based artist Hinke Schreuders appear in our fall issue, both using appropriated images affixed to linen and enhanced by embroidery. We asked the artist a few questions about her work.

schreuders view on paper2

view on paper #2, 2014, Hinke Schreuders

Please describe how you choose an image. What do you look for? 

I think I choose images intuitively, but since I have a degree in art, of course, this intuition is based on things I learned at art school and during my practice as an artist. The images of landscapes need to have a certain iconic quality, as well as stillness and some mystery. The use of landscapes is relatively new in my work, but as for the images on which women are depicted, yes, they do have certain characteristics I return to again and again.

The women, for example, almost never look in the camera, but seem to be distracted by something happening that is not in our view. This makes for a kind of suspense or suggestion that adds something new to the existing picture. After I altered them, the women seem to be distracted or seduced by something outside the image; they may look confused or worried where before they were plain, careless mannequins.


You must spend a great deal of time looking through old magazines, journals, calendars, and other ephemera. How does the concept of repurposing or recycling enter in to your work? Can you say a little about your experience interacting with mass-produced, printed materials?

The concept of repurposing does not, for me, have a meaning in itself. What is important, however, is that the prints I choose provide a starting point, as opposed to working on a blank canvas. I like it that there is something present that I can react to and make my own by adding or obscuring elements.

The fact that the photos are printed pages from old magazines does make for a vulnerable working surface, since the paper usually is old, yellowed, and somewhat brittle. I like it that this quality emphasizes the human and personal vulnerability that exists as a subject in my work. Continue reading

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