Harsh criticism of middle-class American culture, one pervaded by a new form of social Darwinism that places its youth at increasingly high risk for the ills long associated with disadvantaged adolescents.
Sociologist Currie (Criminology, Law, and Society/Univ. of California, Irvine; Reckoning, 1993, etc.) sees the social climate in America as being shaped by a modern market ideology that views life as a competitive scramble in which individuals must sink or swim on their own. Adolescents today, he says, bear the marks of growing up in a world dominated by a lifeboat ethic that denies mutual responsibility and assistance to the vulnerable. From 2000 to 2002, the author conducted a study of adolescents in treatment for substance abuse; here, his recorded conversations with these youths, as well as with many of his college students, provide a vivid picture of adolescent troubles. From them, Currie identifies and examines in some detail four main themes: inversion of responsibility, intolerance of transgression, rejection of nurturance, and worth seen as contingent on meeting certain narrow standards of performance. In their own words, adolescents describe their encounters with these attitudes in families, schools, and other institutions. Parents are shown as quick to discipline but slow to take responsibility, to nurture and to support. Schools, Currie declares, are prone to categorize students as “good” or “bad” and to banish the bad. He charges that treatment programs, which often offer medication as the first form of intervention, favor such harsh therapeutic techniques as shaming and humiliation. From his interviews, he concludes that the help that mattered most to youth was practical assistance that did not try to change them but helped them make changes they had already chosen. Despite his assertion that the root of the problem is cultural, in his final chapter he does offer some specific steps for better meeting the needs of troubled adolescents.
Tosses a daunting challenge to educators, social workers, and policy shapers.