Thomas Hine and Patricia Hersch present us with two views of the contemporary American teenager -- one based in an historical analysis of the creation of the teenager and the other based in an ethnographic account of contemporary teenage life. The perspective that results from these two views is a more complex one that the usual, uncomplimentary stereotype of the adolescent as moody, disrespectful, and oversexed. This paper examines the ways in which both of these authors present views of American adolescence.
Hine's view of modern teenager is grounded in an historical analysis, arguing in The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager that while the life of teenagers a hundred years ago was certainly quite different from the life led by adolescents today, there are important similarities. The generation of teenagers today uses the years between childhood and adulthood as a time in which to gain the skills needed to become a fully functional adult -- a status that tends to come later now than it did several generations ago. But while teenagers can in some ways be seen as adults in training, they should also -- Hine argues -- be taken seriously as cultural, economic and political agents. Teenagers today -- as was true in 1953 or 1903 or 1853 -- are capable of accomplishing more than adults tend to give them credit for, he argues:
Yet each of these different modes of youth shaped the world we live in today. And young people's success in adapting to so many roles suggest that they may have greater abilities than we give them credit for (Hine 6).
Hine describes the daily routine of teenagers over the past century as being rooted in many of the same routines and rituals as are the lives of teenagers today. Certainly there are differences: Teenagers a hundred years ago would have walked to their schools, which were in general much smaller and much more rural than are schools of today. Because the nation's smaller population was far more widely dispersed, schools were often much farther away from homes and many teenagers would have had to walk some considerable distance -- although not necessarily in the snow with packs of wolves after them, as the stories that today's teenagers have to hear suggest.
Today's teenagers are more likely to drive than to walk to schools, and those schools themselves might be as large as a thousand times as many students as the rural one-room schoolhouses of the lat 19th century, which might have had only a few dozen students. The subjects that teenagers have studied have also changed: Gone from all but the curriculum of a very few private schools is the Latin that many students would have studied, and subjects such as rhetoric have been set aside entirely. Students are more likely to study science now -- few high school students a century ago would have studied physics. And none of them would have been able to study about DNA and modern evolutionary theory because DNA had not yet been discovered.
But while the subjects themselves have changed, the basic purpose of the education of high school students remains the same as it has been for generations: To prepare them either to enter the workforce or to go on to future education. Far more high school students now enter college than did a century ago or even a few generations ago. This is in part because jobs now often require the kinds of skills taught in schools (this would not have been true for a teenager who would after high school work on the same family farm that he or she had been working since early childhood) and in part simply because there is a general social expectation today that good workers have at least some college experience.
One thing that has changed is the attitude of teenagers toward work: As is clear from Hersch's discussions with a small group of teenagers, those teens do not see their work as fundamentally important to their family's economic status. And for the teens that she has talked to this seems to be true: Any money that they earn tends to go to pay for clothes, CDs, gas, make-up, and entertainment rather than for food for the table. Teenagers -- both Hine's…