A review by James MacFarlan on behalf of the 21st Century Learning Initiative

“Whatever …”

This ubiquitous, all-embracing retort of American youth is here taken to be a symbol of the growing ‘careless-ness’ of adolescents to any dangerous or self-destructive act they have been responsible for.

Elliott Currie, an American academic with a Pulitzer Prize-nominated pedigree, proves that he is not afraid to leave the comfort of the lecture hall to meet alienated, rejected young people across America in an attempt to explain a very contemporary phenomenon: why is it that more and more white, middle class, affluent boys and girls are prepared to indulge in regular, sustained acts of crime and anti-social behaviour, of which the recent shootings at Columbine are the most extreme and tragic face?

The author’s painstaking, unsentimental unravelling of this mystery is by turns shocking and exhilarating: shocking because of the hypocrisy and neglect Currie reveals at the heart of American society; exhilarating because of the mostly straightforward solutions he offers to alleviate, even eradicate, the problem.

His searing analysis is a blunt warning to all of us in the Western, ‘civilised’ world of what happens when our own children are neglected in favour of material comfort and convenience alone.

The main thrust of Currie’s disturbing critique about the alienation of much American youth towards their parents, their schools and the highly competitive atmosphere in which they find themselves trapped, is that being white and affluent is no longer any protection against the perils of adolescence. He is eloquent about his nation’s almost complete denial of the scale of the problem. The arguments he hears from all sides often boil down to, ‘Surely being middle class is the solution, not the problem? It doesn’t happen to our kids, it happens to … well, their kids.’

Even one of his subjects – a young woman in precisely the sort of comfortable surroundings that are supposed to insure against crime and drug addiction, for instance – doubted whether her experience would be any use to Currie’s research. ‘Mine was more of a white kind of messing up.’

The unstated sub-text of his book – loud and clear to anyone familiar with middle class lifestyles in other Western societies – is that where America leads, there others will follow. The reader cannot help but ask, How long will it be before a school in England, or France, or Australia (‘Wherever …’) suffers a tragedy on the scale of Columbine? The implications are chilling.

Currie is also eloquent on the paradox of public perceptions about why teenagers behave so badly across much of comfortable, suburban America, and the reality of how they are being brought up. The media, for instance, has tended to focus on a familiar list of suspects: declining discipline, leniency and indulgence towards children, the emphasis on rights before responsibilities, the general spread of ‘liberal’ values. Currie then states how these popular diagnoses are strangely at odds with the truth: zero tolerance policies in schools, leading to widespread suspensions and expulsions; the sending of juvenile offenders to adult courts; the retention and spread of corporal punishment; execution for crimes committed while a juvenile; no universal health care or paid parental maternity leave; no national apprenticeship system to bridge the gap between school and the world of work.

As Currie notes of one observer’s remark, the US has become the land of the ‘non-helping hand’.

He then explains how he is going to explore the troubles of American youth in this Darwinian context, based on lengthy, recurring interviews with white, middle class, young men and women who are either currently in trouble or have just emerged from the hell of a desperately unhappy adolescence. He notes common themes appearing in all these interviews and wonders to himself, ‘How did they get through it at all?’

Most of the teenagers / young men and women he talks to have endured a whole combination of problems rather than one isolated difficulty. Currie concedes that they do not represent a systematic sample, but he does say that they all display compelling examples of the sort of behaviour that troubles us most; and all describe a world far removed from the kind of cosseted, indulgent environments we assume they inhabit. Even more worrying, the ‘intervention’ or ‘help’ most of them received from schools and care agencies actually exacerbated their problems.

Here, possibly, the neutral observer might quibble with the broad sweep of his findings. His target audience has not been selected scientifically or subjected to comparison and scrutiny via a control group. Wouldn’t it be simple enough to obtain another angle on much of his teenage clients’ angst with in depth interviews of their parents, friends, teachers and social workers? Occasionally it is unavoidable to escape the feeling that only one voice is being heard each time.

For all that, the raw anger and contempt of his subjects leaps out of the pages of Currie’s book, and will not be denied.

For instance, Currie spends much of his time exploring the answer to the question why most of his subjects shoot heroin, drive cars dangerously, cut themselves etc. Currie discovers that they have trouble being clear or specific. At the core of this state of mind is a general feeling of not caring what happens, to them or anyone else.

‘I just laughed. I didn’t care,’ was a common refrain.

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Sometimes this state of apathy was reached after a long build-up over time, and in other cases it was sudden, explosive. But whatever the case, the lack of caring was total – about what people think of them, what the physical consequences might be, or what the official consequences may be. Frighteningly, Currie suggests that there are now many more risky opportunities available to adolescents, especially with drugs and cars and bikes, and that long term worries become replaced in many of their minds by the immediate, practical need to get high and have a laugh. And he returns again and again to the middle class conundrum. Surely they have more to lose? Yes, they agree, we do, but we carry on anyway. At the extreme, some of his interviewees actually embraced the consequences. So there is more than one road to ‘Whatever …’; but there are common themes and remarkably similar experiences, chief of which is that life in mainstream America is much harder, more unforgiving and precarious than the conventional picture would have us believe.