Whatever-ville

With the recent school shootings in Minnesota, the omnipresent news stories about alleged teenage delinquency, and the various popular TV shows about independent upper class youth run amuck, it’s no wonder our culture is obsessed with asking: “what’s wrong with these kids?”

The newest round of commentary comes from noted youth and crime expert Elliott Currie. His new book, The Road to Whatever makes an attempt to address what Salon magazine calls, “the epidemic of checked-out, drug-taking middle-class teens.”

Currie built the book around a number of interviews with youth, both in the throws of addiction and in recovery. He chose to write about teens whom had a pre-existing rapport with, and you can tell he spoke to them each several times, at different stages in their addiction/recovery cycles. Through this process, Currie eventually arrives at what he believes to be the real crux of the issue – “carelessness,” or the idea that, for many troubled teens, “you really, truly don’t care what happens to you – you don’t care whether you live or die. You don’t care what happens to anybody else, either.”

Currie’s believes that our society is gradually hardening. This means more parents are throwing their teenagers out when they misbehave, while teachers often turn blind eye to the real problems. Abandoned by parents, youth like those Currie spoke to end up isolated and nihilistic.

Ultimately, Currie argues that the disappearance of pro-social government and cultural programs benefiting troubled youth, and a general societal “sink or swim” mentality toward kids is the problem. As the author puts it, these teens are the victims of “a world of narrow, self-serving individualism in which real support from ... adults is rare and punishment and self-righteous exclusion are routine.” He adds, “it is a world that places high expectations for performance on adolescents but does remarkably little to help them do well.”

Currie’s found that when troubled teens do seek help, they’re often simply given medication – rather than encouraged to speak and to talk about their problems. One of the subjects interviewed described visiting a psychiatrist a mere three times before being handed a prescription. She says,


“The first time I went in there, I said, “I’m depressed, I’d like to take some pills.” He just asks me about my symptoms. He goes, “OK, so you’re depressed. All right, do you feel this?” “No.” “Do you need to sleep?” “Yeah.” So he gave me some sleeping pills and some Prozac. Boom, that was it.
Rarely, Currie illustrates, do teens get the support they need to keep from abusing the prescriptions. The young woman above adds, “The sleeping pills were a bad idea, because I ended up taking a lot of those.”

Currie’s sources also describe feeling ignored and underestimated at school. One student, Zach, talked about going from being an “A” student, to eventually drop out. He says,
“I used to win championships and shit like that all. It was cool. Doing all that shit with science fairs. Whatever, you know what I’m saying? …Schools became boring to me. They couldn’t teach me nothing new ... And then I just started doing drugs ... then I just couldn’t keep up ‘cause it wasn’t no point [sic] to do homework if you was never in class.”
When Zach was in class, his teachers were often consciously aware of the problem. Instead of addressing it, he says they would tell him, “put your head down and go to sleep.” Most of the students interviewed described similar experiences. More often than not, they were shuttled off to alternative schools (where their problems often continued) or expelled. In some cases the teens dropped out on their own. Ignored by a system that favor more “promising” students, they decided to ignore the system right back.

A point the author alludes to, but doesn’t address, is why these teens are really considered failures to their middle-class communities. He doesn’t get into the fact that, in a community concerned with money and “making it,” they are failures because they’re “slumming it.” One of Currie’s interviewees aptly refers to her problems as a “white kind of messing up.” It’s possible that the teens he spoke to are often seen “failures” because they don’t have the drive to stay in the middle-class world. In their inability to “recognize” all their parents have done for them, there may be more going on. Instead of recognizing what are often cries for attention and recognition from their parents, most adults in their lives will only distance themselves further.
The Road to Whatever does get at the fact that middle-class, “normal” Americans are no less free of dysfunctional family dynamics than your average working-class and poor communities. Another of Currie’s sources, for example, faces emotional abuse from her mother, an alcoholic father, a sexually-abusive step-father, and eventual abandonment.
Though Currie’s perspective is often spot-on, he often fails to draw a connection to larger social issues. Not until the very last page of the book does he acknowledge that the problems these students face might not be problems for youth alone. He writes that the harsh and irresponsible culture oppressing these teens “doesn’t come from nowhere ... it is influenced by real-world conditions and especially the eroding social supports and constricting opportunities that are now so much a part of ordinary life for Americans, including, increasingly, those relatively high on the social ladder.”

He argues that not much can be done for these troubled teens unless our culture, as a whole, changes. Parents will only really have the capacity to be there for their teenagers, he writes, when, “we begin to change the broader rules of the game.” He advocates for a return to decent and inclusive policies for families, schools, and workplaces.

In other words, how do parents, working insane hours to earn the car, the plasma screen TV, the high-speed internet suddenly overcome their consumerist mentality and take responsibility? How do over-worked teachers take on even more? In short, how do we turn the “me generation” into the “we generation”? While Currie’s book is a good starting point, he might leave his readers with far more questions than answers.

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