Producing Success: The Culture of Personal Advancement in an American High School

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Middle- and upper-middle-class students continue to outpace those from less privileged backgrounds. Most attempts to redress this inequality focus on the issue of access to financial resources, but as Producing Success makes clear, the roots of this problem go deeper than mere economics. In this eye-opening study, Peter Demerath examines a typical suburban American high school to explain how some students get ahead.

Demerath undertook four years of research at a Midwestern public high school, observing the mercilessly competitive culture that drives students to advance. Producing Success reveals the many ways the community's ideology of achievement plays out. Students hone their work ethics as they employ a variety of strategies to succeed, from negotiating with teacher to cheating. Parents relentlessly push their children while manipulating school policies to help them get ahead. And school administrators assist high achievers in myriad ways, even naming over forty students valedictorians. Yet, as Demerath shows, this unswerving commitment to individual advancement takes its toll, leading to student stress and fatigue, incivility and vandalism, and the alienation of the less successful. Insightful and candid, Producing Success is an often troubling account of the educationally and morally questionable results of the American culture of success.

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Editorial Reviews


"This anthropological account provides a detailed, well-documented description of how students, parents, teachers, and administrators negotiated pervasive pressures to succeed at all costs in a prestigious, success-oriented public high school. Demerath draws a troubling portrait of the price students pay in stress and fatigue, and the marginalization and alienation of those unable or unwilling to conform. Few anthropologists have examined cultural transmission in middle-class high school settings."

American Anthropologist

Producing Success provides a unique, complex, and intriguing look at a cultural system aimed at constructing advantage that challenges readers to consider ‘how public schools articulate with the competitive requirements of [U.S.] society’”

Mary Catherine Bateson

“This fascinating and deeply disturbing study of a premier suburban public high school will leave readers pondering the paradox that the efforts of parents and teachers to advance the futures of individual students may be damaging to all students, undermining the love of learning and propelling us into an uncaring and Hobbesian future of our own making. Demerath writes with clarity and specificity that bring the stress and incivility of the system into vivid focus for every concerned citizen and parent.”

Herv� Varenne

Producing Success tells a very good story, highlighting matters that are of both current and perennial concern. Demerath’s book should lead to interesting discussions about the stresses of academic meritocracy in America. It is a distinguished addition to the literature on American high schools.”

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226142395
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 12/15/2009
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Demerath is associate professor in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development at the University of Minnesota.

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Table of Contents

Introduction Producing Success 1

Pt. 1 Community, Home, and School Settings

1 The Wilton Way: Middle-Class Culture and Practice 27

2 Parental Support, Intervention, and Policy Manipulation 48

3 The Role of the School: Institutional Advantaging 63

Pt. 2 Student Identity and Practice

4 Identities for Control and Success: The Acquisition of Psychological Capital 85

5 Teaching the "Point-Hungry" Student: Hypercredentialing in Practice 103

Pt. 3 Costs of Personal Advancement

6 "Generation Stress" and School Success 129

7 Alienation, Marginalization, and Incivility 152

8 Conclusions 169

Appendix WBHS 2002 Student Survey 185

Notes 191

References 195

Index 203

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