Rise and Fall of the American Teenager: A New History of the American Adolescent Experience

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In the groundbreaking work, Thomas Hine examines the American teenager as a social invention shaped by the needs of the twentieth century. With intelligence, insight, imagination, and humor he traces the culture of youth in America—from the spiritual trials of young Puritans and the vision quests of Native Americans to the media-blitzed consumerism of contempory thirteen-to-nineteen -year-olds. The resulting study is a glorious appreciation of youth that challenges us to confront our sterotypesm, rethink our ...
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Overview

In the groundbreaking work, Thomas Hine examines the American teenager as a social invention shaped by the needs of the twentieth century. With intelligence, insight, imagination, and humor he traces the culture of youth in America—from the spiritual trials of young Puritans and the vision quests of Native Americans to the media-blitzed consumerism of contempory thirteen-to-nineteen -year-olds. The resulting study is a glorious appreciation of youth that challenges us to confront our sterotypesm, rethink our expectations, and consider anew the lives of those individuals who are blessing, our bane, and our future.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In the first decade of the 21st century, the U.S. will have its largest-ever generation of teenagers. Even if that were not so, this book would be vitally important. Hine (Populuxe) covers 400 years of American history in his fluent, broad-brushed account of the paradoxical position of those enduring their adolescence in American society. Generally viewed as the best of times and as times of madness and despair, the teen years have constantly shifted shape in adult consciousness. Pointing out that the term "teenager" itself is young (it dates from the 1940s, when it described a new consumer market), Hine convincingly rebuts the belief that teendom is a natural stage of human development. He is irritated with his own baby boomer generation for failing to produce a real revolution, comparing its efforts unfavorably with the campus unrest of the 1760s at Yale, Harvard and elsewhere, when students "imbibed the Spirit of the times," and many contributed to the American Revolution. In Hine's view, boomers have gone from blaming their parents for the ills of society to blaming their own children, about whom they hold "deeply contradictory" beliefs. Hine focuses on high school (without which, he contends, "there are no teenagers") as the "weak link" in the educational system, "because Americans have never been able to agree on what it should accomplish" yet cannot imagine young people in roles outside the schools and colleges where they are, he charges, warehoused. Anyone who professes concern about America's future should read and ponder this provocative, well-argued book. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
VOYA
This sweeping and fascinating examination of the roles that teenagers have played in United States history, from the first settlers to the present, crosses societal, economic, political, and psychological lines. The words "rise" and "fall" in the title refer more to how society first invented "teenagers" and then changed its attitude toward teensrather than to anything teenagers have done or not done. The author places research on adolescence in an interesting context, providing a complete "youth time line" while offering some fascinating ways of approaching and interpreting the best studies available. The uniqueness of the book lies in the author's perspective in looking at how teens were viewed and treated in each period of American history, and the way Hine illustrates with copious quotes how economic and societal realities determined that view. By the time the author reaches the problems of youth today, readers are able to see how we arrived at this juncture and to understand the solutions Hine sets forthwhether or not we agree with them. A glance at the extensive list of sources used by Hine, including Daniel Offer, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, Joseph Adelson, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Joy Dryfoos, and Mary Pipher, reassures the reader that the author has indeed done his homework. The book is designed to have popular appeal; the omission of footnotes or complete citations will be a problem for researchers. However those interested in or working with young adults and those who do public speaking and training will welcome the wealth of interesting facts, quotes, and viewpoints presented here. Index. Biblio. Further Reading. 1999, Bard/Avon, Ages Adult, 322p,$24.Reviewer: Sue Rosenzweig
Library Journal
"Teenagers occupy a special place in society," writes Hine (Populuxe). "They are envied, and sold to, studied and deplored." As a welcome and timely antidote to the current wave of bad press about teens and violence, Hine says we think of teens as predators rather than as victims and suggests that maybe we shouldn't. To help us understand the teenage phenomenon better, he offers a social history of teenagers encompassing several countries and decades. He writes about ways the culture has affected what teenage has meant for youth and how youth have been perceived, as in World War II when teenagers readily took on roles supporting the war effort. Interesting, enjoyable, and multifaceted, Hine's work defies pigeonholing by covering anthropology, psychology, communications, and sociology. A valuable teaching tool in any of the above course areas, it is well researched and includes a good recommended reading list. Highly recommended.--Sandra Isaacson, OAO Corp/U.S. EPA Technical Research Ctr. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
This attempt to create a new historical perspective on the American teenager barely scratches the surface. Cultural historian Hine's (Populuxe, 1986, etc.) larger argument is fairly convincing: the American teenager was a social invention of the New Deal, designed to get the young out of the workplace in order to provide more jobs for adults with children to support. As both social and market conditions have changed in the last few decades, this social construct has become obsolete and actually a hindrance to society, but has continued to maintain an important structuring idea about the way we think of our young. The "fall" (dropping out, becoming pregnant, joining gangs, etc.) of the teenager can be attributed to a tension created between a loss of license for irresponsibility (youths tried as adults, etc.) and a continued denial of their place within society. His solution to this problem is both simplistic and impossible to set into action—he envisions an ideological shift by which we come to view teenagers as beginning members of society who need to continue to be protected but are allowed an active, albeit, provisional access to meaningful cultural interactions. His only practical suggestion toward this end is the continuance of charter schools, which he views as at least organizing schooling around a specific goal rather than the "wasting" of teenagers' time. The weakness of the book is primarily methodological; Hine seems to confuse his social constructivist notion of the teenager as a historically contingent creation with a universalistic ahistorical notion of the teenager as a young person who is actively attempting to find his or her place in the world. This confusioncauses the purely historical chapters, such as "Dancing Daughters," which focuses on changing female sexuality, to seem disconnected from the larger focus of the work; it reads as a rather random exposition of the shift from kissing to dancing to heavy petting. A rather weak treatment of an important and timely topic.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380973583
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/28/1999
  • Edition description: 1st Bard Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 322
  • Product dimensions: 6.65 (w) x 9.62 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Hine, the author of four previous books, including Populuxe and The Total Package, is a writer on culture, history, and design. He is a columnist for Philadelphia Magazine and a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, Martha Stewart Living, Architectural Record, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other publications. He Lives in Philadelphia.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Teenage Mystique

America created the teenager in its own image--brash, unfinished, ebullient, idealistic, crude, energetic, innocent, greedy, changing in all sorts of unsettling ways. A messy, sometimes loutish character who is nonetheless capable of performing heroically when necessary, the teenager embodies endless potential not yet hobbled by the defeats and compromises of life. The American teenager is the noble savage in blue jeans, the future in your face.

Teenagers occupy a special place in the society. They are envied and sold to, studied and deplored. They are expected to break some rules, but there are other restrictions that apply only to them. They are at a golden moment in life--and not to be trusted.

Ours is a culture that is perpetually adolescent: always becoming but never mature, incessantly losing its none-too-evident innocence. We don't want to admit that we're grown, mature and responsible. We admire people like Ronald Reagan, James Stewart, or David Letterman, who maintain a charmingly awkward, fresh-faced teenage style into middle age and beyond. We like freshman legislators and suspect the experience of professional politicians.

We are besotted with youth--it's nature's Viagra. Teenagers are filled with new powers and the ability to use them. We respond with wonder, envy--and alarm. We know we can't keep up with these kids. We wonder if they will be able to keep their energies under control. We worry that they will run roughshod over everything that's worthwhile.

What was new about the idea of the teenager at the time the word first appeared during World War II was the assumptionthat all young people, regardless of their class, location, or ethnicity, should have essentially the same experience, spent with people exactly their age, in an environment defined by high school and pop culture. The teen years have become defined not as an interlude but rather as something central to life, a period of preparation and self-definition, a period of indulgence and unfocused energy. From the start, it has embodied extreme ambivalence about the people it described. Teenagers embrace the latest dances and the latest fashions. Adults fear that teenagers will go totally out of control. The teenage years have been defined as, at once, the best and freest of life and a time of near madness and despair.

Our beliefs about teenagers are deeply contradictory: They should be free to become themselves. They need many years of training and study. They know more about the future than adults do. They know hardly anything at all. They ought to know the value of a dollar. They should be protected from the world of work. They are frail, vulnerable creatures. They are children. They are sex fiends. They are the death of culture. They are the hope of us all.

We love the idea of youth, but are prone to panic about the young. The very qualities that adults find exciting and attractive about teenagers are entangled with those we find terrifying. Their energy threatens anarchy. Their physical beauty and budding sexuality menaces moral standards. Their assertion of physical and intellectual power makes their parents at once proud and painfully aware of their own mortality.

These qualities--the things we love, fear, and think we know about the basic nature of young people--constitute a teenage mystique: a seductive but damaging way of understanding young people. This mystique encourages adults to see teenagers (and young people to see themselves) not as individuals but as potential problems. Such a pessimistic view of the young can easily lead adults to feel that they are powerless to help young people make better lives for themselves. Thus, the teenage mystique can serve as an excuse for elders to neglect the coming generation and, ultimately, to see their worst fears realized.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, America can anticipate the largest generation of teenagers in its history, one even larger than the baby boomer generation that entered its teens four decades ago. Some see these young people as barbarians at the gates, and others look forward greedily to large numbers of new consumers. But all seem to agree that having so many teenagers around will mean something important for the country. That's why this is a crucial moment to question the teenage mystique and look for more useful ways to think about the young.



I'm going to begin with a horror story, one that is not at all typical of young people's experience today. It does, however, illustrate how the teenage mystique provokes us to draw spurious generalizations from a singular abhorrent act and how it can lead to strange and destructive forms of denial.

On the night of June 6, 1997, an eighteen-year-old woman from Fork River, New Jersey, gave birth to a six-pound-six-ounce baby boy in the women's rest room of the catering hall where her high school senior prom was taking place. Her son was found dead, tied in a plastic bag in a trash can in the lavatory where he was born. His mother, meanwhile, was dancing, smiling, and to all outward appearances, enjoying what's supposed to be a magical night.

This story excited tremendous public interest, as true horrors do. Always there are questions. How could she not have known that she was pregnant? Didn't her parents, with whom she was living, know? And how about her boyfriend of two years, the presumed father? The explanation that she had taken to wearing baggy clothes didn't seem convincing.

The bigger, more fundamental question was how she could have done it. She said she believed the baby was born dead. (Prosecutors felt otherwise, and in the end, she pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter and was sentenced to a fifteen-year jail term.) But even a miscarriage spurs more emotion than this young woman displayed. According to one account, she touched up her makeup at the bathroom mirror after discarding her child, then emerged smiling and animated, mingling with her classmates as if absolutely nothing had happened.

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