That Coleman in 1959 saw a direct link between teen culture and high school achievement is significant. Though the first public high school opened in Boston in 1821, for more than a hundred years, the majority of American teens were otherwise engaged. Most didn’t hold a high school diploma until 1940. The byproduct of more universal schooling—or perhaps its main product—was the American teenager, “a New Deal project” much like the Hoover Dam, wrote cultural critic Thomas Hine.
Actually, Hine noted, the word “teenager” first appeared in a 1941 Popular Science article. Compulsory education gave rise, inevitably, to mid-20th-century teen culture, and in quick succession, to nearly every cultural artifact we now associate with teens, most of them tied to breakthroughs in technology. Cheaper automobiles, color printing, and better amplification brought us car culture, comic books, and pop music—who can imagine a crooning Frank Sinatra screaming his way through the 1942 Paramount sessions? A generation later, another technological trio—birth control pills, synthesized LSD, and multitrack recording—brought us sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.
Coleman hadn’t much cared for high school himself. Born in Indiana in 1926, he attended high school in Greenhills, Ohio, then in Louisville, where each year two rival schools fought bitterly on the football field…
Coleman ended up at Columbia University, where a chance dinner conversation with friends near the end of his tenure there got him thinking about how the culture of one’s high school can have a life-changing impact—actually, it was that conversation that got him studying schools in the first place.
When he began interviewing high school students a few years later, he discovered that little had changed. In schools from the inner city to the most privileged suburbs, teens were intensely social, spending most of their free time playing sports and hanging out. “Adults often forget how ‘person-oriented’ children are,” he wrote in 1959 in the Harvard Educational Review. “They have not yet moved into the world of cold impersonality in which many adults live.”
The paradox of modern schooling after World War II, he found, was that just as our complex industrial society made formal education more important, adolescent culture was shifting teens’ attention away from education, prompting adolescents to squeeze out “maximum rewards for minimal effort.” One girl told him what it really took to be part of “the leading crowd” at her high school: “Don’t be too smart. Flirt with boys. Be cooperative on dates.”
Coleman found that in many schools, athletics ruled. More than 40 percent of boys, for instance, wanted to be remembered in school as a “star athlete,” but fewer than 30 percent favored the epithet “brilliant student,” despite the fact that, as Coleman observed, school was “an institution explicitly designed to train students, not athletes.”
Like factory workers or prison inmates, to which Coleman directly compared them, he found that most high school students in the 1950s had responded to school’s demands by “holding down effort to a level which can be maintained by all.” The institutions may be different, he wrote, “but the demands are there, and the students develop a collective response to these demands.”