Ambitious children looking for purpose

May 16, 1999|By Susan Reimer | By Susan Reimer,Sun Staff

"The Ambitious Generation: America's Teenagers, Motivated but Directionless," by Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson. Yale University Press. 321 pages. $26.

In the spring of 1989, researchers were astonished to discover how ambitious eighth-graders were. Most of those interviewed expected to go to college, earn graduate degrees and work in the white-collar world.

When Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson returned to these kids as high school sophomores, they expected to find them much more subdued. A dose of reality will do that.

But ambitions of these teens had not wilted. And when compared with similar studies in the 1970s and 1980s, the authors found a dramatic rise in the ambitions of American adolescents, and it cut across all social, economic, race and gender lines.

It was easy for the authors to title the book they would write on their findings: "The Ambitious Generation." But the subtitle will make parents and educators squirm: "American's Teenagers, Motivated but Directionless."

We should be pleased. Our children have figured out that a high school diploma isn't worth what it was in the 1950s, and Schneider and Stevenson illustrate that with detailed narratives about teens from the past and present.

But parents and high school counselors fail today's teens, the authors suggest, when they focus on getting kids into college but fail to help them sort out what they would like to do when they get out.

To use an analogy teens and parents can appreciate, it is like giving your 18-year-old the keys to the car without asking where he is going.

For adolescents, the notion of a career is as insubstantial as a daydream. They don't know how to make that career a reality, and the choices they must make among high school courses and among college applications is overwhelming.

The successful teens, the authors argue, are those whose educational and occupational goals are complementary. They call these "aligned ambitions:" they know what kind of job they want and what kind of education is needed to get it.

It is not enough for the adults to praise the ambitions of adolescents or to boost them into the most prestigious college that will accept them, the authors argue.

Instead, parents must use their contacts in the world to provide their children with an up-close and personal look at careers that interest them, and guidance counselors must help them choose the high school courses and the post-secondary education that will help them achieve it.

Schneider is a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. Stevenson, who died unexpectedly this winter, was a senior adviser to the U. S. deputy secretary of education. Their book is based on a longitudinal study of 7,000 teen-agers over five years.

But the audience for whom they write is much more privileged than their cross-section of students would suggest.

The authors suggest that parents support their teens in unpaid internships to help them refine their career choices, and that parents discourage teens from working at the kinds of mind-numbing service or manual jobs that have financed so many college educations.

By doing so, they suggest that the parents not only have the money to do this, but the contacts a variety of professional worlds as well.

And they write that close ties between parents and and their children are the social capital a parent can spend when trying to micro-manage his child through complex choices. This is an idealized notion. Teens are never more irritable, or downright belligerent, than when pondering the vast open-endedness of their own futures. A parent would have better luck convincing a teen to dress for dinner.

The authors admit that even the most directed teen is likely to change his mind on the path to adulthood and a career. But they suggest that those teens who have some experience with strategic planning can change course more nimbly.

Schneider and Stevenson have crafted a pedantic discussion of the question adults so often ask kids: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" The narratives they include serve to make the book readable, if not a good read.

But their point would be well taken even if it did not have the weight of their research. Parents and educators cannot simply ask that question. They must help children set a course toward the answer.

Susan Reimer has worked for The Sun for more than 20 years, first as a sportswriter and most recently as a columnist writing on family life. She still has not decided what she wants to be when she grows up.

Pub Date: 05/16/99

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