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Act Your Age! Changes the Field of Middle Level Education

Posted By: Kenneth Saltman on October 2, 2001
Gary Fine's review of Act Your Age! picks up on a fundamental problem with Nancy Lesko's important book but misses just how significant a contribution to the field of Middle Level Education this book makes. Middle Level education is dominated by technocratic concerns with behavioral control and developmental psychological perspectives that are ahistorical and apolitical. Multicultural values tend to get tokenized as a side issue usually justified by market-based demographic shifts and the goal of "serving students" rather than based on ethical and political principles. Middle Level Education as a field has, until Lesko's book, failed to come to terms with the political realities that the field has been built on.

Lesko reveals the extent to which the central presuppositions of the field were largely defined through struggles over white supremacy, male domination, and imperial conquest. For example, she shows how contemporary Middle Level issues such as storm and stress, teaming, and curricular organization clearly trace to some of the most insidious ideologies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Aside from Henry Jenkin's edited Children's Culture Reader this is one of the only books that situates adolescent development historically and politically.

Fine's confusion about Lesko's thesis on the construction of adolescence belies ignorance of contemporary cultural theory such as that of Stuart Hall, Lawrence Grossberg, and principally Michel Foucault that informs the book. The constructivist thesis that suggests that adolescence and, yes, race are cultural constructs does not deny the material reality of basic biological phenomena such as skin color, height or nostril diameter. Rather, it supposes that the classificatory schemas that overlay material realities are always ideological in that they are wrapped up in power stuggles over meanings and things. There are many implications of this for a theory of adolescence. Some of these include recognition that claims about youth are never innocent but always need to be scrutinized for whose interests such claims represent. For example, the insights of constructivism do not necessarily have to result in a tossing out of developmental theories such as those of Piaget. Kincheloe and Steinberg's work on what they call "post formal thinking" provides an example of the addition to developmentalism of self-critical views on the relation between knowledge and power.

The one problem with Lesko's book is its failure to make overt claims about the political and ethical ideals that undergird her own project. In fact, the standard feminist criticisms about Foucault's failure to admit his own location apply here (Nancy Fraser, Unruly Practices). If Lesko rejects the progressive vision of progress then what is the justification of her own writing. Lesko has a transcendent vision despite her disavowals. The work would be improved by an open embrace of the values that undergird the project that would then allow her to answer the criticisms such as Fine's "On what basis do we choose?" Lesko does not have to ground her work in the psuedo-science that grounds current claims about adolescence. Nor does she have to resort to a disingenuous hiding of her own ethical and political grounding. She could follow the lead of someone like Stuart Hall and embrace a cultural politics that is tentative and non-foundational yet takes a stand. He calls this a politics without guarantees. In the field of education Henry Giroux, another scholar on youth who has drawn on Cultural Studies, has called this "taking a stand without standing still." Like Giroux, Lesko could situate her work within a project that aims to expand democratic social relations.

I am currently teaching a Middle Level course with Act Your Age! and it provides both the historical backdrop for contemporary study of adolescence and it links the history of the invention of adolescence to current framing of issues at the Middle Level. Prior to this book I had to use a reader of historical material such as Gail Bederman's Manliness and Civilization and Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man to address these themes. Lesko's book does the work of putting this history in the context of the field. And she does it very well.

Kenneth J. Saltman
Social and Cultural Studies in Education
DePaul University

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 Act Your Age! Changes the Field of Middle Level Education by Kenneth Saltman on October 2, 2001
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