The Road to Whatever
reviewed by Charles M. ViVona - 2006
Whatever, says Elliott Currie, is a state characterized by alienation, desperation, drift, indifference, and a lack of care. The adolescents and young adults in the state of whatever are detached from mainstream social institutionsmost notably, school and family. Currie borrows whatever" from the vernacular of the young people who use it, because it reflects the sense of carelessness these adolescents feel just before doing something dangerous or self-destructive. Middle-class, white adolescents in America increasingly find themselves in the state of whatever.
The Road to Whatever, says Currie, exists in a society that claims to have spent extraordinary resources on its youth. This societyour society assumes its middle-class youth have been handed it all and are coddled and spoiled. It disparages these youth for their unwarranted sense of entitlement.
Ours, says Currie, is a society which has been harsher on, less supportive of, and more precarious for middle-class youth than has been acknowledged. American youth have faced increasingly difficult and challenging situations over the past 10 to 20 years. Currie contends that we respond quite punitively when these young people go wrong and engage in troubling activities. But, says Currie, our beliefs that these children have been indulged and our consequent hard-handed responses actually are morally degenerative and lead to the malevolent state of whatever.
What is happening? Many middle-class adolescents have been abandoned by their families. Their parents have abdicated authority for their moral development and well-being. Often from very early youth, their parents have left them on their own to deal with the uncertainties of life, the fulfillment of their emotional and practical (including basic survival) needs. When these children become troublesome or get into trouble, they are rejected. Many are evicted from their own homes. They find themselves on the streets and surrounded by drugs, violence, abuse, and other criminogenic influences.
These children are likewise abandoned by public institutions. Schools are quick to suspend or expel them for behavioral or attitudinal infractions. They ignore the contextual origins of students actions, perhaps because acknowledging these contextual origins would call into question the lack of care given by more powerful adult figures. When these children run afoul of the law, they face additional harsh treatments imposed by the justice system. If placed in rehabilitative institutions, they are punished for violating regulations that often are harsh and capricious. Even in ostensibly therapeutic arenas, they are objectified. They receive medications rather than support and practical advice.
Both private and public responses share punitive and intolerant attitudes. They are judgmental and measure self-worth relative to difficult, conditional, rigid, and often arbitrary criteria. They are ready to shame, isolate, and punish children in the name of treatment. Neither familial nor societal authorities listen to the children involved, nor do they provide settings in which those children can gain competencies and self-assurance.
These responses derive from a culture that assumes that pushing people away in times of need is both necessary and deserved. Its moral vision of tough love deems exclusion and humiliation morally appropriate and ultimately for the offenders own good. This cultural perspective assumes that once adolescents have passed beyond a certain degree of troublesomeness they cannot return until they have first solved their problems on their own. This nonsupportive culture throws youth to their own resources at just those times when they are most needy. It requires proof of success, not just attempts at improvement. As a result of this pervasive cultural viewbuilt into both informal attitudes and organizational policythe adolescent in trouble goes unaided.
This cultural perspective, which Currie describes as social Darwinism, has deep roots in American history. It has gained in strength over the past 20 years.
Troubled adolescents, many of whom have taken care of their own affairs since early childhood, encounter this Darwinian culture and quickly intuit that they are being demeaned and humiliated. Their resentment, alienation, and sense of marginalization increase. They solidify their negative identities and lack of self-worth. Feeling that they have nothing to lose, many gravitate toward life on the street. The conventional response has been to punish these children further, to withdraw privileges and communal membership. However, these problem kids will not opt to conform for fear of being punished. Most have already endured a steady diet of punishment from very early on. They are inured and at the stage of whatever.
Elliott Currie, professor of criminology, law, and society at the University of California, Irvine, says the dynamics of exclusion and abandonment are getting worse because of long term trends in American society. These youth have become economically dispensablejust as their lower class brethren were for decades before. Their families have increasingly found the job of raising them more difficult as economic and cultural resources have diminished. These children have become cogs in education factories whose methods of schooling objectify students and locate them in predetermined programs of action. These children find themselves in treatment centers and therapeutic programs that replace human involvement and empathic engagement with biochemical interventions.
Currie claims that the adolescents who turn their lives around and emerge from the state of whatever do so largely on their own. Their recoveries come about as they reject the demeaning labels and definitions imposed on them. They escape the family and street networks that envelop them with an aura of negativity. Such radical actions empower recovering adolescents. While they must admit that they have lost their childhoods, these morally rearmed troubled youths also realize that they can do something with their lives. They emerge at the other end of their moral tunnel with a sense of self-determination and the ability to persevere, and with strengths not common in ordinary society.
Such turn-arounds often take place in educational settingsnot regular high schools but alternative high schools and public community colleges. Here many of these dispossessed children find themselves wanted. They find themselves in flexible, pragmatic, nurturing environments that do not impose conventional moral codes but rather focus on more purely educational functions. Wayward youth change for the better because they are being treated better, not worse.
Currie suggests some ways we can start turning this situation around. We first need to take a hard look at the limited and counter-productive nature of current societal responses. Both underfunded and seemingly cost-effective current programs are leading to shocking, albeit predictable, long-term costs. We then need to start doing what has already worked for those troubled kids who have turned themselves around. We need to change our attitudes and ways of dealing with youthand one another. We need to develop a culture of support. We need to nurture and attend to these childrento see them as children with problems rather than problem children. We need to care about these kids.
We can help turn things around by using the often extraordinarily rich resources these adolescents have developed over the course of their troubled lives. These children and the young adults they become are invaluable resources. They have witnessed and they understand the real world in ways that conventional persons do not.
The Road to Whatever is rooted in decades of work in criminology, juvenile delinquency, and the sociology of deviance. The reviewer specializes in these areas and found himself repeatedly nodding in agreement as relevant academic studies came to mind. Those who deal with the sociology of educational institutions likewise will connect with Curries analysis. Those who look for statistical data regarding rates of incidence will find the analysis wanting. Those seeking qualitative materials so as to understand the processes involved will be pleased. References to many such works can be quickly accessed via unobtrusive endnotes. The general reader will find this text readable and engaging. It is clear-headed, accessible, and written in plain English.