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The Burdens of Aspiration: Schools, Youth, and Success in the Divided Social Worlds of Silicon Valley

reviewed by Adam Howard - March 01, 2012

coverTitle: The Burdens of Aspiration: Schools, Youth, and Success in the Divided Social Worlds of Silicon Valley
Author(s): Elsa Davidson
Publisher: New York University Press, New York
ISBN: 0814720889, Pages: 264, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

How are young people living in the Silicon Valley influenced by a culture marked by the competitive pursuit of success? How does this culture influence the daily experiences of young people in their schooling and community life? How do these daily experiences play a role in shaping their aspirations?

These are some of the questions that Elsa Davidson explores in The Burden of Aspiration: Schools, Youth, and Success in the Divided Social Worlds of Silicon Valley. This book explores the impact of Silicon Valley’s public culture, the dominant models of success reflected by this culture in local public schools, and the impact that these models have on working and middle-class youth attending these schools. More specifically, Davidson explores the daily environment of two public high schools, the everyday world of youth within those schools, and the broader regional context of educational initiatives designed to promote social equity. By focusing on young people’s strategies of aspiration management, Davidson highlights the process the youth in her study go through in defining self-expectation, hope, and a sense of the possible. She offers an in-depth look at the role schooling plays in their process by reinforcing particular ideas (and myths) about aspiration. She draws attention to the continued significance of class, race, and ethnicity in understanding the social, political, economic, and cultural landscapes within which young people come to manage aspirations in the new economy where opportunity is always shifting.

The book is divided into four sections. Davidson begins with a discussion of the region’s culture and how this culture has shaped and been shaped by different groups of people. In the introduction, she also provides information about the methods of her study and the theoretical lens she uses to guide her inquiry. This is the section where the reader first learns about her personal history with the region and the impetus of her research. Davidson grew up in a middle class family in the region and returned after the tech boom to find some important changes in its shifting economic landscape and culture. Although she draws on her own personal connections with the region a few times throughout the book, the reader is left with little information about how she negotiated that level of familiarity during the research process. Specifically, she does not fully explore how she avoided representing “the familiar as exotic” (p. 185). She does emphasize that this was not the aim of her work but does not explain how she avoided this tendency of researchers doing ethnographies of “home.”

In the next two sections, she moves from a close examination of two groups of young people coming of age after the tech boom and their strategies for managing particular aspirations to a larger view of the contexts that reinforce particular processes of social reproduction in the region. In the chapters of the second section, she takes the reader into divergent educational contexts. At one of the schools, Morton, Davidson examines a pattern of aspiration among low-income Latinos. She explores the ways in which these young people identify with the larger cultural messages of what it means to be “at-risk” – a framing put on them by wealthy residents within the region – and are taught to avoid this status by acquiring particular skills and values. They are influenced by the region’s culture but do not fully adopt the values reflected in this culture. Morton students desire to “give back” to their community through careers in public service despite their daily exposure to the values and technology associated with biotechnical entrepreneurship. In the end, the young people develop particular strategies for aspiration management that support a hegemonic social order that reproduces race and class hierarchies.

On the other hand, at the other school, Sanders, Davidson explores the relationship between the aspirations and strategies of self-cultivation among children of the region’s tech and service professional class and community environments shaped by techno-entrepreneurial values and success, as well as their families’ experiences of social and economic insecurity. Sanders students are influenced in powerful ways by both the expectations placed on them to be successful and anxieties about failure. They develop strategies for aspiration management that give shape to particular passions and put them on a track of excelling in multiple areas.

One of the many important points that Davidson highlights in this second section is the continued significance of reproductive forces at play in educational contexts in spite of all the efforts toward fostering equality in education. In fact, as Davidson convincingly points out, such efforts like addressing the “digital divide” communicate particular cultural messages that reinforce social reproductive forces. Her argument suggests that working toward transforming stratified school structures and outcomes requires us to move beyond “patchwork” efforts to address the larger cultural forces at play within schools and communities. Her findings point to the need for developing a larger scope for understanding the processes involved in social reproduction within divergent educational contexts.

She takes this larger look in the third section of the book by placing the educational environment of the young people in local and national context and examining the political, social, and economic landscape of the Silicon Valley’s established middle class. Although she explores the influence of these local and national contexts on the strategies of aspiration management developed by the young people, the points raised and the research reported in this section do not always relate to the main focus of the study. At times, Davidson takes paths in her empirical journey that seem too distant from the stated main focus of her research. It would have been more effective for exploring the influences of larger contexts on the young people’s everyday experiences of schooling and community if she had maintained a direct connection between the larger contexts and their experiences. Nevertheless, her efforts to take a broader perspective in exploring social reproduction in schooling emphasize what many have theorized but only a few have explored empirically, that educational institutions “are situated within a network of power relations [of the larger society] from which they cannot escape” (Giroux, 2001, p.63).

In the final section, Davidson identifies patterns emerging from her research and places those findings in a larger political and theoretical context. She returns to the young people at the center of the book to elaborate a comparative argument about the strategies of aspiration management used in citizenship formation. In particular, she explores the influence of neoliberal politics of citizenship on the dynamics of subjectification and agency among the young people in her research. In exploring this influence, she discusses the contradictions each group of students experienced between the kinds of citizen-subjects they were encouraged to become and their own individualized expressions and feelings. She argues that, “the contradictions each group of students experienced … affected how they saw themselves and their circumstances, how they disciplined themselves, the aspirations they cultivated, and their perceptions of a dominant public culture” (pp. 211-212). The patterns of subjectification and agency surfacing in her research reveals that the degree to which young people experience these contradictions shapes their “self-perceptions, modes of self-discipline, and aspirations depended on how powerful their fear was of social exclusion, a power enhanced, perhaps, by having much social and economic status to lose” (p. 212). Davidson provides a nuanced understanding of the ways in which young people negotiate these contradictions within the shifting social and economic landscapes of the new economy.

Overall, The Burden of Aspirations offers a lot for the reader to consider about the ways in which young people mediate larger cultural messages and how dynamics of race and class play a role in translating particular lessons about aspiration for young people. Clearly written, arguments well supported, and meticulously annotated, Davidson’s book offers an insightful and complicated conversation about the complex process involved in shaping young people’s aspirations. She offers new insights into the ways the everyday experiences of schooling and community reinforce and regenerate social divisions and how young people mediate their self-understandings within and through these divisions. This work gives us a basis to think further on how the processes involved in social reproduction work across lines of race, class, and ethnicity and how young people negotiate these reproductive forces within divergent educational contexts.


Giroux, H. (2001). Theory and resistance in education: Towards a pedagogy for the oppressed (Rev. ed.). Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 01, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16724, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 6:36:56 PM

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About the Author
  • Adam Howard
    Colby College
    E-mail Author
    ADAM HOWARD is an associate professor of education at Colby College. His research interests include social class issues in education, privilege, identity development of affluent youth, and curriculum theory. He is author of Learning Privilege: Lessons of Power and Identity in Affluent Schooling.
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