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Race, Class, and Gender and Abandoned Dreams

by Carl A. Grant & Christine E. Sleeter - 1988

This article discusses findings from a seven-year longitudinal study of 24 junior high students. The study examined ways in which student beliefs about the future were affected by school, family, the economy, and peers. The effects of race, gender, and class on student dreams were also examined. (Source: ERIC)

In 1979, as part of a larger study, we decided to follow longitudinally twenty-four lower-middle-class junior high school students who were of different racial backgrounds. We were interested in understanding their school-life and career-life choices and dreams. We followed (by observation and interview) these twenty-four students over a seven-year period. This article reports on their goals and dreams and the culture they generated within the institutions in which they lived. It also records the failure of the school to help students achieve their dreams.


School plays a major role in the culture students develop. Like the family and neighborhood, school affects how students understand and pursue their life chances. It provides an institutional ideology, socializing agents, and an experiential context within which students define and shape the way they think about their personal dreams. The school context, containing social relations defined by race, social class, and gender, can produce a student culture in which young people accept and live out their parents’ place in a stratified society, in spite of the school’s espoused mission as equalizer and escalator to a better life. This happened in our study.

The study examines student culture as it is produced and lived in a particular community. We wanted to understand why students of color, lower-class white students, and female students, both white and of color, tend not to succeed in school and out, and tend to assume subordinate roles in society in spite of the fact that school is supposed to serve as an equalizer. We did not assume that schools serve all children equally, since there is abundant evidence that they do not.1 We did believe it would be insufficient to study the school apart from the lives of students, since students are not passive automatons that are simply molded and shaped. Valli points out that too often, in studies of socialization and studies of unequal school processes, process “becomes little more than work upon the raw, inanimate materials of nature; people are objects transformed by processes to which they fall prey and become content enough to fit into the social slots that need to be filled.“2 We saw it as both naive and inaccurate to assume that students do not think about their world and resist attempts to fit them for subordinate social roles.

Student success, or lack of success, can best be understood as a result of interaction between students and the world in which they live, of which the school is a part. One understands how students perceive and act within their world by examining their culture, and also linking it with social-structural inequality as it is manifested in the students’ daily experience. Weis describes student cultures as “semi-autonomous,” and argues that they “arise in relation to structural conditions mediated by both the experience of schooling and the lived experiences of youth in their own communities.“3

Relatively few studies have examined student culture in the way we have, and fewer have integrated race, social class, and gender relationships in their analyses. For example, Ogbu, Payne, and Weis studied black lower-class student culture, examining its relationship to very poor quality schooling and the job structure in the community.4 Everhart and Willis studied working-class white male student culture, analyzing it primarily in terms of social class relations.5 Valli, Connelly, and McRobbie examined white female student culture in relationship to gender and social class relations, showing how schooling contributes partially to the subordination of women.6 Fuller studied eight black girls in a London school, describing their resistance to triple subordination based on race, social class, and gender.7 What all these studies show is that schooling itself is not equal in quality, and students themselves sometimes recognize and resist this. However, students also perceive and think about opportunities for themselves in the wider society, based on experiences in their own community. Sometimes they shape their behavior in ways that maximize success, often they do not, and often they redefine success to fit the opportunities and roles they believe are open to them.

Exactly what role schools play in this process is not thoroughly understood, particularly for racially mixed schools, and for male-female student cultures in interaction with each other. What also has not been investigated much is how student culture develops and changes over time: At what points do students become aware of, question, and even reject subordinate roles? How do they deal with their own questions, how do they sustain resistance, or how do they reshape their culture to accept eventually their own subordination? Are there critical points when educators could intervene to promote and sustain their success? These are questions this study addresses.


The study of these twenty-four students began as a part of a three-year ethnographic study of a multiracial junior high school in a midwestern city in the United States.8 The community that served as the attendance area for the school was located along a river, and historically served as an immigration site for low-income people, particularly people of color, who could not afford to live elsewhere and had often been rejected in other parts of the city. Over the years, as successive waves of Jewish, Lebanese, Syrian, black, Scandinavian, Native American, and Mexican immigrants moved into the area, an integrated housing pattern developed. In 1980 the mean family income of the community was about $16,000. Residents held such jobs as factory worker, janitor, postoffice worker, secretary, and auto mechanic; very few of the twenty-four students’ parents had completed college.

The junior high served grades seven through nine. On completion of the ninth grade, students attended the high school that was physically connected to the junior high school. A school lunch room was shared by both schools and served as the architectural connection. Thus, these twenty-four students only had to go out of the other exit of their lunchroom to enter their high school. At the time we began this study, school statistics for the racial mix of the 580 junior high students were: white, 67.5 percent; Hispanic, 28.0 percent; Native American, 2.0 percent; black, 2.0 percent; and Asian, 0.5 percent.

The racial composition and the gender count of the twenty-four students we followed was: Mexican: nine (4 male, 5 female); white: eight (5 male, 3 female); black: two (1 male, 1 female); Puerto Rican: two (2 female); Native American: one (1 male); Southeast Asian: one (1 female); Arab-American: one (1 female).

Data for this phase of the study were collected over a seven-year period. During the first three years a team of three researchers made one two-week visit, and twenty-three visits lasting two to three days each. Several methods of data collection were used: observations (including shadowing of students), interviews, and questionnaires. A total of 160 hours were spent observing in twenty-three junior high classrooms. During the last four years, two of the three original researchers maintained the vigil on the student population, periodically visiting the school and interviewing the students and a counselor. Phone calls were also made to the counselor in order to keep up with the students’ actions. Interview data were recorded and transcribed for analysis. Research bias was controlled by rotating interviewers, having all researchers participate in data analysis, and re-asking the same questions in subsequent interviews.


Our title suggests that the students once had optimistic dreams of making it—finishing high school and possibly further education, getting a good job, making their families proud, and achieving personal satisfaction—and they slowly abandoned those dreams. To a large extent, this is true. What the title does not delineate, however, is what their dreams were, and why they were abandoned. First we will examine the students’ dreams for education and work beyond high school. Then we will examine the effect of the school, the family, and the economy on their dreams. Finally their personal identities, and their view of the world in which they lived, will be considered before making a summary assessment.


(9th grade, April 1981)




All the kids in our family who have graduated went on to vocational schools and I want to go to college.

What do you want to be?

A lawyer.

(11th grade, May 1983)







What do you plan to do when you graduate?

Go to the technical vocational institute.

What influenced you to make these plans?

Well, I work at ________ Publishing, and they have word processing, so I’ll take up that.

Is that what you would like to do most?

Not really. I’d rather be a lawyer, but right now I can’t afford to go to school.

(9th grade, March 1979)



You still want to be a lawyer, right?

Yeah, but I’m not sure, it’s kind of one of my dreams. [It was a dream she talked about with us all year.]

(12th grade, May 1982)





What do you think about doing [next month when you graduate]?

Well, I think about dancing. I don’t know if I should go to college right away and start that, or take dramatic arts and communication. . . And I just kinda want to dance for a year or something . . .

You’ve changed your mind since I talked to you last.

Yeah. That’s true, it was law. I kinda gave up on law, I didn’t think I had the brains for it.

The students voiced a variety of career goals over the time they were interviewed. Goals they discussed with interest included: lawyer (3 students), teacher (1), professional athlete (2), medical technologist (1), doctor (3), veterinarian (1), computer scientist (1), military (6), mechanic (4), truck driver (1), disc jockey (1), model (2), secretary (2), stewardess (3), beautician (1), and police officer (1). The numbers add up to more than twenty-four because most students changed their minds at least once, or toyed with alternatives. Their degree of conviction about these goals varied, but none of the twenty-four was without some goal.

College was a more immediate concern to many, since their career goals would require college. We asked the students in every interview about career goals and college. Since college is increasingly the “one important escalator” on the “elevation of a people,“9 we will discuss their responses in detail.

While in junior high (eighth and ninth grades), thirteen of the twenty-four students said they definitely planned to attend college. Only one said definitely no to college; the rest (10) were undecided. The white students tended to voice about the same assurance as others about college: five of the eight white students definitely planned to attend college, and six of the eleven Hispanic students were definite, with two more discussing professional career goals without specifically discussing college. Of these thirteen, seven were girls and six were boys.

By the end of their senior year, however, only three of the thirteen who said they definitely had college plans were heading for a four-year college, and one dropped out his freshman year. What happened to the other twenty-one students? Three entered a community college and five planned to enroll in a vocational-technical institute; two of these were part of the thirteen who earlier planned on college, and two more had considered college rather briefly in high school. Three were flirting with the military, one viewing it as a possible career and two hoping to earn money for college. Four more graduated, but were still unsure of plans and talked of taking a “year off.” Six did not graduate. Two of these took jobs as mechanics, a goal both had discussed with some interest since junior high; one is now working in a restaurant, a few credits shy of his diploma; one is working and living with her boyfriend; we lost track of one; and one dropped out of a school to which he was transferred, was shot on a city street, and now is a quadriplegic in a wheelchair.

What did students say about reasons for their decisions? This can best be answered by providing two representative examples.

Carmen’s goals in junior high were very indefinite, although college was a possibility. For Christmas in ninth grade, her father gave her a typewriter. Her parents, both from Puerto Rico, had not graduated from high school, and saw secretarial work as a good employment opportunity for Carmen. In tenth grade she started taking clerical courses, receiving encouragement from her business teacher and talking about becoming a legal secretary. By eleventh grade she was thinking about community college to take legal secretarial courses, and reported that her accounting and shorthand teachers were very supportive. By her senior year, Carmen was sick of school—boy problems and boring classwork. She wanted just to work for a while—“business, they always need people like clerical workers and stuff.” She felt her summer job in a company plus her business courses in high school had prepared her well enough to be a secretary. She simply wanted to be away from the hassles of school.

Larry’s four older brothers were in the military, and while in junior high he figured he would follow suit, although he had not yet given it much thought. In tenth grade he was trying to take some of the harder courses because counselors had said these would help for college, although he was not too sure about college. Money was the main obstacle:

I know college will be maybe third [choice], after the service and going to a voc. tech. -‘cause it’s a lot of money. And I ain’t got a lot of money. . . Money just keeps going up and up! So a lot of people find different ways to get around it. Through the service you can get the same schooling for, you know, free.

During his senior year, Larry said he wanted to be a disk jockey. He knew people who had tried and one who made it. If that failed, he did not know; he felt his opportunities to be restricted by his lack of money for college, the unemployment rate, and the poor quality of his secondary schooling. We quote at length because he articulated well the frustration most of our sample felt:




Every year there’s a scarcity of finding jobs. All over the place. . . . If you go to college and have, like, four years, when you get out, there’s gotta be something. . . . If you can’t get a job, you just wasted a lot of time and a lot of money.

But many colleges say they usually place 60, 70, 80 percent of their people.

Yeah, but there’s always a chance that you ain’t that 70, 80 percent that’s gonna get a job. . . . If you’re not a part of that percentage that does get placed, say like me-I’m not a top quality guy in school. I don’t think I could handle college right now. I mean, you get a lot of homework, and I haven’t had homework for three years now in this school!

Most of the students felt that they were freely making their own choices about their futures. However, they were making choices within a particular set of social institutions: the school, the family, and the local economy in the community.


The school can best be described as taking a laissez-faire stand - some resources for college preparation were there, but it was left up to the individual, for the most part, to take advantage of them. In junior high, the academic demand made of students was fairly light; we have described this in detail elsewhere.10 Most classes gave easy work and no homework; the main person to talk seriously with students about their futures was a counselor who had grown up in the community. When students entered tenth grade, most said that the work was much harder. They were taking academic courses required for graduation (typically English, social studies, math, science, and two electives), and many were receiving homework (typically two or three times per week in math and science). Students also said that teachers explained or helped students with the work less, and expected them to figure it out more on their own. Students did not complain much about any of this—they described the high school as treating them more “grown up.”

After tenth grade, things changed. We will describe the changes in relationship to three different categories of students. One category consisted of those who entered college or community college after graduation—six students. These students continued to take demanding courses until they graduated (except one who had a half day of work/study his senior year), and continued to have some homework. These might be thought of as the college-bound, in that their teachers treated them as if they were bound for college. However, it was often not the school that advised them which courses to take; it was often friends and family who had been to college and knew what preparation was needed. These students made the following kinds of comments about the counseling they received in high school:

(Senior Year)







What did [the counselors] tell you that made you take Chemistry and Physics?

They didn’t tell me anything. I just decided.

Did you know that those kinds of things are good for you to have if you’re going to go to college?

Yeah, that’s why I took them.

Who told you you should be taking them in order to go to college?

Some of my teachers. My mom and dad. And my older sister-she’s going to college and she took those classes.

(Junior Year)









Why are you taking so many academic courses?

Mm, I don’t know. I don’t really like gym. I just like classes where you can sit and do your work [History, French, Algebra-Trig., Computers, Biology]. . . .

Has anyone told you that you need the math and the algebra and science courses in order to go to college and become a doctor?

Yeah, my advisor. They usually ask you, “What do you plan to do after high school?” I said, “Go to college.” And they said, “O.K., you need a lot of math and English and stuff like science.”

Are most of your friends planning to go to college?

. . . Sandra, she wants to be a veterinarian.

Is she taking courses like yours?

Not at all. . . . I don’t think she really talks to people about what she’s going to do.

(Senior Year)


I don’t like the counselor. ‘Cause instead of boosting up, he’ll kinda put you down. He said that I wouldn’t get in ________ College with my test scores. But I did. . . . I just got the letter back [from the college] that just proved him wrong.

The picture that emerged was that around tenth grade, counselors asked students what they planned to do after graduation. If they said “college,” they were advised to take more math and science; three girls told us counselors “made” them stick with math and science at that point. After that, students seemed to be on their own. Some of their teachers told them which classes to take, and they got advice from counselors if they purposely sought it, but most of the advice they got came from outside the school.

A second group of five students consisted of those who were fairly certain they would become secretaries or mechanics. Little academic demand was placed on them in school. They were advised into secretarial or autoshop courses, and felt the school was helping them in that sense. These students reported getting advice and being made to work and think in their vocational classes. The other thirteen—the largest group—floated through with only minimal demands made on them after tenth grade. Several thought they were going to college, others were unsure. Either way, it appeared that no one in the school seriously thought they were headed for college; the school took steps mainly to help them fit into the blue-collar labor market. These students reported having little or no homework. Their senior English class was aimed, in one students’ words, at “trying to make sure that our grammar’s right.” Their course schedules were filled with electives such as ceramics, office helper, bookstore worker, chorus, and gym; during their senior year several participated in half-day on-the-job-training programs. They reported that virtually no one in the school talked to them about the future; they were free to select their own courses, and counselors did not talk to them unless they sought the counselors out. There was not even much attempt to let students know what information might be available through the counselors, so few students voluntarily went to ask; one pointed out that counselors “gotta let you know that it’s there [information about a college], for you to come and see, you know.”

By their senior year, many of these students were bitter, and many were simply bored with school. For example, one who took the easy way through told us the following, one month before graduating:





You went through easy.


Do you ever regret that now?

Yeah, ‘cause—I feel like I coulda learned more if I went, if I took some harder classes. . . . There’s a lot of kids that just, they’re smart, but they just take easy classes and not, you know, they’re not learning nothing. Once you get into senior high, you don’t even have to take math, you know, not at all.

Their experience with school, and particularly the last two years, left many ambivalent about any future schooling: On the one hand, it would help them, but on the other hand it would probably be boring and they were not prepared for it. Some blamed the school for being too lax, others blamed themselves.

We wondered whether the school offered any other kinds of opportunities for learning how to “make it” in society, such as leadership development. We looked for this in our study of the junior high, and examined interviews from the senior high for comments. We found very little. The student council was one avenue for developing leadership skills; one of our sample had been president of the junior high student body, another was senior class president. Even here, however, student leadership did not seem to be taken seriously. The student council did not have authority over anything very important or consequential, and the senior class president spent half of her senior year in on-the-job-training. One social studies teacher made a concerted effort to involve his students in school and community political events, but his singular effort did not seem to make a great impact on the students. The only other comment we found related to leadership development—and it is a weak one at that-was a shy student commenting that English classes that require students to make speeches had helped her learn to speak up more.


The family was a second institution within which students constructed perceptions of their futures.



How do your parents feel about you going to school in general?

They want me to finish school and get a good education and get good grades, too.

This comment illustrates the way these students’ parents felt about school achievement. Discussions with counselors, teachers, administrators, and students on this topic were of one kind: Parents sent their kids to school to learn and expected them not to fool around while learning was going on. Parents were very supportive of the school and left their children’s education, guidance, and course selection almost solely in school’s hands. We have reason to assume that because most of the parents had not attended college, and were familiar mostly with traditional blue- and pink-collar jobs, they were reluctant to give career advice or to lobby strongly for a certain course selection if they believed the school had endorsed their child’s program. There were a few exceptions. For example, Ron’s father and uncle were mechanics and encouraged him to follow suit. During the study his goal did not change. Notice his comment in his sophomore year.



What do you want to do when you graduate?

My Dad tells me I should be a mechanic ‘cause he is.

Ron left school in his junior year and is now working as a mechanic.

Juan, who early in the study said he wanted to be a doctor, often spoke of receiving advice from his uncle, who was a doctor, as to which courses to take and the need to work really hard in school in order to achieve the goal.

Since most of the students did not have homework on a regular basis, parents did not set up home study hours or have identifiable opportunities to discuss schoolwork with their children. The role that the parents played in helping their children fulfill their academic expectations was very small. Besides helping with homework, several ways to help children in academics include providing them with experiences such as museums, plays, and travel, and reading books, magazines, and newspapers. Most students when asked reported doing very little of the above either with parents or alone.


The local economy was a third institution within which the students constructed beliefs about their future. One important characteristic of the local economy was that neither the students nor their parents had extra money for things like college. This was, in fact, the main barrier to college cited by students. Many also discussed ways of dealing with it. The students’ perception of reality may have been limited and even inaccurate, but it was based on available information and guided their behavior.

“Taking a year off’ to work was an alternative several mentioned. None laid out a specific plan for doing this, but several felt they needed to work to save some money before they could go to college. Six students were more specific about how they would finance further education: They would join the military and either save their pay for college later, or receive their education “free” while in the military. They based this plan on talks given by military recruiters who came to the senior high school. Few students mentioned loans or scholarships for college. We asked them about this in interviews, and they had very little knowledge of this option—It was as if the option did not exist; no one had talked to most of them about it.

Another feature of the local economy that students perceived was the relatively high unemployment rate. It made students feel uncertain about the future, and caused several to view four years of college with some skepticism. Although Rakia, for example, enrolled in a community college, she said about the unemployment situation: “I’m kinda worried about it. I don’t have a job right now, but that doesn’t bother me. But it does worry me because when I get out of college I don’t know what the situation’s gonna be like.” Other students were more worried about having a job right now, and felt some sense of security if they had at least their summer job or were involved in on-the-job-training. The unemployment situation made it risky to give up a job, expect financial support from parents, or incur debt to secure further schooling.

Students’ career goals were wide-ranging, but their knowledge of the job market was based on jobs they or their parents actually held. Several distinguished between dreams and reality: One could dream of what one would like to do, but one would have to settle for a job that is really there, and that one can really get. Students commented about their own job experience:









What do you plan to do when you graduate? [Earlier goal had been veterinarian.]

I’m going on to the technical-vocational institute. I’m either gonna take computers, or data processing, office fields, general accounting, or accounting.

What influenced you to do that?

I work in 3M, in general accounting, so I’d like to get a job there.

Oh. How’d you get the job at 3M?

Through on-the-job-training.

Do you think about the current unemployment rate at all?

Yes! I’ll probably end up being one of them if I don’t get some training to keep my job.

Finally, we must consider the peer group itself. When we met the students in junior high school, we were struck by the strong division in their lives between school and the rest of the day. Most of their class-work was boring, but school could be tolerated from 8:00 A.M. to 2:30 P.M. After that, it could be forgotten, especially since few had homework. Students spent their free time either at home, playing sports, or “hanging around” with each other. They cared about passing their classes, but few cared which passing grade they received. It was considered neither “in” nor “out” to be smart—this was viewed in the peer group as irrelevant. Since high school did not offer much change, the peer group did not change much. Students spent less time playing and more time in jobs, but no more time with schoolwork. They became used o investing a prescribed number of hours in a work-type setting, and enjoying the rest of the day in social activities. This life-style fit the demands placed on them. The students also used each other as sources of information about future plans, quite possibly more than they used the counselors. Thus, their perceptions were widely shared, both because students encountered similar experiences and because they helped each other make sense of their futures.


We wondered how the students viewed their identities as members of particular racial, social-class, and gender groups, and how they viewed the position of those groups in society. We were interested in the extent to which the students embraced the strengths offered by group membership without being constrained by social stereotypes or stigmas, and the extent to which their understanding of oppression developed, if at all. We also wondered what effect views of race, class, and gender had on their dreams. We learned about their personal and group identities by asking about their neighborhood, their views of each other, their views about cultural practices within the home, and their views about choices they made for themselves. We learned about their understanding of racism, classism, and sexism by asking them directly about these things.


The students identified culturally with their community. The community was composed of working-class people of varied ethnic backgrounds, but the students viewed them as culturally all “the same.” Households varied somewhat in menu, religion, strictness, and so forth, but the students did not see the various ethnic groups in the community as culturally distinct from one another. To the students, a distinguishing feature of their community was the fact that the people were different colors—this was positive, and students talked openly and eagerly about it. Culturally, however, they were not different from one another. Over the time of this study, we saw no change in this pattern.

What fascinated us was the extent to which many students disagreed with their parents on this. Several of their parents had moved from elsewhere (such as Puerto Rico, Egypt, Texas, Mexico), and saw different ethnic groups as culturally different. Some of the parents who had lived in the community a long time also saw them as different. These parents tended to want their children to date and marry members of their own ethnic group and some tried to discourage them from associating in any way with a particular ethnic group. The students did not see it this way, for the most part, and some argued with their parents about it. To the students, interracial dating and marriage were completely acceptable because color did not matter.

A few students commented on their parents’ wanting them to retain their ethnic culture. Some saw this as important, but also saw no conflict between it and marrying someone of another ethnic group. Others did not see it as particularly important. For example, two Mexican-American students whose parents were from Texas told us they were not interested in learning Spanish, even though their parents wanted them to do so.

The students’ acceptance of racial diversity seemed almost to interfere with their developing an understanding of racism. Only about half of the students believed any form of racism exists in society, and examples they described were, with two exceptions, individual prejudice. For example, a Mexican-American girl said that the students in an ah-white school had said they were having an “invasion” when she visited there; a white girl said some of the police were racially prejudiced. A few students described their parents as racially prejudiced, but the only generalization they offered was that times have changed and younger people are not prejudiced any more. Students saw most prejudice away from the community; the main examples of prejudice in the community were offered by a Puerto Rican and an Arab-American (both of whom said people lumped them together with Mexicans, which they resented), and a Vietnamese-American, who commented on prejudice against newly arrived Hmongs.

Only two students attempted to describe institutional racism. One Mexican-American boy said that “just about everything is for white people,” explaining that television, for example, is all white. A white boy explained that whites are upper class and Mexicans are lower class because Mexicans have not been able to afford college and therefore do not get good jobs.

The students of color had, as a group, no more understanding of racism than the white students. Nine of the sixteen students of color believed some racial prejudice exists in society, as did four of the eight white students, but the explanations or understanding of prejudice offered by the students of color were no more informed than were those of the white students. Since most students had not experienced overt discrimination in the community and many of the students had not ventured very far outside the community, they assumed race relations in society are similar to race relations in that community. Neither school nor parents taught them much about racism beyond what they experienced. One teacher in the junior high taught about it and a few students mentioned this while in junior high, but seemed to forget it in high school since the race relations where they lived were positive. We did not study their parents directly to find out what they taught about race relations, but the main thing students ever said about their parents was whether parents were prejudiced against their friends.


Students defined themselves as middle class (with the exception of one who said her family was poor, and one who said his was upper middle class). They said they were middle class because, in the words of one student, “We don’t make a lot, but then we still have enough to make ends meet.” Earlier we described the community as working class but as having two neighborhoods differentiated by racial composition and somewhat by income level; to most of the students, it was all one middle-class community.

The students generated this common self-definition on the basis of several interrelated factors. Geographically, the community was cut off by a river from most of the rest of the city, and residents tended not to venture out. The range of incomes in the community was not great, and the schools served the entire community from kindergarten through graduation. Thus, the students grew up together, and associated with others who shared their economic circumstances, their neighborhood, their school. Lacking much firsthand contact with people of diverse social classes, they figured they were middle class since few lived in poverty but none had much money for luxuries.

Their knowledge of the social class structure in society was very thin, even after taking Sociology in high school, in which social class was a topic they studied. When we asked students about social class, we often had to explain what we meant, and even then students sometimes did not know how to respond. Students believed anyone could achieve upward mobility by hard work, getting a good education, and—two girls said—marriage. Most students did not want to move up; a white boy said he would like more money but wanted to stay in the same community, and a few others suggested this.


Students’ gender self-definitions were more complex and less shared. The patterns we will describe only very roughly follow ethnic group membership, with the Hispanic students tending slightly more than whites to adhere to traditional gender identities. All students saw themselves as potential jobholders regardless of sex. Students believed both sexes could hold almost any job, although several ruled out construction for women (they lack the strength) and child care for men (men lack patience). Their aspirations tended to follow sex-stereotypic patterns, particularly as they approached graduation. The aspiring mechanics, truck drivers, and professional football players were male; the aspiring secretaries, stewardesses, and models were female—but the girls also envisioned themselves as lawyers, doctors, and computer technologists, at least until they confronted the problem of paying for college.

Students identified males more than females as providers, and this increased as they got older. Before they started dating, providing was not an issue-when same-sex groups went out, sex did not determine who initiated or paid. Dating changed this. Six of the boys from the time they started dating expected to initiates dates and pay for them, although most were flexible about who could initiate phone calls. By their senior year, the three who graduated, plus a fourth who had not dated much, saw themselves as providers for their future families—their wives could work but would not have to, especially if there were children. One boy initially advocated flexible roles, but by his senior year he was paying for all his dates, and referred to a wife’s paycheck as “extra money.” Interestingly, only two of these eight boys had a firm career goal in mind all during the study; the rest were unsure what they would do. Five of the girls, by high school, also saw the male as the main provider: Their boyfriends initiated and paid for dates, and they expected the man to be the main family breadwinner. This was a relationship they seemed to learn partly through dating; one had offered to pay for dates but the offer was turned down; others thought hypothetically that girls could pay but knew boys preferred it the other way around. Two of these five girls earlier expressed a strong career orientation, but by their senior year were uncertain about their futures. One of them entertained the idea of herself as provider and her husband staying at home, but did not expect this. A sixth girl saw the male as the main provider but was also preparing for a good career in computer science.

On the other hand, three girls and one boy definitely saw initiating and providing as shared responsibilities, and had worked this out in date relationships. Two more girls expressed ambivalence about providing: They questioned but did not reject outright traditional dating roles, and saw themselves as career-bound. The remaining four students did not address this issue.

All students but one saw themselves as present and future workers in the home. Most divided chores by sex; the girls wrestled with this more than the boys. Eleven of the twenty-four students expected and preferred to divide domestic chores by sex, and did not debate or question this during the study; four were girls, seven were boys. These tended to be the same students who saw males as providers. Most engaged in these roles at home, although in one boy’s home chores were not divided by sex and he thought they should be. Only one boy and two girls completely rejected sex roles at home throughout the study. The two girls were rejecting roles learned at home, and one felt very strongly about this, saying she hated it that guys want women to stay in the house.

The other nine students were less certain. Three (1 boy, 2 girls) simply said it depended on whether the wife holds a job; if she does, they would expect to divide chores fifty-fifty. Four more students (1 boy, 3 girls) questioned domestic roles while in junior high, two girls, having been angry about how chores were divided at home; but by their senior year all three of these girls seemed content to adopt traditional sex roles. Two more girls wanted to divide things fifty-fifty, but did not expect a man to go along with that.

Students justified role definition primarily based on masculine strength. Eleven students maintained that boys are the stronger sex, and therefore better in sports and heavy work; five disagreed, and two girls changed their minds on this during the study. What was particularly interesting was that approximately equal proportions of both sexes defined themselves as athletic, but many boys, and the girls as they got older, defined boys as naturally stronger and more athletic than girls.

With respect to sexism in society, students knew very little. They saw equal opportunity in the work place as an accomplished fact, with the exception of one girl who knew a woman who had filed a sex-discrimination grievance. The fact that many jobs are not sex-balanced was attributed mainly to individual choice or to ability to do the job. Several girls wrestled for a short period with sexism at home, but they saw this as a personal rather than a collective struggle, or as something women simply have to put up with. For example, one girl complained that men like to be outside until mealtime, and expect to come in and find dinner ready; this was an inconvenient male characteristic more than an arena for struggle. In fact, as students matured, they tended more and more to accept rather than resist sex-divided domestic work roles and supporting sex stereotypes. The only social issue any of the students discussed was whether women should fight in the military. Three boys brought this up, arguing that if women want equal rights they should be willing to fight in combat. This issue was being debated in the news, and seemed to be one of concern to boys who had considered entering the military.

The students generated gender self-definitions and their understandings of social relations between the sexes on the basis of several factors. A major one was observation. For example, a boy commented that girls must prefer sewing to cars because he had never seen roles switched, although another said girls in his autoshop class demonstrated that girls could be mechanical. As another example, a girl commented that she had seen traditional sex roles at home all her life. A related factor was doing: All but one student had chores at home, and most became used to and comfortable with those they were assigned, although a few rebelled against them. The local economy seemed to reinforce students’ observations—girls were hired as babysitters and typists, boys as outdoor laborers, paper carriers, janitors, and mechanics. The school was a laissez-faire factor. It made available all courses and activities to both sexes, enabling many girls to develop an interest in sports, but hardly anyone in school (or at home), with the exception of one or two teachers, discussed gender or sexism. So students who questioned or rebelled against roles or expectations had to work these through themselves, and they tended to resolve them in favor of the status quo. A final, very important factor was the peer group itself. When students began to think about courtship, they began to shape their behavior and expectations in a way that would complement expectations of the opposite sex. The boys had fewer questions about role and gender-identity, and the girls tended to resolve their own questions by accepting the boys’ definition. This facilitated courtship, although it also tended to help reproduce existing gender relations.


This study has shown, particularly because it was longitudinal, that race, class, and gender relations in society are not reproduced simply because the young absorb and inherit the status and beliefs of their parents. It is a more complex process than this. As the young work through their dreams and questions in a particular context, the range of possibilities that seem open and real to them gradually narrows and tends to mirror the lives of their parents. The culture the young construct from the fabric of everyday life provides a set of answers and a sense of certainty for their questions and dreams. To the extent that everyday life embodies unequal social relationships, the culture students generate and regenerate over time gradually accepts and “explains” existing social relationships. The process may appear inevitable, but it is not. We will argue that at least part of the context within which the young grow up can be changed (the school), and can propel them in directions that diverge from the status quo. The school can be the key catalyst in this process. Unfortunately, in our study it did not perform this function well.

Let us review the students’ dreams, particularly while they were in junior high and saw their futures as relatively open. In junior high, the students visualized themselves in a wide variety of career roles, unrestricted by race, social class, or, for the girls, gender. Over half aspired to college and only one rejected it. Their dreams of careers and college were, in fact, quite different from the lives of their parents. Elsewhere we have noted that this was particularly true for the girls, whose career goals tended to be more ambitious than those of the boys. In junior high, students seemed to adopt portions of the lives of adults around them that they liked (such as mechanical arts for those who liked working with their hands) and reject that which they did not like (such as housework for those girls who had become fed up with it).

The culture students generated out of everyday life, however, tended to hold them in their community and return them to lives very much like their parents’. One feature of everyday life they discussed often was their racial diversity. The students generated a common culture among themselves that transcended race. Many of their parents had also done this; others, particularly those who had grown up elsewhere, had not. Rather than adopting their parents’ racism, however, the students resisted it. Their own daily experience with each other convinced them that racism was incorrect. It also tended to convince them that their own community was the best place to live. They frequently told us that schools or neighborhoods of one race would be dull, uninteresting. The students’ common culture that transcended race was like a magnet keeping them in their community, and also keeping them somewhat ignorant of race relations in the broader society. The student culture did not recognize institutional racism; individual prejudice was the main manifestation of racism that the students saw in their daily lives.

The culture students generated out of everyday life was also nonacademic. Students believed in school and valued education, seeing it as a route to their dreams, but on a day-to-day basis, they invested minimal effort in it. Unwittingly, in fact, they played a role in limiting their academic empowerment, in that they never actively resisted the school’s low demand of them. In junior high, for example, they recognized that homework demands were light, and several said they thought they should get more homework, but they did nothing about this. We found it interesting to contrast this with students’ active resistance toward parents’ racism. Why did the students resist their parents’ racism but not the school’s low expectations of them? Their everyday experience taught them that their parents were wrong, and that racism would interfere with enjoyment of daily life. (Mexicans aren’t lazy because my friend Diego isn’t lazy, and if I avoided Diego, I’d lose a good buddy.) Students’ everyday experience with school taught them that it was boring and that the content was irrelevant to daily life. It may be important for attaining a career goal, but if the medicine is bitter, why ask for more than the doctor prescribes, especially if more time devoted to school would lessen time with friends? So the students accepted minimal homework and a low involvement with classwork, and developed other interests and behavior patterns, centering largely around sports, that filled their time and probably would have caused them to resist a sudden increase in school work [a “what if” they never faced).

The students generated a distorted version of social class, which they used to help answer questions about college as well as goals in general. The inaccuracies and distortions in their beliefs were striking. They believed themselves to be middle class, and when asked many said they did not want to move up in the class structure, particularly if it meant moving away from the community. A white male student put it as follows: “I’d like to probably move upward in money, but not out of the neighborhood.” Students seemed to believe middle-class people cannot afford college these days, and since jobs are limited, it is better to get a job now than take a chance that one will find a job after college. They did not seem to see college as improving their chance of obtaining a job, only as opening doors to certain kinds of jobs. The students did not seem to see a great difference in the pay and power that accrue from different occupations. They believed hard work was the best route to upward mobility; the role capital plays in the economy seemed completely unknown. Finally, they seemed to believe that race and gender have nothing to do with one’s place in the economic structure. While this belief encouraged them to aspire to any career, it also produced false insights into opportunities available to them. Ultimately, the main beneficiaries of students’ beliefs would be local employers: The student culture helped produce workers who were fairly content with their lot and willing to work hard to maintain their lives.

Everyday life with friends and family provided considerable material for generating an understanding of gender. Most homes placed the young in a sex-divided domestic work role from an early age. This was a role that few of the boys seriously questioned, probably because they grew up in it and it provided routes to attaining some status: being strong, supporting a family, taking a lead in courtship. The boys had experienced only part of this role; supporting a family, which eventually could be difficult for them, was not yet a reality. The girls raised more questions about the female role, mainly when they found themselves working while their brothers played outside. Regardless of ethnic background, at one time or another most girls believed it to be unfair and demeaning. There were rewards to adhering to a traditional female role: dates, especially with the popular boys; harmonious relationships at home; and admiration achievable through fashion. Students’ questions about gender were never used to help them understand sexism. Thus, they answered their own questions by generating stereotypes (boys are just stronger than girls), accepting things as inevitable (men are just like that, nothing you can do about it), and interpreting conflicts as individual rather than collective. Many resolved the question of dividing labor by sex by insisting that both partners in a marriage should do as much work, even though the work is different. We stress that there appeared to be little or no relationship between ethnicity and the questions the girls raised. The Hispanic homes were more likely to adhere to traditional sex roles than the white homes, but Hispanic girls were just as likely to question their role—temporarily, at any rate—as were white girls raised in traditional homes.

That portion of the context of students’ lives that could be changed most readily was the school. In fact, the school had a very important role to play in students’ abandonment of their dreams. The school staff, much more so than the parents or the students themselves, knew how the education system works—what kind of preparation is needed for college, how to obtain scholarships and loans, what the differences are between a four-year college degree and job training in the military, and so forth. They also knew more than the students about social class, race relations, and gender. Let us first consider their abdication of the job for which they were hired: promoting academic learning.

In spite of students’ interest in further education, in spite of their good behavior in school, and in spite of the fact that the majority had normal learning ability, both the junior and senior high school faculty (with the exception of a very few individuals) accepted students’ failure to empower themselves through education, and in so doing, ensured that they would fail. This was particularly true after the tenth grade. Prior to the tenth grade students were required to take academic courses to meet graduation requirements. While few of these courses rigorously challenged them, at least to a limited degree students were receiving an education. After tenth grade two things happened: The students started raising serious questions about their futures (a major one being whether they could afford college) and the school pulled out of their lives as much as it could, expending its academic energies on only those few who for one reason or another continued to take the more difficult classes. For the majority of the students, advising virtually ceased once graduation requirements had been met, and any homework they might have had in the tenth grade came to an end. The school’s main effort became equipping them to take a minimum-wage job after graduation. The school staff may have viewed it as inevitable that these students would not continue schooling—Interviews with the junior high teachers found strong acceptance of this belief—but there was no inevitability here; the school actively helped it to happen.

The school could also have taught more explicitly about race, class, and gender. What the school did was to treat all students as much alike as possible, while teaching a watered-down version of the traditional white, male-dominated curriculum. Students’ racial backgrounds were acknowledged mainly through festivals and special programs at certain times during the year, the main one being Cinco de Mayo. One elective course in the junior high—Multicultural Education—taught about racism, and a few teachers taught isolated lessons about race or sexism, more in the junior than the senior high school. Courses that would have lent themselves particularly well to examining social inequality—Money and Banking, Law and Justice, and Sociology—were not used for this purpose. To some extent courses affirmed sex roles, in that home economics and industrial arts courses were dominated by one sex, home economics taught girls how to work with their appearance, and girls’ and boys’ sports were somewhat different. The main thing we noticed was that the school did not provide much knowledge about the social structure or the students’ location in it. Yet the teachers had some knowledge, even without doing research; for example, the junior high teachers were well aware of the socioeconomic status of the community, and many were also aware of how sexism affects one’s life because they discussed this with respect to their own lives.

The families also played a role in the abandonment of students’ dreams, although the family’s role interacted with that of the school. Research consistently finds a strong relationship between level of educational attainment and parent occupation.11 It is often believed that home background limits aspirations and ability to learn in school. We did not find home background to limit students’ aspirations or parental interest in school—It limited, rather, the school’s aspirations for its clients. What the home background did limit was the help parents could give. They told their children to “get a good education,” to do what the teacher says; most did not know that they should have been telling their children which courses to take, and demanding that teachers do more teaching. There is, in fact, a paradox here that works against parents of color and lower-class backgrounds.

Students who are white and middle or upper class tend to be taught better and challenged more,12 regardless, we suspect, of what role the parents might be playing. The higher the social class, the more actively demanding of the school the parents tend to become, but the more likely it is that the school will be trying to empower the students academically anyway. It is those parents who know least about how the education system works, and who are most likely to feel intimidated by educators, who have most to gain by involving themselves actively with the school. We are reminded of conversations we had recently with black middle-class parents of children attending an upper-class desegregated school. They told us they needed to initiate and maintain contact with the school to let teachers know they, the parents, were educated themselves, and to make sure their children were placed in demanding classes and taught well. The teachers were reluctant to contact them, and many of the teachers expected less of the black than the white students. The problem was magnified at the school in this study: There was little home-school communication; the parents gave their children what advice they knew how to give, and assumed incorrectly that the school was doing the rest. This is a problem that may well grow as teaching staffs become increasingly white and professionalized and, in the process, increasingly removed from lower-class and minority communities.

The students achieved success primarily in their own ethnic self-definitions, in that they learned to embrace their racial diversity while developing a sense of community. Beyond that, they were dismally unsuccessful. What this study has shown is that their lack of success was due in a large part to the very inactive role the school played in their lives. It allowed them to dream and wonder, and allowed them to abandon their dreams on their own by failing to provide a strong academic thrust, and knowledge about their place in the world. One might accuse their homes and the community in general of the same thing, but this does not excuse the school. The students’ culture was not simply a mirror reflection of their parents and neighbors—it was created as much in the school as elsewhere, and represented an attempt to understand family and community life, as much as it was a perpetuation of it. It is in the school where educators can affect students: by recognizing their dreams, acknowledging their very real attempt to make sense of the immediate world in which they live, and then teaching them accordingly.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 90 Number 1, 1988, p. 19-40
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 477, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 11:45:24 PM

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