The Rise And Decline of the Teenager


At the very dawn of English settlement in North America, Puritan elders were declaring that they had come to this savage continent for the sake of their children, who did not seem sufficiently grateful. (Like latter-day suburbanites, they had made the move for the sake of the kids.) They were also shocked by the sheer size of their children. Better nutrition caused Americans of European background to reach physical and sexual maturity sooner than their parents had and to grow larger than their parents. No wonder some early settlers fretted that their children were different from them and at risk of going native.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, there was a whole literature of complaint against both apprentices who affected expensive and exotic costumes and licentious young people given to nighttime “frolicks.” Jonathan Edwards gave one of the most vivid descriptions of moral decline and then proceeded to deal with it by mobilizing youthful enthusiasm within the church. By the time of the American Revolution, half the population was under sixteen. Young women over eighteen were hard to marry off, as one upper-class observer noted, because their teeth were starting to rot. (Seemingly unrelated issues like dental hygiene have always played an unsung role in the way we define the ages of man and woman.)

Yet as youthful as the American population was, young people stood in the mainstream of social and economic life. They were not the discrete group that today’s teenagers are. “In America,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835, “there is in truth no adolescence. At the close of boyhood, he is a man and begins to trace out his own path.”

Things were beginning to change, however. High school, the institution that would eventually define the teenager, had already been invented. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, it was becoming clear that rapid changes in manufacturing, transport, and marketing meant that the children of merchants, skilled artisans, and professionals would live in a very different world from that of their parents. Adults could no longer rely on passing on their businesses or imparting their skills to their children, who would probably need formal schooling. Increasingly, prosperous Americans were having fewer children and investing more in their education.

At the time, most secondary schooling took place in privately operated academies. These varied widely in nature and quality, and for the most part students went to them only when they had both a need and the time. These schools didn’t have fixed curricula, and students and teachers were constantly coming and going, since being a student was not yet a primary job. Students most often stayed at boardinghouses near the academies; they rarely lived at home.

The tax-supported high school, which by the 1860s had displaced the private academy, was based on a different set of assumptions. Attendance at it was a full-time activity, in which the student adjusted to the school’s schedule, not vice versa. Whereas academies had been the product of a society in which most economic activity happened in the home, high school evolved in tandem with the ideal of the bourgeois home, protected from the world of work and presided over by a mother who was also the primary moral teacher. High school students, by definition, led privileged, sheltered lives.

Most academies had enrolled only males, but nearly all high schools were from the outset coeducational. There was some public consternation over mixing the sexes at so volatile an age, but most cities decided that providing separate schools was too costly. High schools were acceptable places to send one’s daughter because they were close to home. Moreover, their graduates were qualified to teach elementary school, a major employment opportunity for young women. The result was that females constituted a majority of the high school population. Moreover, male graduates were likely to be upper class, since they included only those who didn’t have to drop out to work, while female graduates represented a wider social range.

Some of the early high schools were conceived as more practical and accessible alternatives to college. In a relatively short time, however, high school curricula became dominated by Latin and algebra, the courses required by the most selective colleges. Parents looked to win advantage for their children, so a “good” high school became one whose students went on to top colleges.

The earliest high schools treated their students almost as adults and allowed them to make decisions about their social lives. Students organized their own extracurricular activities and played on athletic teams with older men and workers. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, however, high schools increasingly sought to protect their charges from the dangers of the larger world. They organized dances so that their students wouldn’t go to dance halls. They organized sports so that students would compete with others their own age. They created cheerleading squads, in the hope that the presence of females would make boys play less violently. They discovered and promoted that ineffable quality “school spirit,” which was supposed to promote loyalty, patriotism, and social control. By the turn of the twentieth century, the football captain could escort the chief cheerleader to the senior prom.