how cultural norms shape the experiences of students in american schools

The United States’ population is densely white, the majority of policy makers are straight white males, and American educators are heavily straight white women; this results in people of color being disproportionately underrepresented in American schools. Consequently, kids in schools are not given the chance to succeed in the way they would if there were relatable folks guiding them as positive influencers in their experiences. While American school systems should be trying to understand students’ varying identities to support better learning environments for everyone, they are instead stuck in an immensely neo-liberal competitive cycle that makes for an unleveled playing field filled with depressed students.

Educational institutions may structure their learning environments in diverging ways, yet the common denominator amongst American schools is that they reinforce cultural norms that steadily reproduce an inherently adverse society. Creating a more compassionate culture in society starts at the level of educators in American schools. C.J. Pascoe finished conducting an ethnographic study examining masculinity and sexuality in a California high school, which she calls River High, in the spring of 2003. In her book Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, she shares her findings and concludes that boys in high school are more concerned with being perceived as effeminate than they are about being seen as homosexual. This is as a result of the hierarchy of masculinity within American society that is reinforced within schools.

Pascoe opens her book by presenting River High’s Mr. Cougar competition, where six senior boys compete to be crowned the most popular boy in school. Pascoe describes two good-looking, white water polo players’, Brent and Craig’s skit which represents the harrowing truth of American culture. Because these boys achieve hegemonic masculinity in real life, which is the highest esteemed type of masculinity; they are cheered on when they pretend to be effeminate wearing miniskirts and uncool as nerds. Teachers and administrators at River High do not seem to think that this tradition reinforces favoring of white cisgender heteronormative males. Because no one is standing up for them, the nerds are looked down upon and emasculated for liking school, and boys who might feel more comfortable in effeminate clothing cannot because it is not considered as normal and would thus get bullied if they tried. This teaches kids from all backgrounds at River High that white males can get away with anything simply because “boys will be boys”. This reinforces a culture in which white men are put on a pedestal, meanwhile everyone else gets the short end of the stick. If this precedent is already being set in high school, young white men grow up expecting this special treatment and act like fools when someone is not giving them that satisfaction for doing something mediocre or even totally inappropriate. A similar result is found in Peter Demerath’s study in Producing Success. Demerath’s study was situated in a wealthy suburban high school outside of a large Midwestern city. His ethnographic study was to analyze how advantage is constructed within this American school.

Demerath and his team followed eight students from their freshmen to senior year using observations, surveys, and interviews to collect their data on the students. What the team found, was that these students were being pushed to exhibit the neo-liberal American values including competitiveness, individualism, and personal gain. Demerath discusses “The Wilton Way” as a demonstration of the supported cultural values within the community, including parents pushing their students to succeed in school, but also intervening and manipulating school policy for their child’s gain. The school supported students’ individualism and freedom, but also had high expectations, and valued competition amongst the peers. The school wanted the students to perform well academically, while reaching their personal goals. All of this might sound quite standard within a school, but Demerath discusses the “costs of personal advancement”, which is the extreme anxiety and exhaustion that all the students faced, having a concentrated effect on girls, resulting in depression, estrangement, and misbehavior from some students, as well as the African American students being outcasts in the school.

Because the helicopter parents who push this American market-driven ideology on their kids are majority white, more affluent folks, minority students do not have the same chances to succeed. This breeds for a culture of disunity, giving unfair advantages to white students (especially boys), and this expectation is thus erected onto the students’ principles once they are in society. In Valdes’ book Con Respeto, she studies ten families in which the parents were Mexican-born, making them majority first-generation, and living in mostly rural areas near the Mexico-U.S. border. She found that the parents generally had low levels of education, and had a mistrust of schools, administrators, and teachers. The parents believed that family came first, and education was a secondary issue. For example, if a student’s grandparent was dying in Mexico, the parents would take them out of school for long periods of time and they believed if the teacher wanted the kids to be doing schoolwork, they would provide the students with enough work to do while away.

The white teachers did not have a good understanding of the Mexican culture, and vice versa, which made it extremely difficult for the students to succeed. Cultural norms of educational institutions shape experiences and opportunities for different students. As seen in all three of these ethnographic studies, the basis of understanding for teachers, administrators and schools, is of a middle- upper class, white culture. This made it difficult for any child outside of this group to be able to succeed, and often times the schools were just blind to it, or even supported and reproduced such norms. Because of such ethnographic studies being conducted, I have hope for the future of American schools.

Works Cited

  1. Demerath, Peter. Producing Success: The culture of personal advancement in an American high school. University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  2. Pascoe, C. J. Dude you’re a fag: Masculinity and sexuality in high school. University of California Press, 2011.
  3. Valdes, Gaudalupe. Con Respeto: Bridging the Distances Between Culturally Diverse Families and Schools – An Ethnographic Portrait. New York: Teachers College Press, 1996.

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