Annette B. Hemmings
There has been a succession of reports and research on U.S. public high schools that are largely concerned with issues and problems related to academic achievement. In my own prior research, I was especially interested in how high-achieving Black students formed academic identities and were poised to “do” or “not do” the academic work assigned to them (Hemmings, 1996, 1998). But whenever I entered the field, I was struck by the observation that high schools and the teenagers who attended them were involved in much more extensive cultural work. Academic achievement was important, but it was not necessarily a primary concern of adolescent students who were struggling hard to come of age in high schools that have been historically established to ease their passages to adulthood in the broadest, most comprehensive cultural sense.
I also noticed how adolescent passages were complicated by the fact that there is not and never will be a common, shared American culture. Culture in the United States is a dynamic seascape with a myriad of crosscurrents comprised of conflicting discourses and practices that can cause terrible confusion for, or open up creative possibilities to, teenagers. These crosscurrents converge in high schools, where students' cultural navigations may be fairly smooth or extremely treacherous. Such observations were not lost on anthropologists during the first half of the 20th century, but they have been overlooked in recent decades, especially among school ethnographers who are rendering culture into bounded systems or binary oppositions in studies that focus rather narrowly on differentiated patterns of academic achievement.