Coleman (1961) argued that an adolescent subculture had come into existence. The social forces that promoted this subculture included increased industrialization and suburbanization, segregation of adolescents from adults, less parental supervision than in more agrarian times, and less transmission of values directly from parents to children through shared work and responsibility. The investigation and analysis of this separate youth culture has become an ongoing part of the study of adolescent development (Fornas, 1995; Hendry, Shucksmith, Love, & Glendinning, 1993).
Coleman analyzed how the social structure of the adolescent subculture in ten Illinois schools assigned status and how this status system influenced adolescents' activities and development. He had adolescents respond to a 175-item questionnaire about their attitudes and values. One item asked students to select how they would like to be remembered after high school. Responses were thought to reflect both adolescents' own interests and the values of the adolescent subculture. Male high school students, when asked to choose between being remembered as an athletic star, most popular, or brilliant student, selected the role of athletic star most frequently (44%). In the late 1950s when Coleman collected his data, opportunities for sports participation were limited for high school females. Therefore, for females, leader in activities was substituted for athletic star, and this role was preferred most frequently (37%), followed closely by the role of most popular (34%). The ten high school cultures studied varied slightly in their regard for academics, but, overall, the students sought peer recognition through participation in sports and other activities rather than through academic success. Coleman concluded that the status system of the adolescent culture did not value and reward academic achievement and the pursuit of intellectual goals. He argued that, as a result, the most academically talented students diverted energy into nonacademic pursuits and developed their intellectual capacities less completely than they might otherwise have done. Coleman believed that this trend had negative consequences for society, and proposed that academically oriented interscholastic competitions and other means be used to align the goals of the adolescent subculture with those of adults.
Coleman assumed that adults prefer high school students to strive to be remembered as brilliant students. However, he found evidence that the parents of the students purported to value academics, but may actually have valued nonacademics behaviorally. Further, he assumed that participation in extracurricular activities diverts students' energy from the academic curriculum. According to Marsh (1992), this viewpoint supposes a zero-sum model in which a commitment to one (e.g., athletics) represents a loss to the other (e.g., schoolwork).
Many replications of Coleman's research have been conducted. Because of increased societal emphasis on athletics for females, since the mid-1970s the same four remembrance roles have been used for both males and females: brilliant student, most popular, athletic star, and leader in activities. Studies have consistently found that a majority of male adolescents wish to be remembered as athletes. In contrast, the role of athletic star is selected least frequently by females, while the roles of leader in activities and brilliant student are chosen most often (Eitzen, 1975; Feltz, 1978; Goldberg & Chandler, 1991; Holland & Andre, 1994; Kane, 1988; Thirer & Wright, 1985; Williams & White, 1983). Research on college students has found the remembrance role of brilliant student to be the predominant choice (Furst & DiCarlo, 1991; Pearce, Fisher, & Baluch, 1993; Whitfield, Cort, Fallone, & Baluch, 1993). This may reflect differences in the college and high school cultures, as well as self-selection bias inherent in college-student samples. …