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Producing Success

The Culture of Personal Advancement in an American High School

Producing Success

The Culture of Personal Advancement in an American High School

Middle- and upper-middle-class students continue to outpace those from less privileged backgrounds. Most attempts to redress this inequality focus on the issue of access to financial resources, but as Producing Success makes clear, the problem goes beyond mere economics. In this eye-opening study, Peter Demerath examines a typical suburban American high school to explain how some students get ahead.

Demerath undertook four years of research at a Midwestern high school to examine the mercilessly competitive culture that drives students to advance. Producing Success reveals the many ways the community’s ideology of achievement plays out: students hone their work ethics and employ various strategies to succeed, from negotiating with teachers to cheating; parents relentlessly push their children while manipulating school policies to help them get ahead; and administrators aid high performers in myriad ways, even naming over forty students “valedictorians.” Yet, as Demerath shows, this unswerving commitment to individual advancement takes its toll, leading to student stress and fatigue, incivility and vandalism, and the alienation of the less successful. Insightful and candid, Producing Success is an often troubling account of the educationally and morally questionable results of the American culture of success.

224 pages | 9 halftones, 1 line drawing | 6 x 9 | © 2009

Education: Pre-School, Elementary and Secondary Education

Psychology: Educational and School Psychology

Sociology: Social Institutions


“This fascinating and deeply disturbing study of a premier suburban public high school will leave readers pondering the paradox that the efforts of parents and teachers to advance the futures of individual students may be damaging to all students, undermining the love of learning and propelling us into an uncaring and Hobbesian future of our own making. Demerath writes with clarity and specificity that bring the stress and incivility of the system into vivid focus for every concerned citizen and parent.”

Mary Catherine Bateson, author of Composing a Life and Willing to Learn

Producing Success tells a very good story, highlighting matters that are of both current and perennial concern. Demerath’s book should lead to interesting discussions about the stresses of academic meritocracy in America. It is a distinguished addition to the literature on American high schools.”

Hervé Varenne, Teachers College, Columbia University

"This anthropological account provides a detailed, well-documented description of how students, parents, teachers, and administrators negotiated pervasive pressures to succeed at all costs in a prestigious, success-oriented public high school. Demerath draws a troubling portrait of the price students pay in stress and fatigue, and the marginalization and alienation of those unable or unwilling to conform. Few anthropologists have examined cultural transmission in middle-class high school settings."


Producing Success provides a unique, complex, and intriguing look at a cultural system aimed at constructing advantage that challenges readers to consider ‘how public schools articulate with the competitive requirements of [U.S.] society’”

American Anthropologist

Table of Contents


Introduction: Producing Success

Part One. Community, Home, and School Settings

1 The Wilton Way: Middle-Class Culture and Practice

2 Parental Support, Interventions, and Manipulations of Policy

3 The Role of the School: Institutional Advantaging

Part Two. Student Identity and Practice

4 Identities for Control and Success: The Acquisition of Psychological Capital

5 Teaching the “Point-Hungry” Student: Hypercredentialing in Practice

Part Three. Costs of Personal Advancement

6 “Generation Stress” and School Success

7 Alienation, Marginalization, and Incivility

8 Conclusions

Appendix: WBHS 2002 Student Survey




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