Long before white settlers crossed the River, the Indians followed the Trail. They kept to the dry ground avoiding the swampy areas left by the receding Lake. When the white man came, he used the same well-worn trail, since it led through the breaks in the hills and crossed the river where it was firm under foot. It was this river crossing which determined the location and later development of the village which was to became the Borough of Sheffield; it was this trail which was to become Main Street.
The League of Warren Voters of the Borough of Sheffield

The Town

Sheffield is a suburban town located twenty five miles from New York City. It is within the greater metropolitan area. As one rides the train, or drives from New York, one never goes through undeveloped areas. On the way one crosses the variety of environments typical of a modern metropolis: stinking industrial -reas, garbage dumps, railroad yards, airports, ruined neighborhoods, shopping centers, parks, quiet streets shaded by enormous trees, raw developments, old white wooden churches with the discrete steeples of New England Protestantism, massive Catholic churches, and plenty of schools, from the red brick ones of the thirties and forties to the yellow brick and glass ones of the fifties and sixties with their parking lots, lawns and athletic fields.

When one turns off the freeway on the ramp to Sheffield, when one gets off the train there, one is still carrying this kaleidoscope of metropolitan scenes. One is also immediately told that one is crossing a boundary that is severely enforced. The place has a differentiated name. There are no industries within the limits, no shopping malls, not even a fast food outlet. The narrow main street twists and turns up and down the side of a small hill. It is lined with stores that cultivate an "old New England" look. In the spring there are shrubs and flowers by the railroad station. The streets are lined with massive trees that reach to the sky above the roofs of the large houses in lots which get bigger and bigger as one moves up the hill. Should one stop at a real estate agency, one would find that the price of the houses range f ran the middle high to the high end of the scale. There are no estates in Sheffield, but there is nothing that either a blue collar worker or somebody in middle management could easily afford. The town is one of sales representatives, engineers, managers, people who hold positions of responsibility somewhere under the top in a big corporation. In the morning they take the train to New York. Their wives, who drove them to the station, pick up the maids who come from the neighboring black ghettos.

There are no resident blacks in the town, no resident hispanic person. No teacher resides there either. Only the principal could afford Sheffield, and only because the local bank gave him a particularly favorable loan on the principle that such a high administrator should live in town. Blacks and Puerto Ricans cane into town, as maids, handymen, mechanics, cooks, etc. Like the teachers they drive or ride into town in the morning, and out again at night. They work but they do not sleep within the boundaries. And this establishes the boundaries.

The boundaries delimit an area that is considered small: 2.3 square miles. Most people can walk from their houses to the center of the town. Few actually do and there often is some congestion in the main streets, particularly during the twice daily migrations when men are exchanged for maids. But most of the students in the school do walk there. They all get their driver's licence at sixteen, but few are those who can convince their parents of their need for a car to go to school.

Few people that reside in Sheffield have been born and raised there. But they will mention with some pride the fact that white settlers lived in Sheffield long before the Revolution and that George Washington used the town as a temporary headquarter. The first recorded land transaction dates from 1680 when some land was purchased from Indians. The first established church was Presbyterian (1765). A Sheffield "Academy" was established in 1805. The first Post Office dates from 1808. By then Sheffield had started to prosper because of its position on a major turnpike. The first trains arrived in 1837 and, for the first time, it became possible to make the round trip to New York City in one day. Still Sheffield remained a small village: In 1845, only 58 dwellings were recorded. In 1871, building lots were offered for sale and were bought by Irish workers in the local brickyard. The new residents opened a Catholic School and a St. Patrick's parish in 1875. By then, the normal pattern of religious plurality was firmly established as most Protestant denominations were also represented.

As time passed, boundaries were redrawn, satellite settlements gained formal independence from Sheffield which gained its present status as an incorporated village, a "Borough," in 1892. But the Borough continued to live in close relationship with its twin administrative unit, Sheffield "Township." They still share the same train station. It is only since 1966 that students of high school age are separated as the Township built its-own high school and thus completed the segregation of the school districts. Still, the two high schools consider each other to be adversaries of preference at ritual times like Homecoming games. The division corresponds to a sociohistorical stratification: The Borough was developed first. The houses there are older, the trees higher, the prices and incomes lower. In the Township the houses are newer, the trees are younger, the lots bigger, the prices and incomes higher. Sane areas are still undeveloped and covered by a swampish forest. But the two areas share a name and a general suburban, business-oriented and provincial atmosphere. In the Township, like in the Borough, there are no industries, shopping centers or fastfood outlets. All those are easily available by car. But they are "Out There," not "In Here."

In 1970, 9,566 people lived in Sheffield in 3,057 households. There were 3 blacks and 51 other nonwhites. The median age was 34. A third of the population was under 18 and they lived in husband-wife families. Only 11$ of the population was over 65. The average income was close to $18,000. Only two percent of the families had incomes below the poverty level. In the high school only three students were receiving federal assistance for free lunches. It is fair to say that "everybody" who lives in the town belongs to a nuclear family where middle-aged parents and their few children enjoy a comfortable income, but no real wealth. They live in houses of the usual style for American detached houses. They look after then well inside and out. They are active in the usual organizations and social clubs.

The School and its People

The creation of the school system can be traced to an 'Academy' created at the turn of the 19th century. It does not seem to have been particularly distinguished. In 1906, the State Department of Education refused to accredit the High School program. It took until 1908 for the citizens to develop a plan acceptable to the state. In 1911 a new high school was built. This building was used until 1957 when the present one was opened. The administration of the district is traditional with an elected school board, a superintendent surrounded by a small central administration, three elementary schools (K-5), a middle school (6-8) and a high school (9-12). Each school has its principal, a small administration and a number of teachers. In 1972, the superintendent had been running the school system for many years, a proof of the historical basis for the general feeling among the people that there is no serious dissension in the town about the delivery of education. People seem satisfied. None of the problems that they do discuss lead to strong calls for radical changes. This general satisfaction with the way things are pervades the high school. Only a very few individuals complain and often less for specific reasons than because they are offended by the general smugness.

In 1972-3, when the fieldwork was conducted, the high school building was still in good repair and did not show its age. It is traditional in its architecture and plan. Its central corridor is lined with lockers and flanked on both sides by a series of classrooms. These classrooms are spatially defined by their walls: A wall of windows over a ledge face a wall of bulletin boards. Together they give an !a/ out axis to the room. The door is located at one angle of the "in" side. Near to it is placed the teacher's desk. The door and the desk together define the front/back axis. The rooms comfortably hold up to thirty students who sit on the ubiquitous movable chairs with the tiny built-in tablet that are the hallmark of American education. There are also, of course, administrative offices, a library ("media center"), a gym, an auditorium, a parking lot, lawns, a flag, an athletic field with a few bleachers. Altogether this physical plant is an inflexible environment. As we will see, it can be put to use in ways that were not completely predicted by the architects. But it remains a concrete, brick and glass solid that can be transformed only by how one places oneself within it, by the way one uses the space one is given. The space itself cannot be changed. Variation among the classrooms can only be introduced by changing what is put on the walls, how the books and papers are arranged on the bookshelves, how the chairs are disposed, or what equipment is placed there.

When the school year began, on September 7, 1972, the building was occupied by about 700 students, 49 teachers and a few more adults (administrators, secretaries, cafetaria workers, janitors, etc.). Classes are held Mondays through Fridays, and from 8:25 to 3:00. There are seven periods of approximately 50 minutes. Bells ring to mark the beginning and end of periods. Teachers are required to arrive at 8:10 and cannot leave before 3:30. They are strongly advised to supervise extra-curricular activities of which 35 are offered to the students. Several teachers coach the various sports teams and they have supervisory responsibilities (in the cafeteria/commons, study halls, bathrooms and corridors). General faculty meetings are rare. There exists a "Faculty Advisory Council" made up of twelve members (including 6 elected teachers) that meets regularly. There is an abundant exchange of memos between the various people (about announcements of events, new policies, reminders of upcoming administrative deadlines, instructions for filling forms, etc.). Teachers have to teach five out of seven periods, but they are not all separate preparations. When they do not teach, they can go to a space specifically designated as their own, the "teachers' lounge." They can relax there, talk with their friends, bring themselves up to date on the internal history of the school, prepare their next classes or grade assignments. However, there are sane differences in the amount and type of use the various teachers make of the lounge. Sane are there most of the time that they are not teaching. Others only walk in and out to pick up their mail. They spend the rest of their time in an office assigned to them because of some administrative function they also perform and because of personal choice. This is most visible at lunch time when some teachers eat in the lounge, others in the special teachers' dining roan off the cafetaria, and yet others in their offices. These stratifications are articulated around the various traits that the individuals can claim: age, sex, political or educational opinions, life style choices, etc. We will spend much time on the exact manner in which these stratification processes operated. Let us insist simply at this time on the dual fact that they are present and that they are loose and fluid.

The same kind of stratification, based on the same principles, organizes the student population, except for the division by grades or "classes" that are extremely frozen. The other dividing principles (sex, interest in sports, intellectual prowess as life styles, political opinion, etc.) are continually being manipulated but, as we will see also, the extent to which they produce differentiated social groupings cannot easily be measured. In a town as homogeneous as Sheffield, it is not surprising that the matters of class and ethnicity that are so powerful in many other schools do not operate very forcibly. All students can manipulate the ethnic vocabulary, but very few use it as rationalization for their social interactions. Sane class divisions are visible as the small group of students who attend a vocational school part of the day in a neighboring district perhaps form the most segregated group in the school. Not only are their parents of significantly lower income than the parents of most other children, they are absent from the school most of the day.

It is said of the students, and they acknowledge, that they are "two years behind the time." The "time" is defined by the dominant preoccupation of teenagers in New York City as these are represented in the mass media. Musical tastes, dress styles, political preoccupations did seem a little backwards. In 1972, it was still thought remarkable that groups of students should insist on their right to wear their hair extremely long, should smoke marijuana or listen to hard rock. Students had just begun to protest the Viet-Nam war. Blue jeans were beginning to be the uniform. Apart from that, most of the students dressed rather conservatively in casual clothes. Varsity jackets were worn. One could even see a few suits and tie. Girls often wore skirts. They were quite interested in their physical appearance. The general atmosphere given by the student body is that of a general informality, but it is far from being disorderly. What is perhaps more interesting is that all students know how to both dress and behave in a wide range of fashion and they can, financially and physically, dress in any available manner: all boys own at least one suit (in which they were all photographed for the annual yearbook picture) and pairs of blue jeans. They know what a tuxedo is and what the symbolic connotations are of wearing a dirty tee shirt to school.

The students, in their great majority, consider themselves headed for college even when, according to the guidance counselor, they have little chance for success there. A few go on to the most prestigious Ivy League schools. Most err? in small liberal arts colleges across the country. This is the normal route. Anything else, whether Harvard or a menial job, is considered exceptional. The school curriculum mirrors this situation. There are some college prep courses of a very high caliber in calculus, computer programming or nuclear physics, but most courses are mast mundane. They do not seem very challenging. The junior and early senior years seem to be the most tense for the students as they take the tests that determine their chances for admission to college. This is when they apply to the colleges, wait to hear who has accepted them and make a choice. Later, things relax and concerns shift towards social life.

This social life is strongly centered on various types of meetings with friends chosen from among one's school peers. The influence of the students' families is almost never acknowledged even though one sometimes suspects that it is not nonexistent. A few students date people from other schools and social milieus. Most students spend most of free their time with each other. They meet as they walk home, shop, ride around. The older students dine together in restaurants. There are of course also the ubiquitous, more or less formally organized, parties. These meetings are the only ones that are of immediate concern. There is little mention of family reunions or even simple retreats into the nuclear family that are probably of some relevance to the students' social life. All this is obviously underlaid by an intense interest in matters sexual. It was rather difficult for our team to specify the character of this interest. Let it just be said that no girl found herself pregnant the year we were there--or, at the very least--no pregnancies were acknowleged. In any event, the very repression of sexual talk with outsiders, or in casual conversation, is very revealing. Sexual practices may have been freer in 1972 Sheffield than they were ten years earlier (this is something of which the adults were convinced), but they are still problematical. They are a serious matter of anxious concern.

Suburban School and Mass Society

There is nothing in this account that should surprise Americans wherever they have lived in the United States. Some details of the practices, some aspects of the vocabulary, some vocal inflections and body postures might allow people with a good knowledge of the States to recognize the regional origin of the people who lived in Sheffield. They would recognize immediately that the superintendent was originally from the South, something that was universally known and which he wore like a medal. What is the exact relevance of the differences that allow for these identifications is not very clear. Whether they require that we spend much time on their nature may be a matter of opinion. It seems to me that what is fascinating here is the extent of the commonalities, particularly given the rhetoric of "local control" that dominates political expression of the people's relationship to "their" school. Through the school board, Sheffield's adults "control" what happens in it. While the State reserves the power of accrediting the program offered by the district and the teachers, it does not mandate all the details of this plan. Furthermore, theoretically at least, the people control the State's mandates themselves. When all this is joined together, one could expect that the school would have a much more distinct character than it has. Independent social entities generally drift culturally and should soon exhibit a certain amount of formal variation.

In fact, it is the absence of surprise that is not surprising for those who know the United States. It is interesting to think briefly on the sources of this conservatism of forms. The people of Sheffield think that they, an independent community, control their schools. How do they in fact exert this control? They supervise the finances: How much it costs is a dominant concern in a town where most people have financial worries. They want to be kept up to date with any "innovation" implemented in the school, for new practices always surprise and confuse enough parents to require a hearing during which tensions can easily surface. Anything that is too surprising is not welcome. Members of the school board also willingly perform a host of ceremonial functions, frown that of legalizing the practical governing decisions that a superintendent cannot take on his own authority, to attendance at the school's sports events, to the ritual awarding of prizes, to participation in graduation ceremonies. But the day to day running of the school is left to the superintendent, to the principal, and then to the teachers who have finally a great amount of leeway for variation in their teaching styles and content--as long, of course, as they do not produce something that makes them noticeably different to the vocal and active parents.

In practice, then, the town delegates its control to people whom it accepts as "specialists," from the superintendent, a specialist of specialists, to the person whose special training makes him or her the best available mathematics or German teacher. It is, in the final analysis, those specialists that give the school its shape and provide the framework within which everybody has to live. A most striking example of this process of framing of local action by outside specialists may be found in the very design of the building, certainly the most immediately visible of these inflexible frames. The design was obviously submitted to a host of constraints: it had to be ethologically adapted to the size and the number of the people it was intended to serve given certain ecological and technological constraints. It had to conform to state requirements, a fire code. It also had to appear stylistically appropriate and to be usable for the normal cultural activities of an American suburban town-for example, students had to have chairs to sit on. They could not be asked to sit on the floor. There was to be a parking lot, etc. The actual design of the building, however, was produced by a team of architects whose main allegiance was to training schools-whether architectural or teachers' colleges--far removed from Sheffield itself. They produced something that was as acceptable there as it was to the people of -Sheffield. Indeed, they probably took upon themselves the task of "educating" the committee in charge of overseeing them into what was "really" necessary (modern, up-to-date, safe, scientifically based, etc.) in school design. A building was built and, for many years, the people had to live with it, and adapt to it. It is not surprising that the school building became all but invisible as a problematic environment. It is not surprising that persons from other towns in the United States who went to school in building designed by architects trained in the same schools who trained those that designed Sheffield High would be so comfortable with the building there. It may have been boring, but it was familiar, something to be homesick about.

All that can be said about the design of the building can be said of the administrative regulations that organize the relationship of the people, the design of the curriculum, and even such informal affairs as the ensemble of the musical styles available to the students with their traditional identifications (classical, rock, easy listening, etc.) or the design of the Pram. In all these matters, specialists with ties to the broader society suggest designs and convince people of their appropriateness. They pride tools specifically designed for their recommendations (and useless for anything else). All in all, they are the ones who build the environment to which local action must respond. Teachers can personalize their classroom as far as the posters they pin on the bulletin board, the order they maintain in the books beneath the windows. They can even require different things from the students as far as demeanor is concerned. They can deviate in small and altogether not insignificant ways from the imposed curriculum. But they can only go so far. They cannot move walls, change the shape of the windows, make it so that they do not have to evaluate the children with possible devastating effects upon their future, prevent themselves from being suspicious of any intervention by the principal in their daily routines. The people in the school are active. But this action is more reaction than it is creation. It cannot help but take into account what it is given, whether it is something inherited from the past, or something that the outside world brought.

Nothing here, once again, is very surprising. But it does allow us to go beyond two traditional ways of handling these processes and can give us a better understanding of the kind of research that is now necessary. For Vidich and Bensman (1968), the mass society (an outside) influenced, constrained, entered the small community (an inside). This is indeed the way the people of Sheffield thought of their situation and the impulse which moved them to maintain sharply etch

ed boundaries. In fact, it is the boundaries that are artificial. The outside is intimately inside the town in the maids, mechanics, and teachers, that come every day to service the lives of the families of the town. The outside is in the experiences which the men, women and children bring back with them as they move "out" on their daily trips to provide themselves with the necessities of life. The mass society is not out of, or around, Sheffield. It is Sheffield.

Because Sheffield is the mass society, everything that happens there is necessarily typical of the society in the sense that it is characteristic of it. The town, in the specific arrangement that is made of the life of the people who live and work there, is unique. But anything that happens there is made possible, indeed required by the broader society. Everything that happens in Sheffield is eminently "possible." It can tell us much about the processes that constrain any other group of people who are submitted to the same mass society. Sheffield is not statistically typical; it is structurally typical. Anything that can be said about the principles that structure life there applies to all other school districts in the United States. This is why Sheffield is so little surprising, and still interesting.

Doing Conservatism

The literature on American small towns, suburbs, their schools and the life of the people in them is enormous. We have the Lynds' books (1929, 1937) and their broad strokes. We have books that focus on subgroups in a school--a principal (Wolcott, 1973), teachers (Lortie, 1975). We also have a number of school studies (Hollingshead, 1949; Seeley et al., 1956; Gordon, 1957; Coleman, 1961; Henry, 1963; Sarason, 1971 --to mention only the book length monographs) [ftn 1]. All emphasize different aspects of the life of the school. There is some variation in theoretical outlook. Forty years have passed. Any survey of this literature will reveal very soon, however, that things are not changing quite as fast as Americans like to say they do. The Lynds' description of high school cliques in a midwestern town of the middle 20's is of direct relevance to what was happening in a northeastern suburb in the early 70's and is still going on. [ftn 2]

One can understand the fascination that people have for a rediscovery of something that they know very well both through their own experiences as students in these schools, and then through their reading of the literature. Indeed, it is of interest that none of this classical literature on American schools was written by nonAmericans. The typical attitude and justification for these studies are perhaps best revealed by Jules Henry's stance: His is the passionate complaint of the true believer who feels deeply the failures of creations for which he senses a responsibility. His is a plea for a revival of the traditional values and for a new effort at implementing them. Even when the passion is hidden, when the stance is that of the detached observer, introductions and final chapters are often written in the prophetic mode. The very concerns that pervade the core of the books are those of insiders. Why else do all these books want to explain, more or less directly "Why Johnny is failing"? Why else do they so rarely realize that the analytic questions concern the underlying system which makes such a question a burning issue?

There is nothing wrong in insider passion and pleas for reform. It is possible, however, to claim that the genre may, by now, blind us to the fundamental mechanisms that make life what it is. When I say that the Lynds' account of high school cliques is still relevant, I mean that it is relevant given a certain tyre of sociological writing It is the style that deals with social life as an object that is immediately present. This is the style that says: "There are three main cliques in the school, the following students belong to them, and it is fair to say that the following characteristics of their background determine who belong to these cliques." In this style, there is indeed very little to say about American schools that has not already been said. But, as

Geertz recently suggested (1980), there are many other styles which sociologists can use. Shifts in style can allow for the discovery of patterns which the earlier writers had missed, not because they were not there, but because they could not be seen.

It is in this spirit that we must think about and appreciate Sheffield, however unsurprising it may appear to be. The school is interesting not because it reveals changes in American culture, or because it is unique in a particularly significant manner. It is interesting, rather, because it is not surprising and thus gives us the luxury of looking at it from a different perspective that will tell some things not only about Sheffield, but also about Middletown, Elmstown, Crestwood Heights, Rune, etc. This perspective is the perspective of .the uncertain creating-irr-anenvirorment subject.



1) For a fuller bibliography, see Hansen (1979). back to text

2) For work based on fieldwork done in the late 70's see Canaan (1982), Goldman (1982). back to text