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October 27, 2004

YL Theory: Topic Areas

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on May 16, 2005]

My main interest as a writer is in creating theory that will support Youth Liberation -- both by explaining the problem that it seeks to redress, and by talking about how to organize activist efforts. Without even discussing specific campaigns (e.g. winning the vote, ending curfews, discouraging spanking, etc.), there are several books worth of material here. In this essay I will try to identify the main topic areas that I believe YL theory should address, and show how they are interrelated.

I. The Blueprint of Adults’ Oppression

There is a history of adults treating youth as property; it continues on into the present day. This is not right. Youth are persons -- no one’s property but their own.

Treating a person as property means thinking that one has the absolute right to control them. With regards to the relationship between parents and children, there is an initial, inevitable power imbalance due to biology. However, that power imbalance is maintained for an artificially long time, and is taken to unnatural extremes. A hierarchical relationship is presumed to exist between any adult and any minor: the adult is entitled to command as they see fit, the youth is expected to respectfully obey without question.

Topic #1: Youth as Property
What is the history of adults treating youth as property? In what ways are youth still treated like property today? What strategies do parents use to maintain control of their human property? How does adult government legitimize parents’ property rights? How do parents and the government conflict over ownership of youth?

Minors’ place in civil society is modeled after the relationship between parents and their children. Youth are excluded from formal decision making processes (e.g. voting and control of the public school system); adult citizens (or their governmental representatives) are entitled to make laws governing youth as they see fit. Given that there is a biological and chronological continuum between childhood and adulthood, this raises questions about who should be recognized as an actual “adult”.

Topic #2: Age Lines
What is the line between childhood and adulthood? What are different strategies for defining adulthood? [e.g. a biology, law, psychological development, personal character] How is adulthood like a membership organization? What is the history of the concept of “adulthood” and the creation of “adults” as a legal group? What commonalities bind youth together as a group?

Why do adults treat youth as property? The answer is simple: because it benefits them. Benefit may be in the form of financial gain -- but mainly it’s simply a matter of convenience and getting to have things the way that one wants. Treating youth as actual persons means not always getting what you want; it can be inconvenient. But that does not mean that it can’t, or shouldn’t be done.

Adults have a great many rationalizations for why it’s right to treat youth as they do. Adult controlled media generates propaganda suggesting that it’s more important than ever to maintain control over youth. While it’s worthwhile to examine and debunk these arguments, they should not be misinterpreted as adults’ true reasons for acting as property owners.

Topic #3: Adult Supremacism
How do adults rationalize treating youth as property? How are youth portrayed as flawed beings? How do adults argue their own superiority? How do parents understand their entitlement / obligation to guide-supervise-protect-control? How are youth seen as incompetent to participate as citizens? How does the media portray youth as a problem people, with troubling trends, a group that is getting progressively worse? What fears does the prospect of Youth Liberation raise?

II. From Property to Personhood... to Power

Youth Liberation is a subcategory of Children’s Rights work, distinguished foremost by the belief that youth should have access to the vote and by the involvement of actual youth in activist efforts. There are several branches of thought within Youth Liberation. I am a proponent of what might be called the “Youth Power” variety, which emphasizes the importance of youth gaining power -- as opposed to equal treatment, or an independent youth culture.

Topic #4: Varieties of Youth Liberation
How does Youth Liberation differ from the Children’s Rights movement? Within Youth Liberation, what major ideological differences exist? Why “liberation” rather than “rights”? What agenda points are widely agreed upon? What is the history of youth-led, anti-adultism activism?

The guiding principle of “Youth Power” YL is this: youth should be able to remove themselves from harmful situations under their own power. The ability to leave a situation at will is “exit freedom”; from a youth perspective, it is a matter of self-defense. Manifesting this principle of exit freedom throughout society will require changing many laws and institutions. For instance:

In addition to legal change, YL must pursue cultural changes in our society. We must be concerned with countering anti-youth propaganda -- however, we must pay at least as much attention to how adults see themselves, as to how they see youth.

The adults who oppress youth now, were once youth themselves. Many minors never truly think of themselves as youth; rather, they are always intent on associating themselves with the prestige of adulthood. Instead of standing in solidarity with other youth, they try to dissociate themselves from the group. The “adulthood” that they are ultimately passively granted by law is seemingly contingent upon having become a superior being and joining the societal effort to control younger folk.

In place of this vision of adulthood, YL promotes the notion of “ageless being” -- which strives to see the humanity in beings of all ages, is encouraging of their efforts at self-determination, and assumes a humbleness regarding one’s own competence.

Topic #5: Age Identity
If youth are oppressed, why do they go on to become adult oppressors? What strategies do youth use to dissociate themselves from childhood, to gain social status? What’s wrong with treating “maturity” as a virtue? How can an adult be a “conscientious objector” to adulthood? What is the vision of “ageless being”?

III. The Practical Work of Movement-Building

The activist work of building exit freedom into the family, schools, and government will ideally proceed with the help of supportive adults. However, even “enlightened” adults should not be entrusted to protect youth in the total absence of input from youth. Because YL is concerned with youths’ control of their lives, its method for bringing about social change should involve activists who are youth themselves. The YL movement must always be concerned with cooptation by well-meaning, yet oppressive adult leadership.

Topic #6: Working Inside YL Organizations
What criteria determine whether or not an organization is doing Youth Liberation work? What are the arguments for a “by youth, for youth” organization? What are the proper roles for adults, “tweens”, and youth in the YL movement? What are common ways in which adults take over youth organizations? What principles should adult allies observe when working with youth activists? What processes can help deal with adultism when it emerges within a YL organization? How can one identify cooptation?

Youth Liberation’s allies may come from outside of the movement, that is, from within other liberation movements. Adultism is an oppression; it has commonalities with other oppressions, such as racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, anti-semitism, ableism, and ageism. I promote the notion that YL activists should both seek the help of other progressive movements, and themselves lend assistance when possible.

Topic #7: Adultism as an Oppression
What criteria define an “oppression”? How is “oppression” commonly misunderstood? What is the root cause of adults’ oppression? In what ways is adultism different from other oppressions? What does adultism have in common with the oppressions of other groups? [particularly women and blacks] Why use the word “adultism” rather than “ageism”? How can YL activists build partnerships with other movements? Why should other progressive movements be interested in Youth Liberation?

IV. Specific Campaigns

In this essay I’ve attempted to identify the broad topic areas that should be of interest to YL theory. I believe that these areas set the stage for understanding the problem of adultism, and for designing activism to fight it. What is notably lacking in this essay is a discussion of specific campaign issues.

The reason for this is that I expect strategies for any particular issue to be somewhat different depending upon what locality an activist is working in. Also, it seems to me that while there will be consensus among YL activists on many issues, the principles of YL may lead to differing conclusions when applied at different times. For instance, YL activists will likely always agree that youth should be able to vote -- but whether or not school uniforms are appropriate may be an issue that depends upon how badly factionalism is hurting a particular population of students.

I may or may not address specific campaigns in the future. I encourage other authors to apply the frameworks I have developed to these issues. I leave you with a partial list of issues deserving consideration (and activism):

Posted by Sven at 12:00 PM

October 07, 2004

Fragment: Why "Youth Liberation" instead of "Youth Rights"?

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on May 16, 2005]

I'll offer four reasons...

1. In essence, youth are still their parents' property. A person's property doesn't have rights of its own.

At one point, black slaves, women, children, and cattle all had a similar status -- essentially as the property of adult, white, male heads-of-households. Whereas blacks and women have essentially won their freedom (if not full equality), youth have yet to truly move from property to personhood in this country. Notice that guardians have the right to use physical violence to maintain control, and that it is illegal for youth to run away. Youth are tied to their guardian, good or bad, and it is very difficult to sever the tie.

Youth cannot effectively argue for having rights equal to those of all other citizens because they're not even fully recognized as persons yet. The African-American civil rights movement could not happen until decades after the Emancipation Proclamation gave blacks their freedom. Similarly, youth must win their fundamental emancipation before we can treat the notion that "discrimination is wrong" as a given.

2. People who write about rights rarely discuss how to redress wrongs.

Within the Children's Rights and Youth Rights movements, it is common to propose "Bill of Rights"-style documents. These are valuable visions of how things should be. However, in imagining what sort of utopia we are shooting for, authors seldom discuss how to deal with redress of wrongs. Even if the rights we desire become law, they'll be meaningless if we don't have enforcement agencies -- ones that actually do their duty, and that are adequately staffed and funded to deal with their workload.

People talking about Bills of Rights also tend to ignore the nature of this struggle. They often suggest, at least implicitly, that to achieve progress, we just need to keep marching forward. In reality, however, we are on the defensive. Adult supremacists keep on asserting new ways to curtail youth freedoms. We are doing well if we just manage to defeat each new attack as it comes along. Most of the time, our struggle would be best described as a "resistance" movement.

I choose to use the word "Liberation" not because legal rights aren't important -- they are! -- but because this word connects our struggle with an Oppression / Liberation framework. An Op/Lib frame more accurately describes our opponents as an active force, responding to us, and working against our goals. "Liberation" says that to redress wrongs, we have to fight back. Given that forward progress is so difficult, there is less burden to describe our ultimate goals.

[The Op/Lib also gives us a means for connecting with other anti-oppression movements. When adultism is described as an oppression, we can show progressive activists working on racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc. that we have a common cause.]

3. Equality, if that's interpreted as "identical rights" under the law, doesn't make sense for youth.

The Youth Rights movement is a variety of civil rights movement. Civil rights movements in the U.S. draw their power from The Declaration of Independence: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal". They seek equality, which has tended to be interpreted as identical rights under law. The notion that everyone should be treated identically has been problematic for other group (e.g. women re pregnancy, or people with disabilities re physical accommodations) -- it is even more so for youth.

4. To distinguish "by youth, for youth" activism from "children's rights" organizations that are entirely controlled by adults.

Posted by Sven at 12:00 PM

October 06, 2004

Exploration: Youth As Their Own Property

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on May 16, 2005]

This is another "exploration" essay, in which I mean to explore everything I have to say on a topic. It is not meant to be a polished product that an audience will read.

My prompt this time is a paragraph I wrote as part of an outline for the proposed arc, "Youth Are Nobody's Property -- Except Their Own". Here's the quote:

1. Youth Are Nobody's Property -- Except Their Own The current YL movement focuses on winning rights identical to those of adults, based on the "all men are created equal" principle. However, property doesn't have rights of its own -- and youth are still essentially property. ...There couldn't be a meaningful Civil Rights movement til decades after the Emancipation Proclamation. In this essay I intend to discuss the various things that are inherently, inalienably owned by youth: their body, name, friendships, movement, time/labor, education, a portion of what's held collectively by society, and access to resources that have been made available for the public good (etc.).

People are not property. It is wrong to treat them as if they are.

Youth are people. It is wrong to treat them as if they're property.

And yet, youth are treated like property.

Looking back into history, we see that adult society has viewed youth as the property of their parents -- property that parents are entitled to control as they see fit. This is a history that continues into the present day. Standards of what's acceptable treatment have improved; yet the essence of youth being dealt with as if they are property remains...

[That was just a good four paragraphs that popped into my head -- not really what I'm going for in an exploration. Let me back up and try to explain at a meta level what it is that I want to deal with in this essay.]

1. Reexamining the essay arc

I want to write an arc of essays, the central theme of which is property. Well, not just property, but youth-as-property: (1) as their own property, (2) being viewed as the property of parents, or (3) as the property of adult society as a whole (which conflicts with parental ownership rights at times).

In taking this route, I'm building upon my previous essay "Property and Ownership". I'm attempting to replace the Oppression / Liberation model (Op/Lib) with a Property & Ownership model (P&O). Whereas Op/Lib compelled me to define oppression, then show how adultism met the criteria for inclusion, I think P&O is more immediately intuitive. I might be wrong. Maybe I need to include the theoretical essay on "what is property?" in this arc -- but I think my chances are at least better, at being able to avoid this than the "what is oppression" essay. "Oppression" is such an abstract term. People may not understand P&O in all its detail, but we do at least have daily interaction with the concept of property.

Just so I can stop going back and forth, referring to this outline I wrote, I'm going to copy over the proposed chapter headings to this essay now:

  1. Youth Are Nobody's Property -- Except Their Own
  2. Emancipation: Reclaiming Ownership of Oneself
  3. Adult Supremacism: The Idea That Youth Should Be Adults' Property
  4. How Parents Maintain Control of Their Human Property
  5. "Adulthood" Is Membership in an Organization for Property Owners
  6. Ageless Being: Transcending Childhood, Adulthood, and Old Age

A few paragraphs up, I sort of condensed my topics down to three: youth as the property of (a) themselves, (b) parents, and (c) society. These topics correspond to chapters 1, 4, and 5 in the arc's outline. So are the other topics really called for?

The "Emancipation" topic is meant to sort of say: "Hey! Whereas youth should be their own property, adults do not recognize their right of self-ownership. I'm not going to go so far as to say that guardians are unnecessary -- because they are necessary. There is a biological reality of being unable to care for oneself. The need for care is perhaps exaggerated (I could go into that), but it's still real. So, if I'm forced to acknowledge this, how does self-ownership play out? You get full control as soon as you ask for it. But there also has to be the means to access partial control when you need to get out from under a bad guardian. In that sense, I'm advocating reworking what it means to be a guardian. There is a parallel with the three needs of youth (physical care, social navigation, and economic patronage): the three roles of guardians (physical caregiver, guide/advisor, financial patron)..."

It seems like in this proposed essay, I'm going in a few directions... I'm (1) talking about what it means to be a parent who doesn't act like an owner, and (2) setting forth my 2-point condensation of the YL agenda. There's also a topic in here, (3) about what it would mean if "emancipation" genuinely reflected youth taking possession of themselves, rather than the watered down version of freedom that exists now... This might require me to go into a discussion of the various types of artificial age lines.

...Now that I discuss that "emancipation" essay, I see that I'm also trying to go in a few directions with the "youth are their own property" essay: (1) replacing the civil rights model with the property ownership model, (2) a list of what youth rightfully own. I might also need a little discussion about (3) what it means to own a thing. [Later addenda: (4) contrasting ownership of oneself with ownership by a parent or a slave owner.]

2. Listing what youth own

In terms of talking about what youth rightfully own, I don't really have this list well defined yet. A few years back I came up with what I thought were the five essential freedoms. That certainly seems relevant here:

  1. freedom to control one's own body
  2. freedom of movement / association
  3. freedom of speech / thought
  4. freedom to access necessary resources (medical, food, shelter)
  5. ability to participate in decision-making processes that affect one

I also recall brainstorming a list of things that a youth owns several months ago in one of my small notebooks. I'll try to find that now. ...OK, here it is: an entry from October 9, 2002. I'm going to copy it in here so I have this...
  1. This is your name; you get to choose it; you get to call me by mine.
  2. This is your room; I don't get to come in here without your permission; you keep and decorate it how you want.
  3. This is your body; you can cut your hair, pierce or tattoo yourself like you want; you can drink, smoke, take drugs.
  4. These are your clothes, wear what you want.
  5. This is the house we live in, we can move; you can go live elsewhere.
  6. This is the city I brought you to -- you could live elsewhere.
  7. This is the school -- there are others or unschooling.
  8. This is the money you have, this is what I have, here's how I choose to give it to you.
  9. I am housemate, cook, financier, ride -- you can be emancipated.
  10. This is your food -- you can eat what you want, carnivore, vegan.
  11. This is my religion, you can choose your own.
  12. You have friends -- you're free to choose them, it's OK to have sex.
  13. You can choose the words you use and swear.
  14. This is your safe word -- I have to listen with special ears.
  15. (?) I don't have the right to hit you or call you names.
  16. (?) You can say "no"; it's not OK for me to force you.

The context of this list was that I was imagining an annual "Youth Liberation Day": a day every year (for parents as much as youth) where the parent physically walks around and names ownership, affirming youths' right to choice. It's a sort of ritual, intended to make sure that the youth is clear about their rights, and reminding the conscientious guardian about what they're aspiring to. Perhaps it would have it's own holiday date each year, or maybe it would be set to the weekend before the youth's birthday. ...It's more practical than a bill of rights, which fails to specify who has to do what. It's also an opportunity for grievances and objections to come up.

I think these two lists are the main relevant work that I've done on self-ownership previously. However, there might also be something relevant in my "Property and Ownership" essay. In Part IV, "Persons As Property", section C, "Powers of Ownership Applied to People", I examine the following areas:

  1. Permission to touch.
  2. Staying put.
  3. Moving things.
  4. Physical alteration.
  5. To destroy or create.

...Prior to my discussion of "Control of Your Property", I address "Defining Self: The Owner of Property". The central idea of that first section is that you are a geographical point in space, one with a point of view, and that all your possessions are extensions of your body, as if they were attached by invisible strings. Perhaps this suggests that I need to talk a little bit about what it means to call youth "owners" before I an go into the specifics of what property they own. I'm also thinking that my notions of owning are very rooted in primal ownership of one's body. Other aspects of ownership may be more difficult to explain.

3. Trying to integrate the lists

A trial paragraph:

...Suppose that you and your body aren't one and the same thing. Suppose that you could look at your body from the outside. This object, your body, is your possession. What's it mean when something is your possession? Four things: (1) other people have to get your permission before they touch it; (2) when you put it somewhere, you can expect it to stay put; (3) you get to decide if it's going to be moved, and where to; (4) you get to physically alter the thing.

[I'm dropping the "destroy or create" item. "Destroy" leads into questions of suicide, which are morbid, but also covered by "physical alteration". "Create" deals with pregnancy; but it's not relevant here unless you assume that you can impregnate a slave woman and own her offspring. If instead I only want to deal with the right to be pregnant, and the infant once born belongs to itself, then this is covered by "physical alteration" again.]

[From the "freedoms" list, this covers items 1 and 2. I might be able to tie the later three items (speech, society's resources, a vote) to owning physical property, but it would be more of a stretch... Perhaps more about controlling one's property when it exists within a communal space?]

...Let's try reorganizing the "rights within the family" list, now putting it under the headings from the "Property and Ownership" essay.

  1. freedom to control one's own body
  2. freedom of movement / association
  3. freedom of speech / thought
  4. freedom to access necessary resources (medical, food, shelter)
  5. ability to participate in decision-making processes that affect one

I also recall brainstorming a list of things that a youth owns several months ago in one of my small notebooks. I'll try to find that now. ...OK, here it is: an entry from October 9, 2002. I'm going to copy it in here so I have this...

I. Permission to touch.

15? I don't have the right to hit you or call you names.

2. This is your room; I don't get to come in here without your permission; you keep and decorate it how you want. [Note: Space as an extension of the body.]

II. Staying put.

[Note: Identical to list under "moving things".]

III. Moving things.

5. This is the house we live in, we can move; you can go live elsewhere.

6. This is the city I brought you to -- you could live elsewhere.

7. This is the school -- there are others or unschooling.

IV. Physical alteration.

3. This is your body; you can cut your hair, pierce or tattoo yourself like you want; you can drink, smoke, take drugs.

4. These are your clothes, wear what you want. . [Note: Clothes as extensions of the body.]

The following items are similar to the "freedom of speech / thought" -- they're about having the right to believe differently.

10. This is your food -- you can eat what you want, carnivore, vegan.

11. This is my religion, you can choose your own.

13. You can choose the words you use and swear.

The next two items seem potentially like ownership issues -- but they're more tenuous. Naming yourself could be about decorating one's body, but it also seems like a freedom of speech issue. Having sex is about movement (association) and altering your body (sexing it), but also about communally held space, since sex intrudes into other people's space / bodies.

1. This is your name; you get to choose it; you get to call me by mine.

12. You have friends -- you're free to choose them, it's OK to have sex.

The remaining items seem to have more to do with how the parent decides to comport themselves. They're about things owned by the parent that they nonetheless commit to giving to the youth. Precisely how much a young person is entitled to, out of a parent's holdings, is an area I don't want to go into.

8. This is the money you have, this is what I have, here's how I choose to give it to you.

9. I am housemate, cook, financier, ride -- you can be emancipated.

14. This is your safe word -- I have to listen with special ears.

16? You can say "no"; it's not OK for me to force you. [Note: A commitment of time and attention. Uh-oh... I haven't even touched young people's ownership of their time / attention!]

Grrr... Trying to rework these old materials is getting frustrating.

Other ideas. I could go through multiple permutations in talking about ownership. I could explain what it means to own an inanimate object, making the leap to (1) ownership of one's own body from there. [From there, (2) ownership of "extensions of one's body".] Then I might talk about (3) the bubble of personal space that surrounds a person (who is not in motion). Then I might talk about (4) the right to move one's body through communally held (or unowned?), public space. Then I might talk about time and attention, how you get to (5) control your expenditures of energy. I might end with a discussion about "public" spaces that are owned by someone / some group; this raises issues about youths' right to be acknowledged as existing, therefore (6) stakeholders in the ownership of society's resources.

...This begins to sound more like an essay about boundaries (where you end and I begin) than about property rights per se. Does that undercut my effort to replace "civil rights" with a "property rights" model? Not necessarily. It just means that I have to play up the fact that who owns a particular thing is often contested.

Perhaps this discussion of boundaries has a meta-level that I should discuss first: what it means to own (1) an inanimate object; to own (2) physical space; to own (3) expenditures of energy. What this does is collapse the topics of personal bubbles and public space, and collapse ownership of the body, its extensions, and public property. I probably want to address each of these topics separately, but not at the meta level.

This sounds increasingly like a full essay on the nature of property. Damn!

4. Simplifying the list of what youth own

Alternatively, I could simplify and use the list from the outline essay:

  1. their body
  2. name
  3. friendships
  4. movement
  5. time/labor
  6. education
  7. a portion of what's held collectively by society
  8. access to resources that have been made available for the public good

This list covers most of the important issues, at least in a symbolic way. If I wanted to be exhaustive, I could get a lot more specific, talking about spanking, sex, tattoos, etc. See, I could emphasize the ownership angle, or the list of things that you have a right to control angle, or the context of family angle. ...The context of family angle is probably the most concrete and specific (which I like) -- whereas the ownership angle seems to lean toward the theoretical ("what is property?").

Perhaps I could tweak the family angle by contrasting "this is what your parents think they own" vs. "this is what you own". However, in doing so, I'm neglecting to discuss what youth properly own out of society's holdings. Apparently, in order to talk about property (which is basically a control issue), you have to talk about the opposing parties that may all claim control. Thus, understandably, I'm getting confused when I try to talk about what parents claim as their property (which rightly belongs to youth) at the same time that I talk about what society at large claims (which rightly belongs to youth).

...Does "society" need to be further broken down? Is there an important distinction to be made between what store owners claim, police, schools, city government, and federal law makers? I'm beginning to think that in these public settings, what I need to address foremost is this: youth exist; they are participants in society; they are not simply potentialities that will someday exist. [This then leads into a discussion about democracy, the principle that all participants in a group have a right to a say in its decision-making processes.]

So, maybe I need two essays: (1) what youth own within the private, family home, and (2) what youth own relative to society's holdings / resources. [School might be such a specialized setting that it requires its own essay... Grrr.]

It feels like this might be an easier tack to take. But it's not elegant. In the first essay of the arc, what I want most of all is to say that I'm going to talk about ownership of property as it pertains to youth. I have to talk about what it means for adults to think that youth are their property. I have to talk about what it means for youth to be held as collective property by adult society. I need to talk about what it means to own your life. If I am not someone else's property, then I own this body; I own at least a bubble of space around it -- people don't get to touch me (e.g. sexually) or hit me (if I don't want them to); it's my right to get piercings, to get tattooed, dye my hair...

The point here is that the rights derive from owning yourself. If someone else owned you, they would get to determine these things. To own a thing is have the right to control it. You get to do with your person what you want (so long as you're not violating the legitimate rights of others to the same). You can alter your body, you can pursue careers that other's don't approve of, you can do things that other's may feel are immoral. You own your body, you own your personal space (as well as a portion of communal space), you own your energy. Because these things are yours, when other people try to take control of them, they are violating your rights. They are violating your property rights. These things are yours.

[As a thing, you have a right to move your body around. But you are not only a thing, you have energy and a right to spend it how you choose. So, as a combination of not having to be where you don't want to be, and getting to put your energy into your own interests, you get to choose your destiny: a career, whether or not you go to school -- or heaven / hell, for that matter! It's OK to choose to go to jail...]

At the societal level, adults as a collective think that they own you. Society has decided that while parents are the primary owners of minors, everyone else together as a group also own you somewhat. It's a shared ownership arrangement -- which easily results in conflict between individual parents and the state when they disagree about which one of them should be in control at any particular time.

My big point here is to compare civil rights and property ownership. I don't have to list every single right that you have. If you see the comparison with ownership of property, then I can leave the rest to your imagination. "Every single thing that you own" is a different essay. OK, I've finally found a conclusion that will be useful in this essay: it's not so much about the specifics of what is owned (though I do need to identify the parents, state, and youth as conflicting claimants) -- this essay is to be about the civil rights model vs. the property rights model.

Posted by Sven at 12:00 PM

October 05, 2004

Exploration: Public Education

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on May 16, 2005]

Herein I will explore some of the issues surrounding public schools -- from a Youth Liberation perspective. This essay is what I'm calling an "exploration"; it is the place where I'll assemble my own ideas, and not meant as an essay for others.

This writing is in response to a posting by Alison Dunfee on the Scoop list, where she asked people to address the following topics:

  1. the value/purpose of sending a child to school
  2. what "education" is
  3. where/how do kids learn best
  4. can we fix what we've got
  5. (?) And, if anyone's willing, describe your ideal schooling situation for a kid.

As I read through other people's responses, several topics come to mind that I would like to cover:
  1. the age apartheid that compulsory schooling has created
  2. how public schools promote an anti-democratic model -- both the hierarchy of teacher over student, and the social stratification of the grade system
  3. balancing the unschooling option vs. a necessary escape from the parents' home
  4. how people learn knowledge vs. the "teaching" process
  5. (?) if possible, I also want to touch on teaching as an industry, how the New Deal took youth and seniors out of the work pool, and how adult labor (esp. women) has adapted to a form of state day care

[note that although there are five of them, these points do not map onto Alison's questions.]

OK, with that overview stated, let's dive in...

My interest in the public education system is primarily at an institutional level. I'm not so much interested in how it exists at present, that is, how to navigate within it successfully -- I am more interested in the history of where it came from, a philosophical understanding of why/why not such a thing should exist, and what it might more ideally become if we conscientiously work to create change.

1. A form of age apartheid

It has been a while since I've read much on this topic, so some of the relevant facts are fairly stale in my mind. One that has stuck with me, however, I learned from John Taylor Gatto's book "Dumbing Us Down". Here, I've found the relevant passage:

"Our form of compulsory schooling is an invention of the State of Massachusetts around 1850. It was resisted -- sometimes with guns -- by an estimated eighty percent of the Massachusetts population, the last outpost in Barnstable on Cape Cod not surrendering its children until the 1880s, when the area was seized by militia and children marched to school under guard." (p. 25, in the essay "The Psychopathic School")

...It has stuck with me a long time that compulsory schooling is a relatively recent invention (1850) and that it was essentially met with rioting when it was instituted. Now I would understand this as a conflict over property rights; children, the parents' "property", was seemingly being usurped by the government. I also imagine that these children were probably being used as farm hands; so there is an issue about labor involved as well.

Consider life in Colonial America vs. Contemporary America. I think that one of the effects of compulsory schooling is that it's instituted a form of age apartheid. From roughly 8am to 3pm, five days a week, 9 months out of the year, youth are segregated from the rest of society into school buildings. The impact of this segregation is compounded by nighttime curfews -- and by daytime curfews intended to insure that youth are properly in school. Adults have far less casual daily contact with young people than once they did, and this (I imagine) must have a profound impact on attitudes toward them.

I believe that removing youth from community life has helped create social distance between adults and minors. It has made youth seem more alien, which has helped fuel prejudice against them.

2. Labor issues

The public school is a form of concentration camp. That's an incredibly loaded term to use; but if you can take it at its literal value, I think it's accurate. Young people (generally) get picked up by a bus, and are driven to a building where they are overseen by authority figures whom they far outnumber.

[...I know this brands me as a radical, but yellow school busses often make me think of the trains to the German death camps. Not the same, obviously -- but I'm unnerved by the mass transportation, and not really comforted by the sentimentalization of these cheerily yellow vehicles.

...To avoid invoking Nazism, perhaps it is better to consider the internment camps where the U.S. placed Japanese Americans during WWII. Also very different: Japanese Americans weren't allowed to leave; youth only have to stay at school a part of the day. Still, I'm never happy to hear "it's only temporary" used to silence criticism about individuals' freedom being taken away.]

One of the purposes of public schooling, as we understand it, is to educate the electorate. We live in a democracy, adult citizens get to vote [that is, at least since the Electoral College was reworked with the Fourteenth Amendment!] -- voters should have some minimum amount of education... This is an argument for putting youth into schools; but there is also an argument for taking youth out of society at large.

As part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, efforts were made to shrink the work pool. Laws were created to keep both senior citizens and minors out of the workforce. The nation was in a depression, and it seemed wise to funnel wages earned to heads of households. Thus, you see, laws against child labor are not purely about preventing exploitation, as we're commonly lead to believe -- they're also about protecting the earning power of adults.

I find this interesting: whereas parents rebelled against compulsory schooling when it was instituted, they have now become dependent upon it as a form of state-sponsored day care. There has been a social revolution between 1900 and 2000, where women as a class have escaped the confines of mothering to become an integral part of the (paid) workforce. This is listed among Feminism's great accomplishments; another side of the story, though, is that wages now are such that it generally takes two wage-earners to support a family. [Does that mean that this is really a story about the victory of Capitalism?] ...It wouldn't be possible for (traditional) adult women and men to lead this lifestyle if the state weren't taking care of the kids.

Adult society has adapted to age apartheid, and is now dependent on it.

3. Public schools are anti-democratic

Public schools are an arm of the government. They are the aspect of the government that is most intimate to young people's lives. The inside workings of schools are authoritarian. The web of teachers, principals, parent-teacher associations, teachers' unions, city councils, federal law-makers, and adult voters determines what kind of experience youth will have within the schools. At least at a formal level, youth have very little say. In this respect, schools embody profoundly anti-democratic principles, and set a bad example for the future voters.

By not giving youth real control over the institution, schools teach powerlessness. Adults are compelled to go to jury duty, or to the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew their license -- boring, but only for a day or a week -- yet, imbued with a greater sense of civic duty (I think), because one knows that this is part of one's own contributions to the upkeep of society. For youth, going through 12 grades is waiting out a jail sentence.

[If they're smart, they'll try to put the time to good use, bettering themselves so they'll have better chances at life when they're given their freedom. However, their labors within the institution are understood to have no inherent value. If they were, perhaps we would compensate youth for their time -- as we compensate adults for time lost while attending jury duty. As it is, though, "homework" is like women's housework: unpaid / unvalued.]

Worse, schools provide a powerful example of authoritarianism. Teachers command, youth are to obey. Youth (generally) sit in rows, and are only to talk when they are called upon. I've read [in "A History of Private Life: Passions of the Renaissance", if I recall correctly] that this traditional arrangement of desks was created specifically to prevent student interaction. Teachers are given the right to punish in order to maintain control -- still with legal corporal punishment in some states, but minimally with after-school detentions...

...Years spent in this environment teach people that this is OK. It paves the way for accepting fascist government, for trying to be the authoritarian at work or with intimate partners, and for treating one's own offspring in this way. [It seems to me that over the decades, a circle has evolved, whereby parents seek to emulate teachers, and teachers to emulate parents. Children have increasingly become objects whose purpose is to be educated.]

Schools don't just prepare youth for hierarchical life post-graduation, though. They also foster social stratification within the youth culture. Notice how it's a social faux pas for the 11th graders to hang out with the 10th graders, or for the 4th graders to play with the 3rd graders? The grade system establishes a sort of caste system, whereby people in the grades lower than you are your social inferiors. In part this is a symptom of a larger phenomena, wherein older equals "superior". Still, it seems profound to me, how the grade system provides such an explicit framework for this elitism.

4. Alternatives

As an arm of the government, I think that public schools should embody democracy. This begs the question: what do I mean by democracy? To me, the principle of democracy is this: everyone who participates in a group should have a say in making the decisions that will effect it.

For this reason, I am in favor of making the national vote all-ages. Currently, younger voters tend not to vote as frequently as older voters [perhaps because they feel powerless, or due to less investment in ownership of property]. I doubt that there would be a massive swell of youth voters if the age restriction were struck down; nonetheless, I think that youth, as participants in society, should be allowed their voice in decision-making, simply on principle. Intelligence is not a criteria for whether adults are allowed to vote, and I don't think some sort of intelligence test should be applied to minors. You are a member of society, you get a say. Period.

For public schools to embody democracy, I think that students must be given power over hiring, firing, and funding decisions. From what I've seen of them, "student councils" are meaningless groups. Real control must address money -- and that's going to make a lot of adults, especially teachers, nervous. But it's been done, and successfully.

I am an advocate of the Sudbury Valley School model. Last I heard, there are currently about 18 schools in the U.S. based on this model. It was inspired by the writings of John Holt, and you can read about it in "Free at Last: The Sudbury Valley School" by Daniel Greenberg (other books have been written, too). In the SVS, students get to vote on hiring and firing their teachers. This responsibility breeds seriousness. The youth don't choose their teachers according to who will give them the least work; they are most interested in learning, because they own their learning -- and the internal debates among students over hiring and firing are apparently quite something to hear.

In the SVS model, youth also have a great deal of control over their curriculum. They're allowed to pursue personal interests to whatever extent they desire; teachers are largely available on-site to facilitate finding learning resources (particularly outside experts on various subjects). Having friends around, though, groups of students often become interested in working on a topic together. This motivated collaboration is really useful; you have peers working at your own level who can help you work through confusion, not just a single adult voice at the head of the room who's supposed to convey truth to the entire room.

On a similar note, I advocate "unschooling", as described in "The Teenage Liberation Handbook: how to quit school and get a real life and education" and in "Real Lives: eleven teenagers who don't go to school", both by Grace Llewellyn. Unschooling is a subset of homeschooling, but differs in philosophy from how homeschooling is typically understood. Whereas in homeschooling the parents generally take on the role of the teacher, and attempt to dutifully create lesson plans and execute tests, in unschooling youth are allowed to pursue their interests, and the parents simply work to facilitate finding resources (both books and actual people).

Yes, you can learn to read in this way. And math too. I refer you to the books aforementioned for further details.

5. Changing how society schools youth

Within the intellectual circles I run with, there's a legitimate question about whether or not we should abolish schools altogether. Me, I want public schools to continue to exist, but in a much altered form. I want for these institutions to become democratic (students having hiring / firing / funding power), and I want self-directed learning to be the primary educational model. I also want unschooling to be a better understood and more available option.

My main reason for not seeking the total abolition of schools is that I see a need for an institution that counterbalances the power of parents within the private home. For some youth, school is a welcome escape from overbearing or abusive parents. Public schools are youths' prime opportunity for getting out of the house; without schools, youth are more easily trapped by parents who see them as their personal property.

[I think one of the values of public schools is also the way in which they allow you to meet people from other socio-economic classes, ethnicities, and races. The charter school movement, I think, does the nation a disservice by factionalizing us, removing one of our best opportunities to meet each other.]

I'm interested in moving from "compulsory schooling" to "community learning centers". I kind of think that schools shouldn't be age-based; that government should support public education, but that it should be available to adults as well. Society has an interest in having an educated populace; do we have to limit ourselves to providing educational services to the young, in a sort of boot camp model?

The prospects for changing schools? Not good. From what I understand of the educational power structure, instituting the Sudbury Valley School model nationally could not be top down. Activists would have to transform one school at a time, working from the inside as stake-holders. Meanwhile, there would be powerful forces allied against change. Teachers' Associations, in particular I think, would be against putting educators' jobs in the hands of youth. Education is an industry; thousands of people earn their livelihood off of the status quo.

6. A final word about learning

I think most people believe that knowledge must be forced down young people's throats. I don't buy it. I think that we're born curious about the world, and are desperate to learn about what's going on around us.

Rather than answering this curiosity, however, too much of the time parents want their children just to shut up, because it's inconvenient to answer so many questions. Questions are seen as silly, or cute, or annoying -- they're not given due respect. I find this minimizing of young children's interest in the world offensive. Perhaps (some) parents think that it's not their job to teach children; it will be dealt with by the schools.

I think that we remember what interests us. Contrary to what we're led to believe, I think most knowledge is very temporary. How much do you remember from high school history class -- I mean really? Me, I've taken years of Spanish, but because I don't use it, I've forgotten most of it. Yeah, each time I've gone back for another class, it seems to come back to me quicker than if I'd been learning it for the first time -- but still, learning subjects that you aren't going to be using soon seems like a pretty futile endeavor.

I think pursuing what actually interests you is generally a pretty good way to learn. You can't always easily categorize what you've learned through hobbies, but the learning is there. As for getting an introduction to the sciences, I think most of what I ever have needed to know I got from watching National Geographic, Nova, and Bill Nye the Science Guy episodes. Most of the introductory stuff can be adequately conveyed by videotapes.

You need to be able to read. According to Grace Llewellyn, that skill can be picked up in 100 hours. You need some basic math. There should be an intro to evolution, a word about how whales aren't fishes... Really though, twelve years is too much. It's the theft of years of our lives.

Maybe you made the best of the years. I know I tried to. I was top of my class, tried to learn everything, had lots of friendships with my fellow students... But what could I have done with my life if I'd had freedom?

Posted by Sven at 12:00 PM