Well, the blog is three years old today. A blog’s philosophy tends to come out in little pieces over time, so I thought I might use the occasion to try to put into words what this blog is ultimately about.
I’ve posted about a lot of topics here -- authoritarian education, behavioral rewards, standardized testing, school lunch periods, and many more -- but if you asked me to identify the central fact about K-12 education, I’d say this: Kids don’t get to vote. And when you don’t get to vote, you get screwed.
I’m not saying that six-year-olds should get to vote; kids are disenfranchised as much by their circumstances as by any law. But disenfranchised they are. And the history of enfranchised groups acting “in the best interests” of disenfranchised groups is a particularly sorry one. Think of the history of African-Americans, of women, of mental patients, or of prisoners. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that people cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of disenfranchised groups.
Our country’s treatment of children is a part of that history. I don’t mean that they are as bad off as slaves or prisoners, but they are similar in that they are seen as less than fully human, as more different from “us” than they actually are. At its worst, this means they get used for other people’s ends. I’m always struck by how openly politicians now express an instrumental view of children. They don’t even bother talking about what’s good for kids as individuals; the entire debate is about how we can best use kids as soldiers in the battle for global economic supremacy. (Granted, they may not see this as instrumental: What’s good for business is necessarily good for kids, right?)
Kids are at the mercy not only of those who would exploit them, but of those with the best of intentions. There has never been any shortage of clipboard-carrying “experts” eager to improve other people by coercing them into doing things they wouldn’t otherwise choose to do. The main protection adults have from being treated that way – from being seen that way – is their political enfranchisement. Kids don’t have that protection.
If someone were to give me a token prize in a transparent attempt to manipulate my behavior, I would feel patronized and used. If I were ordered by the government to use my free time to take classes that didn’t interest me, I would experience that as an unjust intrusion on my liberty. If I were made to sit silently in an uncomfortable chair at someone else’s whim, required to ask permission even to use the bathroom, given only ten or fifteen minutes to eat my lunch, and made to feel shameful or defective if I couldn’t comply with these “expectations” – all while being given no say over my treatment – I would quickly either become a revolutionary or settle into a clinical depression.
Yet we not only do those things to children, we think nothing of doing them. The idea that their freedom from coercion and manipulation might have value, like ours does – the idea that it should have any weight at all in our policy decisions – seldom even occurs to people. It’s as if children existed precisely for us to manipulate them. The guiding spirit of our treatment of children seems to be: “Look, there’s a child! Let’s do something to it! For its own good!”
So what does this blog want? I want people to be more conscious of the moral hazard posed by their power over this disenfranchised group. I want them to be less quick to find reasons to treat kids differently than they want to be treated themselves. I want them to be more aware of the possibility that we might be acting out our fears and neuroses on our kids. I want people to take kids’ freedom, autonomy, and dignity as seriously as they take their own. I want people to recognize that the central ideals of our society – democracy, civil liberties, constraints on authority, the importance of the individual – do not suddenly become irrelevant and frivolous at the schoolhouse door.
One reason I want to see more humane, less authoritarian schools is because I want to see a more humane, less authoritarian world. I worry that our schools are reflecting and modeling some of the worst impulses of our society, which seems increasingly ready to curtail individual liberties in the name of “security,” increasingly prone to using human beings as a means to an end, as in our brutal foreign wars, and increasingly draconian in its approach to crime and punishment, as it imprisons a huge chunk of its own population. I worry that our schools are teaching our kids to accept and conform to that world. This blog wants to ask whether that has to be so.