Monday, July 9, 2012

No One Has All the Answers But At Least We're Asking the Right Questions

   When one chooses to publicly identify with a cause that most people do not support or even have much understanding of, she will find that others frequently begin asking her where exactly the borders of her philosophy are and on what side she would come down concerning various complicated hypothetical situations. This is frustrating to youth rights supporters because none of us have ever claimed that we have all the answers about anything. To paraphrase Richard Farson, it is impossible to be a truly great parent in a society fundamentally organized against youth and parenting, like all other human relationships, is a dilemma to be lived as opposed to a problem to be solved. While youth rights supporters can propose many more concrete solutions in the realm of politics, economics, and the law than in the realm of intergenerational relations, there are still controversial issues which pose a challenge to youth rights theory and call into questions the limits of support for youth liberation. This is true of all ideologies and belief systems (think of the hand wringing within the feminist movement about how the movement should handle the issue of sex selective abortion). It in no way fundamentally discredits youth rights as a philosophy or a movement. So while none of us has all the answers, what I do know beyond a shadow of a doubt, what all of us know as youth rights supporters, is that almost no one outside of our movement is even asking the right questions about the ways our society has chosen to relate to young people.

   Every major framework that our society uses to understand young people is deeply flawed. These frameworks may have some redeeming features, but they are fundamentally beyond reform. This is because what all of these frames share in common is the idea that children and adolescents are passive entities who exist in any meaningful sense only in relation to the adults in their lives. Whether they are there for adults to "educate" or "protect" or "punish" or "control", they are not perceived as autonomous agents in their own lives and interpersonal relationships. They are always painted as profoundly other. Where almost all adults are concerned, things are done to and for youth, rarely done with youth, and never done by youth (unless they are teenagers and they are doing drugs or playing hooky from school or engaging in sexual activities that adults disapprove of, in which case they are a social problem to be pathologized and controlled and this goes double for female youth, poor youth, and youth of color).

   What does this have to do with the kind of questions that most adults are prone to asking about youth as opposed to the questions that youth rights supporters of all ages ask about youth issues? Well, the frame through which we analyze an issue greatly affects the type of questions we will ask regarding that issue. Thanks to the LGBT rights movement, the frame for dealing with LGBT people has gone from "How do we cure homosexuality, transsexualism, and bisexuality?" to "How do we support individuals with minority sexualities and gender identities?" There are plenty of similar parallels in other movement histories and you are probably thinking of some right now as you read this.

   One of the most striking examples of this dichotomy is within the realm of mainstream education policy discourse. The questions that experts in the field primarily ask treat students in the K-12 school system as the absent referent in a policy discussion which one would think would center their voices, concerns, and lived experiences. However, this is the exact opposite of how most discourses in education policy deal with young people. Very little critical analysis is paid to the effect of zero tolerance policies, the lack of due process, and other forms of oppression faced by almost all youth within American schools. (You can read more of my work on student rights here.) Very seldom do those in the education policy world ask themselves how teachers, administrators, and others can help students to learn the information that is most relevant to them in a setting that feels comfortable to them. Instead all of the questions asked are about how to raise test scores, how to handle "disciplinary problems," and how to get parents (never the students themselves) more involved in determining the direction of the student's education.

   Another example of this phenomenon at work is in the realm of the sensationalized treatment of the "school bullying" issue. Now, were the behavior many "bullies" direct at young people directed at adults it would be termed "assault" or "battery" or "harassment" and so the term itself is infantilizing. Additionally, the frames proposed by adults (and some youth) to deal with the problem of school harassment and violence overlook the structural features of the environment which create the problem in the first place. Youth on youth harassment and violence within the K-12 school system is systemic. It is not an outgrowth of normal child development or supposed adolescent immaturity. It is an attempt by members of a subject class to exert control within the context of a deeply oppressive environment. If you put most adults into a situation they did not choose to be in, with people they did not choose to be with, doing things they did not choose to do, with no due process rights, without a financial incentive in the foreseeable future, with authority figures they had to constantly grovel before in order to gain permission to eat, drink, use the restroom, or get up from their desks, I would be shocked if their behavior was much better than that of many youth within our school system. There is a simple solution to youth on youth harassment and violence within our schools. It is to make our schools less oppressive and restrictive and to allow students a choice in the matter of whether or not they go to school and where they go if they do choose to attend. It involves doing this in a way that is sensitive to the unique needs of poor, rural, inner city, disabled, LGBT, and other marginalized youth. It would be quite an undertaking, but it would solve the problem in time. Instead politicians, principals, parents, and even some youth propose hokey school assemblies on why it's wrong to make fun of people in wheelchairs or why reaching out to those who are left out of the popular clique is the right thing to do. While this is ineffective, it is rarely very harmful. However many people concerned with this issue actually make the situation worse by proposing zero tolerance policies against "bullying" that are so vague that they penalize youth acting in self defense, make the schools more oppressive and dangerous places to be, and strip students of even more due process rights. Confronting the problem of youth on youth harassment and violence requires a radical paradigm shift that most parents and teachers are uncomfortable with so they fall back on "solutions" which reinscribe the oppressive circumstances they were ostensibly set up to ameliorate. Hence adults ask how to force students to by nicer to one another as opposed to asking why adults are forcing students to be around people they don't want to be nice to in the first place.

   So as you can see, youth rights supporters don't have all the answers to problems affecting young people in our society (although we have come up with some fairly good ones). What we are doing is the difficult work of deconstructing ageist paradigms which lead us to make unwise assumptions about youth and to make harmful decisions on their behalf.

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