Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Works That Made Me the Youth Rights Supporter I Am

   Before I knew there was such a thing as a youth rights movement I wanted to read books about it. As a high school senior I remember searching in vain for books on Amazon that proposed new ways of thinking about childhood and the rights of young people. I didn't know then that most of the best books on this topic are currently out of print and often hard to find. I also didn't know where to look for excellent youth rights resources outside of books.

   That's why I would like to take this opportunity to introduce my readers to the works of youth rights theory that have influenced me and allowed me to grow as a thinker and writer dealing with youth rights issues. I hope that all of you will seek them out and allow them to take you on a journey as well.

   The first book of youth rights theory I ever read was Richard Farson's Birthrights. A psychologist and father of five, Farson's 1970s era tome made him a radical's radical in the movement for children's liberation (as it was then often called). Since reading the book for the first time I have reread it on multiple occasions. With its clear, simple language, Birthrights is incredibly accessible to readers of all backgrounds and ages and also the most radical and comprehensive call for youth liberation that I am aware of which has been committed to paper. The first time I read Birthrights I found it both incredibly easy to get through and amazingly disconcerting. I was also impressed with the richness of the theory. Farson sees connections between the liberation of youth and the liberation of women, people of color, LGBT people, and people with disabilities which are as relevant today as they were in the 1970s. Every youth rights supporter owes it to themselves to read this amazing book.

   Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex is principally known as one of the seminal works of second wave feminism. It is also a seminal work of youth rights theory. In the chapter entitled "Down With Childhood," Firestone reveals the many connections between women's oppression and the oppression of children. In just thirty pages, Firestone offers a radical critique of the ideology of motherhood, compulsory education, age segregation, children's forced asexuality, children's economic dependence, and oppression affecting children within the family. Firestone's work should serve as a wake up call to any youth rights supporter who doesn't see the important ways in which feminism is linked with youth liberation and any feminist who doesn't see children as an oppressed class and who overlooks the ways in which contemporary ideologies about childhood work to oppress adult women. This chapter is why I refer to myself as a Shulamith Firestone youth rights feminist.

   John Holt's Escape from Childhood has been rightly critiqued by many within the movement for Holt's problematic belief that children who choose to live with and depend economically on their parents should have to abide by their rules while children who are economically self sufficient are entitled to greater autonomy. Read this book anyway. Holt is often viewed as a simple advocate of homeschooling while his more radical views about youth liberation are ignored by most people who profess an interest in his ideas. This is unfortunate, because one cannot truly appreciate any of Holt's ideas without understanding the deeply subversive ways he saw children and childhood. Like Birthrights, Escape from Childhood is highly accessible and yet full of incredibly rich theoretical insights.

   Howard Cohen's Equal Rights for Children is probably the least accessible book on this list, at least for those without a background in academic philosophy. Nonetheless it is well worth your time if you have a serious interest in youth rights theory. Cohen's views can be best summarized by this quote: "Child protection has been concerned with the quality of care of the child, and therefore with the fitness of the caretaker. It has not been concerned with fundamental questions about the nature and limits of adult authority over children. It is the sense that the ways in which adults control children and make decisions for them are themselves a part of the mistreatment and oppression of children which is absent from the ideology, and is ignored by the government when it becomes involved." Cohen's work on child agents is also essential to a theoretical understanding of how to make rights for the youngest youth work in practice.

   John Taylor Gatto's book of essays Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling is brilliant in some places (especially the first chapter) and incredibly off key in others (especially the last chapter). Gatto is a former award-winning public school teacher who chose to use his platform as New York State Teacher of the Year to offer a radical critique of the modern American school system.

   Most people who write parenting blogs, including those who think of themselves as avant garde advocates for children, tend towards the smug and self-righteous. That is unfortunate because parents even more than the rest of us need good role models when it comes to treating those younger than ourselves with respect. This is why I love the Demand Euphoria blog. The author is a mother to two preschool-aged children and writes about her experiences as a parent with honesty and insight.

   Cevin Soling's documentary The War on Kids is as brilliant a resource as any I am aware of dealing with the issue of youth oppression within the modern school system. It touched on every aspect of schooling I found oppressive in my own childhood and it is recommended for anyone that wants to know what K-12 education is really like today for most youth.

   Samantha Godwin's legal philosophy paper entitled "Children's Oppression, Rights, and Liberation" is one of the most important works of radical youth rights theory to come out recently. It is also the only radical youth liberation work I am aware of that examines youth rights through the lens of legal philosophy.

   I hope you find this list of works helpful in your quest to gain a deeper understanding of the youth rights movement. These works have collectively made me the youth rights supporter I am today and I hope that any of you who choose to explore them gain as much from encountering them as I did.  

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