Friday, June 20, 2008

Are children to be seen and heard? or just controlled?

Can you imagine a culture in which children freely participate in the social, cultural, political and economic life of the community? Where children are recognized as an asset with inherent rights and responsibilities?

That's the way it used to be in much of Africa and that's the balance that Sunday's Day of the African Child wants to restore. Under the banner: "Child Participation: Children to be seen and heard," governments, NGOs and community groups are talking about how to provide children with a platform to express and achieve what they need. AllAfrica has a good article on some of the challenges facing one country, Uganda.

The Day of the African Child is held every year on June 16, to commemorate the massacre of schoolchildren in Soweto, South Africa in 1976. Youth held a massive demonstration that day to protest being schooled by Afrikaans. Their murders helped fuel the anti-apartheid movement and were an extreme example of how children are penalized for their powerlessness. But it's not hard to find everyday examples of how little power children have over their lives. From children's inability to avoid famine, rape and murder in times of war to the more common and pervasive lack of control over their education and their environment, children are possibly the most oppressed group in the world.

There is another way. Educator John Holt's book "Escape from Childhood" was published almost thirty-five years ago. In it, Holt says,
Young people should have the right to control and direct their own learning, that is, to decide what they want to learn, and when, where, how, how much, how fast, and with what help they want to learn it. To be still more specific, I want them to have the right to decide if, when, how much, and by whom they want to be taught and the right to decide whether they want to learn in a school and if so which one and for how much of the time.......As adults, we assume that we have the right to decide what does or does not interest us, what we will look into and what we will leave alone. We take this right largely for granted, cannot imagine that it might be taken away from us. Indeed, as far as I know, it has never been written into any body of law. even the writers of our Constitution did not mention it. They thought it was enough to guarantee citizens the freedom of speech and the freedom to spread their ideas as widely as they wished and could. it did not occur to them that even the most tyrannical government would try to control people's minds, what they thought and knew. That idea would come later, under the benevolent guise of compulsory universal education. John Holt and Growing Without Schooling.
Here in the U.S., in spite of dismal school drop-out rates and achievement scores, we continue to move toward a more controlling and punitive educational system. Mandatory testing and ever stricter expulsion policies are only part of the story.
  • Students are suspended for sharing Tylenol or medicated lip gloss with each other as part of a zero tolerance drug policy.
  • A five year old girl having a temper tantrum in a Florida kindergarten class is handcuffed by three police officers and then driven to her mother in the back of a police car. Video here at BBC.
  • "A uniformed police officer went to 20 classrooms El Camino High School in California on Monday and announced to students that several of their classmates had been killed over the weekend in alcohol-related car accidents. He was lying, and he and the school continued to lie about it for two hours to the grief-stricken students. Why? To teach the kids an important lesson about drunk driving. I imagine the students learned another lesson-- that cops and authority figures are liars." BoingBoing.
Most adults find it difficult to imagine that children would act responsibly if they were in charge of making their own decisions-- after all, they aren't given many opportunities to gain experience. We say, "Children are our future" without really thinking it through. But if children create the future in which we will live, the sooner we start letting them hone their skills, the better.
Photos: Maria Montessori, Survival

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