In my last post “An Old Turk” I talked about mt involvement in the politics of the 1960’s and early 70’s. I also spoke about my school’s struggle with a children’s liberation group CAFETY. In this post, I want to examine the rhetoric and ideas behind “child rights”. This rhetoric seems a natural extension of the rhetoric of the civil rights movement and later of the women’s movement. This way of talking has become so pervasive and so natural that we are led to accept premises that we should stop and examine.
Racism and sexism depend on establishing a group based on some external characteristic–gender, skin color, or nose shape, etc. This group is then either demonized or infantilized. The fact that the group is composed of fully functioning human beings is disguised and many laws and social strictures are created “for their own good.” Since the 19th century pseudo-science has been created to justify racism and sexism. The work of the French scientist Arthur de Gobineau is the beginning of a long European and American pseudo-science of race. It is important to note that the rhetoric of racial or gender difference applied equally to adults and children.
The movements of the last half of the 20th Century deconstructed this rhetoric, Both the demonizing and infantilizing of the groups was labeled and deplored. Race and to a lessor extent gender (as opposed to sex) is a social construction and therefore can be changed. Throughout all of this struggle the new sciences of genetics and brain research showed the lack of natural basis for these social divisions.
I first heard of the children’s rights movement in the 1980’s. A colleague at St Cloud State University was active in this area and presented these ideas as a natural extension of the line of thought I presented above–Children are an arbitrarily created social class, we have “infantilized” them and therefore they should have “rights.” He would have given the vote to eight year-olds. I suspect this was just rhetorical exaggeration. It seemed to me at the time that this argument flew in the face of all we knew about human development.
Thirty years later, this objection seems stronger because of the last ten years of brain research. We know that the frontal cortex does not fully develop until a persons early twenties. To argue, as CAFETY does, that 13 year-olds have the right to decide not to live at home, to refuse treatment parents believe necessary, or to refuse to attend private schools the parents choose flies in the face of our best and most humane science. These arguments also strike at the roots of parental responsibility and the state’s obligation to support parents and children
Anyone who has had teen aged children knows the struggle to set limits and boundaries that are appropriate and allow the teen to move toward independence is difficult and personal. Teens can reason well, but cannot fully see consequences, resist peer presasure, or control impulsivity. The state’s interest should be to keep the child safe. None of this is to say that children don’t have rights. That will be the topic of a later post.
For most of my student and professional life I considered myself a young turk–someone who thought of himself as trying to improve and modernize the structure and function of the university. As an undergraduate I had been a member of SDS, although at Washington and Lee University our politics more nearly resembled the left wing of the Young Democrats than those of Tom Hayden. As a young faculty member I was a member of the New University Conference, a group dubbed the SDS’s faculty auxiliary. It was the 60’s and the issues were civil rights and the Vietnam war. The 70’s added gender politics to the list.
As I reached middle age and tenure, I found myself both part of the establishment and a critic of it. Many in my generation of academics found themselves in this predicament. There were several standard responses. One was to pretend one was still young and cultivate a following of politically active students. The conservatism of the 80″s and 90’s made this difficult, but not impossible. A second option was increased careerism–publish and ignore. The third, which is the one I followed, was to involve oneself in university governance and work to make changes from the inside. This choice makes enemies in each of the other two camps.
During this time I was comfortable calling myself a radical, which I defined as one who went to the root of the issue. During my youth, I was proud of the title “radical;” more recently I have been aware of the irony inherent in such a title. However, one consistency I see in my life is a desire to actively influence both individuals and the larger social structure. That desire is one of the reasons I left the university for my current position at the Family Foundation School.
Those readers who have followed the school blogs know that we are in struggle with a group called The Community Alliance for the Ethical Treatment of Youth (CAFETY). I described the group as radical or rather that their agenda represented “a radical take on children’s rights.” Many of my colleagues both co-workers and others in the wider profession have objected to the characterization as radical as being too insulting.
I suppose I should acknowledge that I live in an age where radical gets most often paired with jihadist and not be surprised at this reaction. But I see CAFETY’s agenda striking at the root of the relationship of the family to the state and in that sense it is radical. The irony has not escaped me. I am now the target of the kind of group I would have considered joining when I was twenty-five. My twenty-five year old self would say, “well, you are old and have an ecnomic stake in the outcome. Just what did you expect?” In my next post I will discuss their agenda and my response directly. I wrote this post first so my readers can see where I am coming from and how personally I take these issues.
I had a chance last fall to visit McDonald’s training center outside of Chicago–Hamburger University. The center rents meeting rooms and hosts conferences which is how I ventured on campus. We were notified that there was a “dress code” on campus that was business casual and that no jeans or tee shirts were to be worn. Since much of my industry is located in Utah and works outdoors this was not a popular choice, As the group’s resident preppy I was already equipped qwith a good supply of argyle sweaters and khaki pants
As someone who had spent most his life in Universities, I was mildly amused at McDonald’s view of the University where students followed dress codes, where everything was neat and orderly, and where everyone stuck to the proscribed curriculum. I don’t think such a university ever existed; it certainly hasn’t existed in America since the 1950’s. Now they treated us very well, provided meals without a hamburger in sight, and with the exception of a fiberglass stature of Ronald McDonald lounging on a bench on the second floor there was no hint of the company’s main business in the decor of the campus building.
The “campus” is equally impressive. A large number of acres in suburban Chicago have been carefully shaped by adding undulations. The landscaping is beautiful with trees, flowerbeds, and paths all artfully placed. two ponds, elevated to the status of “lakes,” on our map, grace the area. Ducks swim happily in Lake Ray and Lake Fred, ( named for the founders of McDonald’s). As we stared out the window of our meeting room we noticed a duck that seemed to have its head continually underwater. After some time, we realized this was an anchored decoy, one of several on the two lakes.
This decoy brought into focus the dis-ease I had felt on the campus. The entire project was one of control. People’s behavior shaped by rules and codes. Nature structured, prettied up, and put “to work” in the name of profit. I am perhaps exaggerating, but the entire place seemed to me to be a semiotic expression of American Corporate desire to control nature.
As one who tracks our alumni on facebook I am exposed and frequently entertained by the slang of college students. No change seems to strike me more viscerally than their casual use of the “N” word. My reluctance to spell it speaks to its taboo nature. As one who grew up in the South of the 1950’s and lived through the civil rights movement, the word carries considerable moral and historical weight for me which makes its current uses difficult. Are we seeing a reversion to older forms of discrimination or a genuine shift in racial attitude?
I have defended teaching Huckleberry Finn even as I had wished Twain had written “Slave Jim” instead of “Nigger Jim.” I have come to understand the multiple uses of this word within the African American community. Claude Brown’s wonderful essay from the 1970’s on the “soul word” is perhaps the finest balance of intelligent linguistics and felt personal experience about this topic. But I knew that as a white I was barred from this discourse.
Hip hop culture seems to have changed all this. Young white people–mostly men–refer to each other an “my niggah” as if the “ah” erased much of the word’s evil history. At first, I saw this phenomenon as simply disaffected, but relatively privileged, white youth claiming an outsider position. As one who spend the summer of 1968 in San Francisco, I can assure them that this is not a productive political move. Then across my facebook wall I watched a white student call his African American friend “my Niggah,” and saw the African American reply with friendship and no sense of insult. I was shocked. Had the world of my students so changed that this was possible?
Chuck Berry and Motown are credited with moving the civil rights agenda forward. On reflection, I see that America has accepted the cultural prominence of Black people long before it has included them in America’s material prosperity. This morning’s Washington Post reports that the unemployment crises as hit African American men 3 times harder than their white counterparts. The divisions remain, yet this new use of the “N” word seems to imply that generational solidarity may be more important than race . Also this usage marks an era of greater friendship and contact between the cultures.
So maybe this usage is a good thing or maybe I’m just too old to accept a world in which I cut on my computer and am greeted with “Good Morning my Twiggahs.”
I just had a birthday. Never mind which one. But I have reached an age when birthdays make me reflect on the past more than project into the future. Ten years ago I resigned a tenured college position to accept my current job as a prep school administrator. I have always said that there are two good motivations for becoming a teacher–love of the subject matter and love of helping others learn. These are obviously not mutually exclusive motives, but for most of my college career the love of subject predominated. The system works that way. One writes and studies and “keeps up with the field.” As a young man, I embraced this ethic wholeheartedly.
Now at the end of my career, I’m on the opposite pole. My job is to help students who have not adapted to school culture to learn or more accurately to figure out how to help their teachers help them. I was away at a conference several weeks ago when I had one of those moments that affirm one’s choices. I was checking my email in the midst of a session. (I know why they call them crackberries) Several teachers had suggested that a student who I’ll call Joseph (Not His Real Name) join our rather elite group of academic tutors.
I had worked closely with Joseph and remembered clearly the student who had entered our school. He did drugs, he didn’t pass courses, and was convinced he couldn’t graduate high school. His first months here he became so depressed we had to send him our for a psychiatric evaluation. He returned a zombie from too many medications. Working with our doctors and psychologists we attacked the depression and reduced the medication. Joseph received the tutoring he now volunteered to give. He was encouraged to attempt difficult work and praised when he succeeded. He also suffered the lack of privileges and the extra study halls that any failing student experiences.
We are a school based on the Twelve Steps. If I asked Joseph what helped him to become a student, he’d say something like, “I learned to pray” or “I have God in my life.” Now the brain research on the effects of prayer, mediation, or other mindful practice isirrefutable. Brains whose persons do these things tend to be quieter and focused. What ever effects the brain of Joseph may have experienced, the mind of Joseph has learned about a new world through the school’s teaching about god as you understand him. In that world he is not the center, he is given permission to succeed and because he has learned to trust in a higher power, he has learned to trust his compatriots.
My reflections on Joseph are my reflections on my gamble I took ten years ago. The process of getting here has been fun and here is a pretty good place.
I have been tweeting recently with someone calling herself Slum Goddess. I immediately asked if she was an East Village Fugs fan. As it turns out she is an expat American, living in London, whom some juvenile judge had banned from Greenwich Village when she was fourteen. Her screen name is drawn from a Tuli Kupferberg song, the chorus of which is:
Slum Goddess put away that knife
Slum Goddess come and be my wife.
Slum Goddess of the lower East Side
For those of you too young to remember even parts of the sixties. The Fugs, led by Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg, were the original underground rock band. They took their name from the euphemism that Norman Mailer’s publisher had forced on him when he published The Naked and the Dead, in the days before the fuck barrier had been broken. In those days when obscenity was still a challenge to the establishment, their name and some of their lyrics issued a clarion call. They were also interested in poetry and their rendition of William Blake’s “A Sunflower Weary of Time” still remains one of my favorite interpretations of Blake.
This twitter exchange sent my mind spinning and sent me back to my last night in New York before I went to Botswana in the Peace Corps. I and several of my compatriots went pub crawling through the East Village and ended in up in the offices of the East Village Other where we duly made “southern African correspondents.” I don’t think any of us ever filed a story.
I remembered people I hadn’t thought about in years and wondered what had happened to them, but not enough to google them and find out.I remember the brash, confident, and fairly foolish young man I had been with more fondness than chagrin. But mostly I marveled at how memory can serve up images that seem really fresh, even though I know they are over 40 years old. I regret nothing have done, but know that too many of my days have not rendered up images that will sustain me. I was happy to discover this one still does.
In his best known and perhaps best piece of scholarship,The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates traces the development of a distinctly different African American rhetoric. He begins with Yoruba praise songs and traces this development through slavery, many writers and even Mohammad Ali. Indeed he talks about the “trope a dope.” African Americans developed a double voiced rhetoric full of both hyperbole and hidden meaning which was designed to mean one thing in the speaker’s community and another in the wider world. Presumably then Gates knows whites hear certain rhetoric differently than African Americans do.
We can imagine the good professor, tired from his Chinese journey, trying out a little trope a dope on the policemen who missing the irony, as Gates’s theory predicts he would, arrests the professor. Part of my enjoyment of this event has been the way in which knowledge has been rendered useless by “signifying.” For African Americans, including the president, the arrest was an absurd example of what happens too often to African Americans. Its value as a signifier exceeds its value as an individual event.
The white press pretended the event had no “signifying power,” and examined it as a single event. Of course, the president’s remarks were seen as symbolic and “inappropriate.” A similar fate befell Jeremiah Wright whose preaching, or at least the clips I saw on television, were full of signifying and in that sense no different from many other African American preachers. Consistently whites tend to hear only the single voice of a doubled voice and to miss the riffs and syncopation.
This issue ended not by court resolution, not by a journalistic transcript of every word spoken in the Gates house that evening, but in a flury of signifying. The White House garden was turned into that most American of summer places–the patio beer party. The vice president was there to equalize the racial balance and we had that most American of solutions the face to face sit down. All done as a silent movie.
The lack of any honest dialogue about the remaining racial tensions in this country have made us very sensitive to those events, utterances, and acts that signify those differences and tensions with discussing or resolving them. The signifying monkey will be with us along time.
One of the dangers of Dish TV is that one spends time watching movies that one would not normally see. Feeling particularly mindless this weekend I sat through Never Back Down. Now I am not the intended audience for this film which is a formula teen-age movie about extreme fighting (mixed martial arts). It has enough fighting and angst for you average teenage boy, scenes of the girl friend teaching the boy to be sensitive for the girls, and enough skin to appeal to both genders–a perfect date movie.
As is often the case, the interesting thing in the movie is the way it portrays the world its characters live in. Milieu becomes more important, or at least more interesting, than plot or character. What was intriguing to me was not the fighting or the girls interest in it. Mock combat as ground for male bonding or mate advertising has existed since the time of the ancient Greeks. Rather I was struck by the ubiquity of the video camera, the cell phone, and You Tube.
The movie opens with a fight on a football field in Iowa where our hero decks a larger opponent. In the next scene we learn that he, with his brother, and mom are moving to Orlando, because his younger brother has won a scholarship to a tennis academy. At the new school, someone has googled him, the You Tube video of the football fight makes the rounds and our hero is drawn into the fight club. The nerd who befriends him has a video camera virtually glued to his eye, Every fight is filmed and posted. At several times we see students walking down the hall of the high school glued to their cell phones, then we see them stare knowingly at the hero. Everyone accepts this loss of privacy and seem to think that being video and uploaded validates them as a person. The only complaint is a feeble protest at being filmed by two girls making out in a hot tub at a party. We don’t take their complaints seriously.
Now the movie is in no way about privacy. I suspect that only old fogeys like myself noticed this about the film. I admit to be sufficiently wedded to my blackberry to suspect that if I were a teen with the requisite electronics I could fall into this world easily. But at what cost. Must we have a constant audience? Must we be a constant audience? As plot the movie is old fashioned; as psychology it’s trite, but as a portrayal of a brave new world it’s unintentionally frightening.
Last week I spend two days traveling the halls of the Senate Office Buildings. The senate will consider legislation regulating therapuetic boarding schools and other sorts of residential care for troubled teens. The visits were arranged by the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP). I brought with me two alumni and the mother of one of them.
I wish I could regale you with tales of expensive dinners, taking senators out on yachts, or any of the other excesses we think of when we hear the term “lobbying.” In fact, we sat down with legislative aides and explained our industry to them. They generously gave us between thirty and forty-five minutes to tell our stories and explain what we liked and what we didn’t in the proposed legislation. For the most part they listened carefully and asked intelligent questions. Whatever our opinion of Congress may be, Congressional aides are, for the most part, as polite and intelligent group of people as you’d ever want to meet. As the mother of my alumnus said, “It feels like our government.”
Regardless of our effect on the legislation, I had a successful trip. The angry, troubled teen girl I had known was now a poised, confident young woman. The drug abusing teen who was two years behind in school when I first met him was now a focused college student. The young woman said in several offices, ” the school is where I grew up.” No greater argument for our effectiveness could have been made than the one made by the presence of these three people. The young people are well on their way to becoming purposeful adults. Both mother and son testified to the improvement in their relationship.
As it turns out I had worked closely with both these people when they were at the school. I am not sure I am entitled to any credit for this success, but I take enormous satisfaction in it.
In the June 1st issue of The New Yorker, Atul Gawande writes about the practice of medicine in McAllen Texas. Why McAllen? It is one of the most expensive health care markets in the country; only Miami is costlier. McAllen is a much poorer community. His measure, and it is a standard one, is medicare dollars per enrollee. In this post I will repeat several of Gawande’s points, but I urge my readers to read the whole article.
One reason the people of McAllen suggest for this anomaly is that theirs is an unhealthy community. Despite its high obesity rate, its high rate of heavy drinking, and its poverty, it has lower than average cardiovascular disease rates, and low incidents of asthma, H.I.V., infant mortality, cancer, and injury. In short if one judges by the statistics McAllen is a realitively heathy place.
Gawande develops his argument carefully through a series of interviews, references to statistics and and his own experience as a doctor. In a short post I need to skip to his conclusions. He finds that in McAllen and other high cost areas order more tests, operate more frequently, refer to other specialist more often. He also finds that doctors there are entrepreneurs; they own imaging centers, ultrasound machines, or serve as medical directors at nursing homes.
Gawande contrasts these practices to low cost areas. One of them Rochester Minnesota is dominated by the Mayo clinic which pays it’s doctors a good salary, but does not allow them to participate in the ownership of the auxillary services. As a result fewer tests and scans are ordered and the patients needs predominate. Several other cities are discussed with similar conclusions.
Respect for the common health means that we must pay doctors well, but prevent them from developing multiple streams of medical income. In fairness, we will also have to do something about the cost of medical education. A new doctor may begin practice so far in debt that he cannot afford not to be an entrepreneur. As Bernard Shaw says, ” That any sane nation having observed that you could provide for the supply of bread by giving bakers a pecuniary interest in baking for you, should go to give a surgeon a pecuniary interest in cutting off your leg, is enough to make one despair of political humanity.”