Age Segregation and Youth Human and Civil Rights

Youth RightsWhen I was a young teen I spent six hours a day, five days a week, forty weeks a year in age segregated classrooms where I was often uncomfortable, stressed out, and felt disrespected by many of my peers and even some of the adults that controlled the classrooms and the encompassing school environment. And I certainly was not there by choice, finding every excuse I could (usually illness… real or imagined) to stay away. Looking back I think I was suffering from institutional age segregation and having my rights as a human being given short shrift. Certainly, as a youth and not an adult, I had no guarantee of full civil rights under the U.S. Constitution.

First of all, I will admit to being a bit of a provocateur in that initial paragraph to build my “hook” for this piece. But I am hoping that it is a prescient, though provocative, statement of a step forward in human rights that is still percolating in our future, and the debates to come surrounding the evolutionary trajectory of the human race.

I think the American trajectory of political rights is an appropriate parallel. Our founding fathers (unfortunately there were no mothers at that table) granted citizen status (political agency) only to white men with property, figuring that you had to own a piece of America to have a real stake in its governance.

The 1820s and the Jacksonian era brought acknowledgment that all white men deserved that agency, even if they did not own property but simply labored on the land or otherwise in that owner’s service. But still political agency for people of color or women was viewed by a majority as inappropriate since there was still slavery and women were still considered by many as chattel as well, personal property of their fathers or husbands, men who should have full and unimpeded rights to do with their daughters and wives as they saw fit.

After the U.S. Civil War, at least in principle as amended in our Constitution, men of color were given political agency alongside their white male brothers, and it was some fifty years later in 1920 before women were finally given comparable agency.

In thinking about rights for Americans who have not yet reached the age of majority, I don’t want to focus so much on the right to vote, as just to identify a parallel trajectory to rethinking how we acknowledge different groups of people in our society, and how I believe that broadening acknowledgment has youth rights in its future. For it is more recently than with women, that youth have begun to move beyond a legal distinction of chattel to their parents, as women did from their fathers and husbands (at least in some parts of the world).

Youth rights are undoubtedly more complicated, because even if parents can no longer do whatever they want with their kids, they still have the recognized primary responsibility to and for their offspring. Giving youth more agency has to be done within that context.

Agency was the biggest thing I lacked in that junior high (now middle school) classroom, where I felt uncomfortably inferior to so many of my same-age peers that I was forced into such close quarters with. In that age-segregated environment, there were no younger kids that might look up to me as a mentor and possibly boost my tenuous self-esteem and no older youth to mentor me. Add to that a presumption by many of the adult staff that we were just “children”, and were therefore incapable of playing any role in the governance of this institution where we were forced to spend so much of our time. What a difference there would have been if we could have had circle discussions with students and adult staff sitting as equals (at least for the purpose of the discussion) and discuss how we felt during the school day and perhaps shared some of our anxieties.

According to Wikipedia, the first principle of the “Declaration of the Rights of the Child”; adopted by the League of Nations in 1924 and later put forward by the United Nations in 1990 for ratification by its member countries, states that, “The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually”. Interestingly, the United States and Somalia are the only two of the 193 United Nations member states that have not ratified this declaration. I would tend to think that our failure to sign would have to do with the political clout of religious fundamentalists in our country along with a continuing strong thread of anti “world government” feeling among elements of the political right. But when I think back to sitting in my 8th grade homeroom, afraid to talk to the girl I liked because all those other uncomfortable 13-year-old guys would tease me (to tear me down even lower than they were feeling), all us young teens in that room could have used the fresh air of a little agency. We could have used some of those “means requisite… for normal development” in that first principle of the Declaration. One key way you give adults “means” is by giving them some ownership in their own development. There was no way I see us students as having any ownership in that school and our education.

Given the complexity of youth “civil” rights within a context of adult responsibility, maybe as a key principle, (at least applied to young people over the age of 10 whom I feel it is inappropriate and rude to call “children”) youth should have some ownership, some voice, in any institution that they are required to participate in. Even if we are not willing to lower the voting age to give youth a political voice in the larger society, they should be actively involved in governance within the cloistered institutions where they spend so much of their time.

Some adults would call that the inmates running the asylum, but how are kids going to develop the skills and the agency to participate actively and effectively in our democratic society if they never get any practice in their schools?

Maybe part of the problem in the fractious health care debate we are having is that we are a country full of adults, mostly products of public schools, who lack the needed political skills and agency to discuss challenging issues with civility towards a thoughtful compromise. People who instead disrupt town hall meetings with “childish” behavior based on an unsophisticated view that politics is a fight to win which is facilitated by making others lose. People who lack of understanding of the subtleties of governance and working through challenging issues coming from having little or no experience of it growing up in school.

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