Thoughts on Liberty for Youth

As I have said many times before (from my reading of human history), the development of our species for the past five millennia has been all about the transition from patriarchal institutions based on the rule of strength to more partnership ones based on the rule of law. This transition involves more people becoming stakeholders with the liberty to chart their own course, check the power of their leaders, and contribute their two cents to the growing collective wisdom that has brought us such breakthroughs as the 2008 election of Barak Obama as President of the United States.

For me, a logical step still ahead of us in this progression is conferring more liberty upon our young people so they can be greater stakeholders in their own development, prior to their reaching adulthood.

These thoughts about the importance of liberty were triggered by my partner Sally posing a rhetorical question the other day. It was the starting point for the typical kind of philosophical conversation we often have around our kitchen table at dinnertime. I recall many such discussions with our two kids present and contributing, but now that the nest is empty, most these days include just Sally and me.

Sally’s question was how the American colonies were blessed with such a brain-trust of individuals, who helped found a country on such egalitarian principles (as far as they went) and enshrine those principles in a well written constitution and its initial amendments (The Bill of Rights).

My initial thought was that the resources, strength of will, and ingenuity it took to uproot oneself from ones homeland and make the perilous journey to a new land tended to select people with broad vision and practical intelligence.

Then recalling the work of left-libertarian John Taylor Gatto, my second thought was that it probably had something to do with the principles of liberty, whether fully realized or not, that wove their threads through American colonial life and its facilitating institutions.

One of course needs to acknowledge that liberty was only extended to a minority of inhabitants. Women, slaves and children were still legal chattel of the men who controlled them, and indentured servants had to work off their contracted time. But at least among the white men who owned property, a single class of citizenry was created, a system at odds with the aristocratic rankings of their European roots. This was the egalitarian vision of Thomas Jefferson (whom the state board of education in Texas, in its collective wisdom, is currently hoping to expunge from its children’s textbooks).

I include the Texas reference only parenthetically for context, because this piece is not a (perhaps more typical DKOS) rant against “them”, but a concern for all of “us”.

Though the Puritans of New England (including Abigail and John Adams) were perhaps overly pious and righteous, and not particularly tolerant of other faiths or cultures, they developed a strong tradition of democratic governance through town meetings.

The Quakers of the middle colonies (including Thomas Payne and John Dickinson) took it even farther, practicing a radical egalitarianism and consensus governance, including a high level of tolerance (that confounded the Puritans). Their English Quaker forbears had been vilified because they would not tip their hats to their aristocratic “betters” (and were recipients of legally sanctioned beatings as a result).

The “Cavaliers” of Virginia and the southern colonies (including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) plus the “Highlanders” (Andrew Jackson) that settled the Appalachian mountains, were born and raised within a strong libertarian ethos that is woven through American history, including the settlement of the West (by white people at the expense of the native population), and continues today as a strong thread in American thought.

In the context of freedom (spawned by an ocean dividing colonial America from European roots) I believe principles of egalitarianism and liberty created a vibrant milieu unleashing a meritocracy (initially just among the privileged) that resulted in the collection of great minds that launched our country and wrote its founding documents.

Through the Industrial Revolution, these libertarian principles inspired the best of entrepreneurial capitalism helping to build a robust country with a vibrant culture. But its dark side also emerged, and the accumulation of economic power in fewer and fewer hands bucked the trend towards egalitarianism and liberty in favor of a new hierarchy of corrupting power. Such is the frustrating three steps forward and two steps back of human evolution.

It was the continuation of these ideas of liberty and egalitarianism (along with other factors) that encouraged a talented and inspired minority to organize the 19th Century movements for racial and gender equality that have born fruits in the 20th and our own fledgling century, extending the hand of partnership and the dream of liberty to an ever larger circle of equals. Think of the aspirations that women and people of color can now realize, and the enhancement of their contribution to our human evolution that can result.

My partner Sally and I, along with our now young-adult kids, are part of a still small minority of people who have come to believe that this expansion of egalitarianism and liberty can be extended to our children and youth. Acknowledging that each extension of the human circle of stakeholders has its complexities of implementation and implications, we believe that these issues can be resolved so we can unleash a quantum leap in human development. The same principles that have been extended (at least in theory) to all adults in our and other countries can, at least in a large degree, be extended to our young people.

To many people, I understand that this seems counter-intuitive. We are talking about “children”. The very word is often used by adults as a derogatory term to describe a person behaving irrationally or out of control.

The prevailing wisdom among most parents and other adults is that children and even older youth need to be controlled, in many cases (particularly in the home or in school) in an authoritarian fashion where there “advice and consent” is not sought or even considered (if volunteered). In a disagreement between young people and their parents or teachers, rather than practicing the Golden Rule, we understand that the adults (who have the “gold”) make the rules. To most people this makes absolute sense. Anything else invites rampant permissiveness, “childishness”, and results in anarchy. I have heard this argument made by most adults that I know and respect, including parents and teachers.

These same fears of anarchy were previously used historically to argue against enfranchising serfs and commoners, and treating (supposedly inferior) people of color and women as equals. People who are viewed as less capable than those in power need to be controlled for their own good and everyone else’s.

I acknowledge that it is more complicated when dealing with young people. Adults have a legitimate responsibility to ensure that our youth have a safe end enriched environment to grow and develop. Young people can at times lack the maturity to sufficiently consider their own safety, or may not be aware of some opportunities that can encourage their own development. Adults play a legitimate stewardship role in these situations, and so may have just cause to restrain a young person’s liberty or not seek their consent.

But having to exercise unchallenged authority in certain circumstances does not justify wielding that type of authority in all circumstances. Further, preventing any advice from youth on decisions made without their consent (as was often done in the schools that I and later my kids attended) is in my thinking rude, at best, and at its worst a corruption of power. History teaches us over and over again that unchecked power leads inevitable to corruption and loss of the moral authority to lead.

I am part of a still small minority of people that believe that adults can play their youth stewardship role employing mostly facilitative rather than directive leadership, and always seeking input from youth on decisions that will affect them. I was raised by parents who mostly followed these principles, and I tried to raise my own kids this way as well.

If you want to see these principles in action, attend a YRUU (Young Religious Unitarian Universalist) event and witness the very limited role that adults play. The main thing that has drawn me to Unitarian-Universalism is the YRUU program that is built on the principle of creating an environment of liberty and enfranchisement for older youth. Adults play as minimal a role as possible (based on legal and other safety requirements) in YRUU events and decision-making, allowing the youth participants to develop and govern their own program, and charter events as part of that program.

As we develop as a species, we continue to learn that the more people we define as “us” (and treat with love and respect) and the fewer we define as “them” (and deal with in fear through mechanisms of control), the more we unleash the brilliance of our individual and collective light. I believe one of the challenges in this new century is to move youth (and anyone else) from the remaining group of “them” in favor of a world of only “us”.

3 replies on “Thoughts on Liberty for Youth”

  1. As we develop as a species, I believe that some of the unleashed brilliance of our collective light that you mention will come to illuminate the truth of Peter Singer’s words – that all the arguments to prove humanity’s superiority can not shatter this hard fact: In suffering, the animals are our equals.

    The expanding circle that you imply – the recognition that more of “them” are really like “us” – is an indication of moral progress, and it isn’t stopping at the species border. I’m just hoping it comes soon, because here today in the U.S. alone, Sunday, April 11, about four million beings are being slaughtered for nothing but a human taste preference, and many more are suffering terribly, waiting their turn.

  2. Charlie… thanks for the comment… sorry for the time it took to post it!

    When you are referring to the killing of “four million beings”, are you referring to chickens, cows, pigs, etc. slaughtered for food, raised in i”factory farm” conditions?

    If so, I am with you on that! My partner Sally and I have been Vegans for nearly 20 years, for health and ethical reasons. A more perhaps human-centric ethical reason is that it takes six to ten pounds of grain feed to animals to produce one pound of meat. If enough people on earth adopt a meat-based diet, that algebra will lead to there not being enough grain to feed all the world’s humans (distribution issues aside).

    Though I am a vegan, my advocacy in that area is much more laid-back than my advocacy for more of a partnership relationship between adults and youth.

  3. Your math is better than mine today – I’m not sure what I punched into my calculator to come up with four million. Ten billion land animals (not fish) are slaughtered every year in the U.S. The average daily kill rate would therefore be about 27.4 million, although presumably there’s less of that on Sundays. Maybe four million is about right after all.

    If the brutality these beings endure was occurring outside your or anyone else’s window, chances are that we would not be laid-back and that we would do more than speak out – we would rush to their defense. That we’re largely silent is a testimony to the power of tradition and groupthink, which Unitarian Universalism has a heritage of challenging.

    I share your faith in our youth. Sounds like yours have been raised well!

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