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Dignity in Education

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by Berrett-Koehler, 2006

This is the sixth part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006). The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree.


I'm afraid of dying before I prove that I'm somebody.
--Tyondra Newton, a teenager raised in foster homes

One of the clearest indications that we are--at least in some areas--already moving toward the dignitarian ideal is the remarkable evolution of child-rearing practices that has occurred since the 1960s. Well into the twentieth century, "Because I say so" was considered reason enough for forcing a child to submit to almost anything. But over the last several generations we have moved from children being "seen but not heard" toward an increasing parity between the young and their elders--not in knowledge or experience, of course, but in their status as persons.

Kids Are People, Too

"Kids are people, too" is the slogan guiding this transformation. The generation that came of age in the 1960s--known to the world as the baby boomers--will someday be recognized not merely for its size and appetites, but for adopting a new model for bringing up children. It will be known as the first generation to grant youngsters equal dignity with adults, and in so doing initiate what is arguably one of the most significant emancipations in human history.

Of course, all liberation movements produce a backlash. The Russians lamented the unruliness of serfs who were granted their freedom, and former slaveholders in the American South denounced "uppity Negroes." A landmark book titled Backlash portrays attempts to roll back gains made by the women's movement, and more recently, voters in one American state after another have rejected gay marriage. In light of this, it's no surprise that many complain that the revolution in child rearing has produced a generation of brats.

But listening to the young and taking their views into consideration is not the same as indulging them or abdicating parental responsibility for their well-being. It seems quite possible that we are witnessing a historical shift that, within decades, will make it unthinkable to abuse or dominate people just because they are not yet full-grown. The result will be a generation of young adults that assumes dignity as a birthright and passes it on to their children.

One example of the new attitude toward youth is that public authorities have begun to intervene in family life if they perceive a child to be in danger. Abuses that used to be shielded from public scrutiny with a defiant "Mind your own business" are now being exposed and eliminated.

In the service of protecting children, parental sovereignty has been circumscribed.

It's plausible that the next step toward affording children equal recognition as individuals will be to find a way to factor their interests into electoral politics. Democracy's mantra of one person, one vote is well overdue for an adaptation that gives weight to issues that matter to the young. Many of the arguments for denying them a voice in political matters--which obviously affect them profoundly--sound very much like the old paternalistic rationalizations for denying women and ethnic minorities equal rights. Respecting children's dignity in politics is an important part of teaching them to respect the dignity of others when they reach adulthood.

Obviously, when it comes to those below a certain age, the notion of them personally casting a vote is absurd. A different mechanism will have to be designed. But once the idea is embraced philosophically, building an electoral model that comprehensively implements "one person, one vote" will not be an insuperable task.

As life spans increase and the population grays, failure to make the franchise more age-inclusive will result in national ossification. Likely effects of granting the young a role in electoral politics will be an increase in support for education and for natal care. In Germany, where there are now more people over fifty than under twenty, it is argued that giving weight to the interests of the young is necessary to encourage parenthood and arrest the slide into gerontocracy. Otherwise, an aging population is likely to vote itself a greater share of society's limited resources at the expense of the disenfranchised young. This will harm a country's capacity to innovate and create. It's a recipe for national decline.

Learning with Dignity

There's a reason why educational reforms, whether progressive or conservative, invariably leave many of the young withholding their hearts and minds from study. What's sapping their will to learn is the unacknowledged rankism that pervades educational institutions from kindergarten through graduate school and beyond. In a rankist learning environment, the need to protect our dignity drains attention away from acquiring knowledge and skills. For many, chronic malrecognition has undermined self-confidence by the age of six and taken an irreversible toll by the age of twelve. As William James wrote in The Principles of Psychology: "With no attempt there can be no failure; with no failure, no humiliation."

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