A mark of mental health is the ability to repress our knowledge of the world’s cruelty, to be able to live in peace though surrounded on all sides by horror and violent death… It is ironic that if a depressed patient walks into my office and says that the world is so grim that he cannot face it, I am to treat him as a ‘sick’ person.  Actually the patient is quite right.  He sees the truth only too clearly.  But he is ‘sick’ because he has lost certain basic defenses; he no longer has the normal illusions which keep us “sane”.

  Professor Alexander

  Holocaust Psychiatrist

I have been writing about education for more than twenty years.   I now live in Trinity County, a small county in Northern California with a population of only 13,000 residents, of which more than 30% are seniors.  And it is a county that is all white, or almost.  If flattened, the county geographically iwould be bigger than the state of Texas.  The county used to be the home of mill workers but this work is now gone.  Meth labs have replaced honest jobs and during the summer or on school break, one can see the haggard bodies of children wandering aimlessly on streets without sidewalks with literally nothing to do and no where to go. 

This is rural America, much like Appalachia.  In fact, many residents are of Scottish descent and traveled from Appalachia to move here many years ago.  The unemployment rate is more than 40%.  We don’t even have one street light in our town and internet is dial-up for most, including myself.

Today I opened up the pitiful rag we have called a weekly newspaper and noticed the headlines: “District to crack down on bullying”.  The article went on to note that two schools, Weaverville Elementary School and Trinity High School plan to encompass the ‘zero-tolerance’ policies that have been the big Orwellian rage for some years now, serving to incarcerate and criminalize youth.  These policies, which you might know of, are designed to criminalize student behavior and result in suspensions, expulsions and school-to-prison policies we see all over the nation now.

The article went on to note that not only are these schools, each with populations you could hold in your hand, going to adopt zero-tolerance policies, but that the principal of Trinity HS wants to go even further: forcing seniors and their parents to sign a behavior contract in order to be able to participate in graduation ceremonies.

It occurred to me as I was reading that he real bullies, of course, are the Senate and Congress of the United States and their military apparatus and neo-liberal social policies.  I wondered:  Where are the zero-tolerance policies for bankers, for CEO’s, hedge fund operators, financial fraudsters and corrupt and bought and paid for politicians?  Nowhere, that’s where.  They get away with literal murder and pillage with no consequences.  No expulsions for them, promotions and bonuses instead.

Then I remembered an article I wrote after the Littleton school shooting some ten years ago or so.  I wrote it for the only black daily newspaper in America at the time: The Daily Challenge out of New York. 

Looking at it now it saddens me to see just how far we have come in demonizing our youth and setting up carceral policies designed to cage them.  I thought to share the article with you for the points it makes are not only prevalent today, but on steroids.

We are literally driving our children in this country insane with commercialization, rampant individuality, loss of public space, popular culture, corporate media, poor diets, homelessness and pharmaceutical drugs.  Looking into the face and minds of many of our children in this country should mirror back at us the monstrous policies we operate under and what it has done to us, as adults.  It should show us with clarity the sickness that pervades the society and the institutional madness of the gravediggers we call ‘leaders’.

Any society that treats its children as hosts for parasitic military machines and commercial corporate predators digs its own grave – using child labor.

Although sad to have found the article buried in the intestines of my computer, I thought to share it with you!

Demonizing Youth:   At Risk or The Risk?

 Many years ago, W.E.B. DuBois stated that the role of education should not be to make carpenters out of men, but men out of carpenters.  DuBois wisely noted that education has an obligation to educate students to assume the demands of social and civic life, and global, democratic citizenship — not to simply prepare them for jobs.  However, as we enter a new stage of neo-liberal market relations, a more insidious and regulating version of educational purpose and mission has surfaced.  Educational discourse is now less and less conceived of and employed in the interest of liberating the intellect and spirit of our young;  rather the discourse more and more resembles the language of penal institutions — behavior discussed in terms of containment and control.  And disconcertingly, educators seem to have little to say about the growing demonization of youth in our culture.  They opt instead to engage in shallow and ineffectual debate over metal detectors, armed guards, see-through backpacks, locker-checks, whether teachers should be armed, and in the case of the rabid, religious right, how and where the Ten Commandments should be posted.

The recent series of school killings, including Jonesboro, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Edinboro, Springfield, Oregon, and Littleton, Colorado coupled with media-driven renderings of male-youth that vilifies them as mindless, infantile and testosterone-driven thugs, reveals the new assumptions adopted regarding young people in American society today.  More and more, youth, and especially youth of color, are depicted as a hazard to society, increasingly in need of medical controls, tough love, strict supervision, and authoritarian, disciplinary action.  Add to this post-Littleton atmosphere the general negative portrayal of youth in movies such as Lord of the Flies, The Things I Hate About You, Varsity Blues, and Cruel Intentions, and we can see the manufacture and emergence of moral panic and fear-driven depictions of our nation’s young.  While fostering a perception of young people as the risk instead of at risk, the false, media-driven perception of young people dehumanizes them and negates any positive attempts to understand youth as a cultural and historical phenomenon.  As a result, our dramatization of American youth as violent and alienated, acts to suffocate dialogue and understanding, heighten racial intolerance and insensitivity, and construct chasms instead of bridges between adults and children.

One would have thought that the role of educators and educational reformers would be to engage a discussion of this new perception of youth in the interest of enhancing critical understanding and analysis.  Generally, however, this has not been the case.  The lack of critical, educational discourse among educational workers is disconcerting but not surprising.  Within the last fifteen years a detectable and radical shift has occurred in the conceptualization and language of schooling.  The role of education has been increasingly hitched more firmly to the role of business and markets.  Marketable skills and standards — students as consumers and learning as measurable outcomes — have redefined the mission and purpose of schooling.  Educational leadership is currently interpreted in relationship to the “corporate boss” rather than defined relative to the public and civic leader. 

Applying the “corporate touch” to educational leadership is now the new mantra of neo-liberalism; and this should not be astonishing.  With every civic, public, and civil institution under attack by market-proponents, it is little surprise that corporations and their CEO’s would become role models for large segments of educational reformers.  Rampant individualism and unconstrained consumerism have not only run roughshod over democratic concerns — placing a preoccupation with corporate profits over people — but have served to re-landscape and reconstitute educational reality, language, and social discourse in favor of learning how to make a living instead of leaning how to live. 

 There can be little doubt that American society is failing its children.  A cursory look at rising suicide rates among youth, their swelling levels of poverty, as well as the magnified levels of youth incarceration reveals the depth of our nation’s indiscriminant sacrifice of young people.  And this promiscuous relinquishment will continue unbridled until we as citizens begin to couch our understanding of schools, family, youth, and childhood within a broader set of political, spiritual, socio-economic and cultural relations. Schools should be recast and perceived as institutions that provide opportunities to discover and serve the common good, not simply as individual stepladders to private advantage and class privilege.  The crisis of our nation’s youth is nothing more than a testimony to the crisis of our nation’s democracy.

How a society treats its youth provides documentation as to the way we as citizens define ourselves and the social and economic systems we construct.  Unfortunately, though many parents, educators and community participants appear obsessed with young people as a threat, they often fail to listen to young voices as they express their fears, joys, dreams, and aspirations.  We too often fail our youth by not engaging them in a sensible dialogue about what it means to be human in a world of difference.  Just consider what Eric Harris, the Colorado assassin, wrote in his suicide note left after the Littleton debacle:

“By now it’s over.  If you are reading this my mission is complete…Your children who have ridiculed me, who have chosen not to accept me, who have treated me like I am not worth their time are dead.  THEY ARE FUCKING DEAD….. Surely you will try to blame it on the clothes I wear, the music I listen to, or the way I choose to present myself, but no.  Do not hide behind my choices.  You need to face the fact that this comes as a result of YOUR CHOICES.  Parents and teachers, you fucked up.  You have taught these kids to not accept what is different.  YOU ARE IN THE WRONG.  I have taken their lives and my own—but it was your doing.  Teachers, parents, LET THIS MASSACRE BE ON YOUR SHOULDERS UNTIL THE DAY YOU DIE. “

Youth signifies in all its diversity the possibilities and opportunities that we as adults face in life.  Children are our second chance to get it right.  To the degree that increasingly large segments of our young people are excluded from the language, rights and obligations of democracy and democratic discourse, should afford us a glimpse into how we as adults have abandoned the language, practices, and responsibilities of humanity and critical citizenship.  By adopting an ethics, culture, language and politics of democracy that goes beyond shallow consumerism and rampant individualism, we can begin to construct institutions that owe their allegiance to citizens, not simply consumers — to artists, not simply producers.  This will allow us to begin a frank and open dialogue with our children about how they mediate their relationships between other children as well as adults within society.  We can then begin to perceive our children as at risk, not the risk.