Ending the war on youth as they march for their lives

March For Our Lives rally in NYC. Photo: mathiaswasik/Flickr

One of the most hopeful uprisings of the Trump era has been the March for Our Lives movement, whose compelling teenager-led platform and brilliant speaking of unfiltered truths is such a refreshing antidote to the traditional dogma that too often stultifies left-wing organizing.

Significantly, those eloquent voices who took to international platforms last weekend are also a reminder that, no matter how dreadful the educational/indoctrination system in which they are forced to toil, young people can prove resilient enough to survive a structure designed to reduce them to obedient test-taking automatons.

Beneath the calls for gun control that mark this remarkable political moment, there seems to be an underlying rebellion, one that is demanding an end to the war against youth. While the press focuses on issues like "how to keep kids safe in school," perhaps we in the adult world can pause, stop strategizing about how to harness this youthful energy into our own agendas (the typical response to youth rebellions), and listen to what seems to be a broader plea: "how to keep kids safe from school."

Having worked with high school students for decades, I have been privileged to ask questions about their lives in safe settings where unvarnished truths emerge about the difficulties they face. I have witnessed an almost universal revulsion against the educational system itself that, apart from the odd incredibly supportive teacher, strips young people of self-esteem, crushes their hopes and dreams, instills fear of failure as a daily agenda item, and condemns creativity as an annoying interference with the "delivery" of a curriculum designed to mould them into unquestioning consumers in a "national security" state.

A world of stress

It's no exaggeration to conclude that the world young people inherit is fraught with stress, anxiety, fear and violence. A February, 2013 survey of over 100,000 Toronto-area students found that 72 per cent in Grades 9 to 12 often felt anxious, with 76 per cent feeling tired for no reason, 73 per cent worried about their future, and 29 per cent feeling like crying in school.  Some 63 per cent of Grade 7 and 8 students similarly reported feeling anxious or nervous often or some of the time. In addition, 66 per cent of students Grade 9 to 12 and 40 per cent in Grades 7 and 8 reported being under a lot of stress often or sometimes, with an average of 45 per cent losing sleep as a result.

Things don't improve at the post-secondary level, where a national survey the following year found "89 per cent of students said they were overwhelmed by all they had to do; nearly 54 per cent reported being hopeless and 64 per cent lonely sometime in the past 12 months; 86.9 per cent said they were exhausted, 56 per cent felt overwhelming anxiety and nearly 10 per cent had seriously considered suicide."

While family-related issues are often a source of stress, the interconnected threads of environmental devastation, a future stuck in a low-wage economy saddled with tuition debt, lack of social acceptance respecting gender identity and sexual orientation, the barriers of institutional racism and the daily reality of structural and socially enforced age-based discrimination create a virtual emotional storm from which there are few shelters. Suicide remains the second-highest cause of death for teenagers in Canada.

Against this background, we expect young people to haul themselves out of bed at impossibly early hours, stay awake and take tests at times when they should still be sleeping, and grade them as successes or failures, a process that has lifelong effects. While schools are not the only players in the war against youth, they are where young people spend the majority of their developing years, and the corporatization and commodification of education turns students into the metaphorical meat to be ground up at the end of an assembly line (well depicted in Pink Floyd's legendary film, The Wall). The fact that schools are not helping eliminate this stress and fear speaks to why so few students have any faith in them.

Some teachers get this. In a touching reflection from one teacher, high school students were issued an apology for what the system does to young people, from "you have to ask my permission to leave the classroom to pee even though you have a driver's licence and a part-time job, and are making significant decisions about your post-secondary life right now" and "you are forced to sit for six hours each school-day despite research that reveals the detrimental cognitive and health effects of excessive sitting" to "you are made to believe that there is a scarcity of A grades for which you have to compete, when all human progress has been the result of collaboration, often considered 'cheating' in schools."

Ultimately, the teacher apologizes "that the education system is focused on your participation in an extractivist economy while our environment, without which there would be no economy, undergoes a climate crisis that will force a rapid reconfiguration of all that we currently do socially, politically and economically, and for which you will be utterly unprepared."

When students seek the support of the teachers and administrators to form LGBTQ2 clubs or groups that confront racism or climate catastrophe, they often hit walls of indifference or rejection. Teachers who try and present a more relevant interpretation of the curriculum that addresses the compelling concerns of young people often find themselves in the principal's office as much as teenaged miscreants.

At the heart of March for Our Lives are millions of voices who are too young to vote and hence, as they are taught in school, unable to influence policy decisions. When they have exercised their democratic responsibilities by, for example, trying to walk out of schools, they have been threatened with suspension or worse. As some have pointed out, schools spend more time enforcing dress codes than they do addressing the serious mental health challenges borne by teenagers.

While schools and governments alike spout polite rhetoric about respecting children, even institutions like the Canadian Senate have recognized that nice words are not enough to cover up a record of complete and utter failure.

Canada fails children

In April, 2007, the Final Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights gave Canada a failing grade with respect to children's rights, noting such rights "are being pushed to the side and even violated in a variety of situations." The report, entitled The Silenced Citizens, noted that:

children's voices rarely inform government decisions yet they are one of the groups most affected by government action or inaction. Children are not merely underrepresented; they are almost not represented at all. The Convention on the Rights of the Child properly puts children at the centre, in the context of their family, their community, and their culture. Nevertheless, there is a real gap between rights rhetoric and the reality of children's lives in Canada -- many people in Canada and elsewhere continue to resist full implementation of the Convention.

Since the release of the Senate report, human rights monitoring bodies both in Canada and globally have expressed concern over Canadian governments' collective failure to heed such wake-up calls and place children's lives at the centre of policymaking.

In September, 2013, the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children noted its disappointment that despite a series of United Nations recommendations to improve the plight of Canadian children (made during the Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review [UPR], which explores countries' compliance with obligations under such treaties as the Convention on the Rights of the Child), "There are no new actions or commitments, despite evidence of lapses in the protection of Canada's children and clear opportunities to improve their well-being." 

Little has changed since these reports were issued. Millions of Canadian children and their families are condemned to poverty. Over 165,000 Indigenous children still suffer state-sanctioned racist discrimination despite five compliance orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, orders that the Trudeau government continues to ignore. Racialized children live under armies of occupation in cities like Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver, where police carding has resulted in massive databases of young people that are the envy of police states around the globe. Indeed, as the Toronto Star reports, "Between 2008 and 2012, police filled out 1.8 million contact cards, involving more than a million individuals, in stops that typically result in no arrest or charge. The data end up in a massive police database that currently has no purging requirements."

While Canada has a self-appointed Minister of Youth (Justin Trudeau), the nation continues to flagrantly violate children's rights as it fails in its commitment to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognizes that "children's rights require special protection and [the Convention] calls for continuous improvement of the situation of children all over the world, as well as for their development and education in conditions of peace and security." It also notes that "State Parties shall undertake such measures to the maximum extent of their available resources and, where needed, within the framework of international co-operation." 

But given a choice between a national daycare program, a national housing plan, a national poverty elimination program -- all of which would benefit successive generations of children -- and something else, the Minister of Youth and his Liberal government continue to devote the single largest discretionary use of federal spending to war (over $20 billion annually), while other levels of government pump over $14 billion into policing bodies that criminalize young people.

The Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children points to "the high dropout rate of Indigenous and African-Canadian children; over-use of suspension and referral to police as discipline for Indigenous and African-Canadian children; [and] integration of minority and disabled children in educational settings to prevent segregation and discrimination" as among the many pressing issues that have yet to be properly addressed in educational settings.

The Coalition notes that:

"There are references to teaching human rights in all provincial curriculum guides across Canada, but there are only sporadic references to children's rights and fewer explicit references to learning about the Convention on the Rights of the Child…. No province offers a program that would meet the [United Nations] recommendation to 'integrate the knowledge and exercise of children's rights into curricula, policies and practices in schools.'"

As further proof that little is done to show concern about children's rights, the Coalition continues to declare that:

"Children looking for information about their rights on the Government of Canada or provincial government websites do not find many youth-friendly resources. They are not easy to find. Basically a young person has to already know about children's rights to find the resources about children's rights."

Regimenting children

Meanwhile, the regimentation and militarization of young people in schools continues apace. The largest single federal program for young people is the military cadets, and while the issue of academic freedom and diverse points of view is now a hot-button issue for the nation's right-wingers, they remain silent on any effort to present a counter-narrative to the glorification of war that is a required activity every Remembrance Day in Canadian schools.

That regimentation was reflected in a recent report card that wound up on my front lawn, perhaps lost by a student who was waiting for the bus. On what appeared to be a daily checklist, I learned that Grade 2 student Janie:

"[r]emoved outdoor clothing and stored properly within 8 minutes; ate snack, tidied, and put lunch bag away within 15 minutes; worked productively on iPad, worked productively on writing assignment; worked productively on math/science/social studies; stayed in classroom, came back to class after washroom; cleaned up lunch things; hit another student; dressed for outside within 5-8 minutes; took off outdoor clothing and stored properly within 5-8 minutes; worked productively on science/math/French; tidied up lunch bag and desk; packed knapsack when asked; respected personal space, hands to self; dressed for outside (5-8 minutes)."

When teachers have to fill out such reports on a daily basis for every student, it teaches kids the basics of living in a surveillance society, in which their every last action, from eating a sandwich to using the toilet, is commented upon, with nothing about what the child is learning, dreaming about, or feeling good about. There is no sense of the wonder and joy that should be central to childhood here. The human being is replaced by the individual, who is obeying all the rules.

When American educator Jonathan Kozol wrote Death at an Early Age, it was exactly this kind of regimentation that he decried. Reflecting later in The Night is Dark and I am Far From Home, he tried to pinpoint the inability of an American soldier in Vietnam at the My Lai massacre to feel any emotion after helping gun down over 500 women, children and elders. "You feel it's not real. It couldn't possibly be," says one soldier. Kozol responds:

"This man is six months out of public school. He is six months distant from the Glee Club, Flag Pledge, textbook, grammar exercises. Problems of Democracy. It is essential that we be precise. It is not the U.S. Army that transforms an innocent boy into a non-comprehending automaton in six months. It is not the U.S. Army that permits a man to murder first the sense of ethics, human recognitions, in his own soul: then to be free to turn the power of his devastation outward to the eyes and forehead of another human being. Basic training does not begin in boot camp. It begins in kindergarten."

School is bad for children

When I was an angry and frustrated high school student, I recall turning to an insightful essay, "School is Bad for Children," by John Holt. It brilliantly summarized how smart children are from birth -- after all, most of us learn the most difficult thing in our lives without tests, grades, and homework: how to speak. And yet we take eager, curious, playful, cooperative youngsters and place them inside industrial boxes where we tell them we don't care how and what they have learned up to this point. Now, they will learn the way the system tells them they must learn.

Holt says that "we teach that learning is separate from learning. 'You come to school to learn,' we tell them, as if the children hadn't been learning before, as if living were out there and learning were in here, and there were no connections between the two. Secondly, that you cannot be trusted to learn and are no good at it."

Children soon come to feel that they are:

"[w]orthless, unworthy, fit only to take other people's orders, a blank sheet for other people to write on….What counts here [we tell children] and the only thing that counts, is what we know, what we think is important, what we want you to do, think and be.' The child soon learns not to ask questions. The teacher is not there to satisfy their curiosity. Having learned to hide their curiosity, children later learn to be ashamed of it. Given no chance to find out who they are -- and to develop that person, whoever it is -- they soon come to accept the adults' evaluation of them."

The glory of March for Our Lives is that a lot of young people are rejecting the adult world's distorted perception and evaluation of them. And that is a dose of hope whose revolutionary potential is unlimited.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Photo: mathiaswasik/Flickr

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