Liberation: Participation, Not Passivity

by Bill Andriette

The author was a high school student on Long Island, New York, when this article appeared in NAMBLA JOURNAL SIX.

MY HIGH SCHOOL has a Parent-Teacher-Student Association. It is similar in purpose to the PTA in the primary schools, except that for some obscure reason, it was decided to nominally include students. There are no students in it, nor teachers for that matter. It is an organization of mothers, well-intentioned but more or less ineffectual, who worry that their children will smoke pot or have sex or somehow fail to become what children from middle class, suburban communities are supposed to.

The mundane world of parent associations and public schools may seem an odd point of departure for a discussion of youth liberation. To some would-be emancipators of kinderfolk, schools and nuclear families and sometimes human nature are but unfortunate encumbrances to the realization of a liberated, un-lumpen class of consciousness-raised youths. If through sleight of hand the institutions that stunt children could disappear, then better ones could be built anew. But the bad ones are with us now. An approach to youth liberation ought to at least grudgingly assume the presence of the institutions and work for their improvement, not merely their dissolution. Such an approach would be more pragmatic than doctrinaire. It would offer guidance on how to treat young people without condescension, but without assuming that they are selfless seraphim.

That a need exists for such guidance should be obvious. In case it is not, let us return to the PTSA which, at a recent school board meeting, had its representative speak glowingly about the prospect of its "parent networking project." The PTSA hopes to raise parental awareness about drugs and alcohol and arm adults with the knowledge necessary to detect their use by high school-age children. Planners hope that the concerned mom will not only keep a sharp eye on her own youngsters for the telltale unstable gait and dilated pupils, but that each parent will keep watch over every other's child. And since the group believes education is the key to prevention, it is lobbying for an elementary school program to hit students with the evils of drugs and strong brew at a time when they still might believe what is taught in the classroom.

Seeing no need to involve the students directly in solving the problem, the PTSA seeks not to establish rapport but to assert parental authority over the child. They cannot view the drug problem as anything but a lapse in adult control that can be corrected by dictums passed down from above. By employing well-timed propaganda, they hope to solve a problem with roots deep in our society. The chemical manipulation of the mind is bound to have broad appeal in a culture that encourages escape from problems and views technology as the key to their solution. It is assumed that young people cannot sense this, for their perspective is not given any credence.

Tactics like these underscore the basic problems adults have in dealing with children. Youth, many feel, need to be policed and guided to become human. Much like the colonized, they are assumed to be the passive products of adult rules, which justifies the absence of student participation. More than that, children are an extension of the parent, not individuals but adult chattel. The relationship is not consciously viewed so starkly. There are perceived to be significant areas of concordance between parent and child. But, tellingly, the PTSA sees youths as adversaries who will emerge from high school sober only if cajoled, lied to and watched.

The impotence of children mirrors the powerlessness of society itself vis-à-vis the giants that have spring up within it. We have not created the massive government and corporate structures of our time, so much as we have been created by them. They mold even our self-perception. We are sooner to think of ourselves as consumers than citizens. We know who we are, not by searching within but by gazing at what we have.

Lest we be unsure of our identity, we are bombarded with economic indices and public opinion polls that tell us. Even public opinion is a commodity; no less banal an institution than the television ad has become the prime marketer of both deodorant and politics.

Is it any wonder, then, that adults view children as they do? Locked into a system they cannot control, parents and schools teach the apathy required to function within that system. Childhood is the period of socialization, after all. If schools did not teach the inflexibility of bureaucracy along with chemistry and the Civil War, they would be failures. Parents do not want children with egalitarian zeal any more than corporations do.

Society is generally successful in producing the children it wants. Even the children of the '60s seem to have sowed their wild oats and followed Jerry Rubin into the Wall Street investment house. The students in my high school are not especially alarmed by the PTSA's shenanigans, for they are accustomed to adults working in the students' name without their consent. The school administration may not earn their respect, but it almost always wins their acquiescence, leaving the principal and superintendent to attend to the truly important tasks of placating angry parents and pleasing the school board. Administrators strive for a conflict-free school, a frictionless machine that produces well-adjusted graduates who neither think nor feel too acutely.

In its quest for smooth functioning, the school does not begrudge its more ambitious students avenues to diffuse their political interest. There are student councils and class officerships and even ad hoc committees of teachers and administrators to which students are invited. But youth participation is perceived as a generous frill, not a necessity. If a student speaks out in a meaningful way, he or she is probably ignored. More likely, however, the student will toe the administrative line, grateful for having been selected to represent his or her classmates.

It cannot be assumed that by cutting the chains of ageism a force inherent in youth will be liberated—a force that can render administrators useless, transform children into democratic citizens and make drug abuse a thing of the past. Ageism is but one manifestation of the sickness in our society.

Youth liberation, in a comprehensive sense, is impossible in a materialistic, apolitical society which creeps ever closer to nuclear self-destruction. As we fight for sexual freedom, children's rights or women's liberation, it is crucial that we remember the war of which our battle is just one part. The gay and lesbian rights movement, for example, nurtured a spirited debate of sexual mores. But now that the examination of convention has brought the sexuality of children out of the closet, many gay men and lesbians want to thrust it back in. Sad paradoxes arise when we forget that the ultimate aim of our endeavors is a more humane society. The changes we seek are broad and far-reaching, and they will be realized, if at all, by the work of diverse movements with a basic ideological sympathy. The outlook is not hopeless. Who would have thought 15 years ago that a group like NAMBLA could ever exist?

A liberation movement demands rights for the oppressed groups it represents. Implicit is the assumption that oppressed and oppressor are basically alike, regardless of superficial differences. But in the case of children and adults, the differences are more than skin-deep. Merely granting children all the rights and responsibilities of adults would be a profoundly poor way of handling the problem. For there is little to object to in the concept of childhood, only in the way it is realized in our society. Obviously, we need some sort of gradual path into adulthood; we cannot reinvent civilization every generation.

If childhood is the period of socialization, then it ought to employ those techniques that will result in the most responsible adult citizens. People tend to treat others as they themselves are treated. A compassionate citizenry cannot be created from children who are beaten when they break the rules. Hate cannot be a means to love, nor irresponsibility a means to responsibility. Yet our society denies children any chance to be socially useful, gives them little experience in democratically-run institutions, and withholds from them power even over their own bodies, expecting all the while to produce industrious, democratic, responsible adults.

Pragmatism is not the only justification for liberating children. As human beings, children deserve basic human rights which, fundamentally, include the rights to food, shelter, education and medical care. The West has the resources to provide materially for its youth. It needs to concentrate on other areas as well.

Children cannot be excluded from society's social, economic or political life. They must have consequence as more than just consumers; they must be respected as individuals and ought to be expected to respect others in return. They have a right to satisfy their emotional needs in structures other than the nuclear family, to control their sexual lives, and to be free from circumcisions, clitoridectomies and other bodily mutilation imposed without consent. Children have a right to read what they wish, to speak out and be heard. They have a right to schools that do not withhold political experience or encourage racism and sexism. Most of all, children have a right to grow into responsible adults.

An age-blind society is not the goal; one in which a person's age does not radically affect the way he or she is treated is. The differences between a seven-year-old and a 37-year-old are too great not to be articulated in social policy. Age restrictions on motor vehicle operations or voting rights should be tolerated. To let drivers be of any age would expose people to a probable danger. To leave voting unrestricted would be putting forth a woefully attenuated definition of citizenship in which the voter's duties could be carried out without even the guidance of much experience.

But society has erred on the side of restriction in its dealing with youth. A view of children as something less than human has been the backdrop to a host of oppressive measures that have showed neither young people nor adults at their best. Any improvement demands not just the humanization of childhood, but a shift toward a rational and just society.

from NAMBLA JOURNAL SIX (1983), Pgs. 6-7.

Copyright NAMBLA, 2003. All rights reserved.