Do Young People Actually Matter?

January 13, 2013

       When I was in 8th grade, my math teacher came into class a day after a substitute taught in her stead, and immediately handed four friends and me a week of detention.  She claimed that the substitute wrote we had all acted out throughout the entire class.  I immediately protested saying, “Ask anyone else in the class- we were not inappropriate.”  She immediately retorted, “This class is not a democracy.”

            In retrospect, my teacher was probably right.  Knowing myself, I’m sure that I acted like a complete brat when the substitute taught, and deserved the detention.  But the story still begs a fundamental question that I don’t think we’ve come close to answering- does youth voice really matter?  And should it matter?  Should schools, in any sense of the word, act like democracies?

            These stories happened throughout my secondary school experience.  In 9th grade, my school explored the possibility of mandatory drug testing for all students.  I was vehemently against it.  In 12th grade, my high school fired one of the most popular teachers in school.  Students were on the verge of organizing a walkout (these two situations were made even more complicated by the fact that my dad was on the School Board making these decisions).   But in neither case was my voice, or the voices of my peers, actually really respected. 

            The truth of the matter, however, was that how much could I have known about drug testing as a 15 year old?  How much did I actually know about why the teacher was fired?  And, I can tell you that as a teenager, I thought I knew all the answers and was completely unwilling to listen to others, hear their perspectives, and compromise (making me completely eligible to become a Congressperson, evidently).

            Generation Citizen is all about empowering young people to use their voices.  But at a staff retreat this past week, we talked about what that really meant.  Society at large is literally structured to devalue youth voice.  Schools are actually one of the least democratic structures in our society- students are forced to attend, they do not get an ability to choose their classes, and they are assessed based on common rubrics.  In large part, student voice is respected on a token level- it is widely accepted that student councils do not get substantive input into how schools operate.   Additionally, the fact that young people are not allowed to vote until they are 18 means that their ability to have a say in society is not formally recognized until they are about to graduate.

            I fundamentally believe that young people should have a substantive voice.  But I think we need to have a more comprehensive conversation about what that means.  Should young people have a say in their own education? Should they be able to address important issues like assessing teachers (several districts have started to implement student-led evaluations), school closings, graduation requirements, or even budgetary decisions? 

            I worry sometimes that programs like Generation Citizen can allow us to feel good about ourselves- essentially promoting youth voice without really paying attention to what they are saying, especially when it comes to difficult decisions, or issues we might not agree with.  I want to ensure that we are having this conversation.  I do feel that if Generation Citizen does its job, especially as we start to move into politically diverse, or more rural, populations there will be young people who espouse positions that are fundamentally counter to what I believe.  And I need to be okay with that.

            But what it comes down to is ensuring that young people are able to do what I was not able to do as a young person- take into account multiple perspectives, compromise, and then come to a conclusion.  That is what we’re trying to teach at GC. 

            But at the same time, I’m hopeful that we can have a bigger conversation in this country about how much we value the input of young people.  Argentina just lowered the voting age to 16.  Would we be willing to do that?  Do we, as adults, think we know what young people need?  Or do we actually want to hear what they have to say, even when it’s not what we think?

– Scott Warren

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