by Aaron Browder, Open School staff
June 22, 2020
You may have heard about children being bullied at school.
Or having their phones confiscated by teachers.
Or being punished for expressing themselves with their clothing or hair.
Maybe you’ve wondered whether these things are violations of children’s rights. The answer is yes — but the violations go much deeper than that, in ways you might not have noticed.
Why do we not notice? Because we take it for granted that young people should be controlled by adults, obedient to adults, and made to work for adult agendas.
If we throw off the notion that children are inferior to adults, and recognize that they are humans with human rights, what rights violations might we uncover in schools?
Robert Epstein, former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, conducted surveys of U.S. teens and found that they are “subjected to more than 10 times as many restrictions as are mainstream adults, twice as many restrictions as active-duty U.S. Marines, and even twice as many restrictions as incarcerated felons.”
He also performed research which showed “a positive correlation between the extent to which teens are infantilized and the extent to which they display signs of psychopathology.”
In other words, excessive restrictions make teens anxious, depressed, and antagonistic.
This is teens we’re talking about, though of course the same restrictions are placed on children of all ages.
What are these restrictions?
Like all people, children hate to be micromanaged. Science has even shown that a lack of autonomy is damaging to people’s mental health, regardless of age.
Let’s be honest.
School isn’t really about learning, it’s about work. Maybe a student learns something by doing three pages of algebra problems (and maybe not) — but they aren’t graded on how much they learned or how much they know. They’re graded on whether they did all the problems.
School is work. Hence the terms “schoolwork” and “homework.”
There are many justifications given for this. Some say, “Adults have to work, so kids should have to work too.” Or, “Kids need to work so they’ll learn how to work.” Or even, “Kids need to do boring, unsatisfying work, so they’ll be able to do boring, unsatisfying work as adults.”
No matter how you rationalize it, it’s still child labor, which I thought we outlawed a century ago.
Gradually over the last few decades, students have been assigned more and more schoolwork and homework, and now we’re to the point where many kids have to work more hours than their parents.
For no pay.
Even more ironically, most of the work students have to do in school today is more rote and menial than the factory jobs we saved them from in the early 20th century.
Meanwhile, most 21st century jobs involve creativity, problem-solving, self-direction, and independent judgment, which makes them interesting and satisfying rather than rote and menial. A good modern job is just as much play as it is work, yet schools allow little or no time for children to play.
Which brings us to…
In 1989, the United Nations drafted a document called the Convention on the Rights of the Child. One of the rights the UN claims children have is the right to play:
States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
Pediatricians have also come out recently saying that play is vital for children’s mental and physical health, their development, and their educations. The American Academy of Pediatrics even advised that doctors write literal prescriptions for play.
Alas, recess has all but disappeared from the upper grades in school, while the lower grades are sure to be next. Kindergarten seem to be the last bastion for children’s play in school, and even there it is already rare. Dr. Peter Gray wrote recently about how policymakers are doing battle with Kindergarten teachers to squeeze out the last remnants of play-based education from school and replace it with more reading and math instruction.
The concept of voice is the bedrock of our democratic society. This means not just that people can vote in elections, but that they can speak their minds without incurring retribution. They can criticize the government safely. They can publish an article saying that the president has a stinky butt for a face.
Taking the long view of history, this is quite a peculiar fact about our country! But it’s our only defense against leaders who are incompetent or tyrannical or simply don’t care what people want or need.
Now consider the following examples, from the forum website Reddit, of students who were given detention for questioning authority:
What’s more, student governments in most schools are a joke. They don’t actually decide anything of importance, and the school administration can just override their decisions anyway.
True democratic schools, like The Open School, have proven that students can be given authentic input into school policy and still have a smoothly functioning school. As a side benefit of student voice, democratic schools are unlikely to come up with policies that violate students’ other rights.
Did I miss anything? What does students’ rights mean to you? Let me know in the comments below.