I just read an article about Wilton High School in Connecticut. Students there worked with a teacher to write a play about the Iraq War, which got squashed by school administration before it was put on. Most of the response to this travesty has been about free speech and anti-war rhetoric, all of which is fine. But I think an important point is being avoided.
For too long mainstream American media (and many so-called progressive sources, too) have painted young people as apathetic slackers, as inclined to whittle away the hours thumbing their text messages as they are to watch Paris Hilton make a public ass of herself. Pundits and politicians paint youth to be ignorant demons, crazed with guns and ex while their both their parents are slaving away at work. These same young people fail standardized tests designed to help them; they greedily consume tax dollars with their public schools and healthcare needs, and they ingest media like consumer drones without brains for themselves.
In the aforementioned article journalist Amy Goodman, who I respect for her commitment to justice in the media, contributed to this damnation in her own way. Rather than portraying her subjects as the powerful drivers of their own learning – which they are – she showed them to be simple, easy-to-understanding psuedo-actors on the road of experience upon which so many of Goodman’s readers and viewers have already walked. This is the regular treatment of today’s young people by the elder generation: condescending, belittling and particularly facetious when it comes to the activism, action and learning demonstrated by youth today.
Unfortunately, this criticism comes most loudly from people who I think should be supporting today’s activists the most. In 1971 a fifteen-year-old in Ann Arbor, Michigan created a publishing group called “Youth Liberation“, committed to sharing the tools and powerful words young people needed to create radical social change in their neighborhoods. Keith Hefner would run that group for eight years, and then go to New York City where he would found Youth Communications, a powerful and effective foster youth voice program serving thousands of young people every year. Sounds like a reasonable candidate for supporting youth action, right?
Wrong. In the year 2000, a banner year filled with the creation of Billy Upski’s Active Element Foundation and the National Youth Summit in Florida, Hefner pounded out a turn-of-the-century-defining article railing today’s youth for having no “mass-based movements of young people struggling for social change.” That is despite the thousands of young people rallied around Active Element (and its current offspring, Future 5000 and the League of Young Voters). That is despite the thousands of youth leaders who showed up in Orlando that year.
Hefner continued, saying “There is little organized political work among youth from the left or right, either youth-run or adult-run.” Remember, this was the year 2000. It was only a few years before that Al Gore invented the Interwebbernet, and because of that, groups like the National Youth Rights Association and AtTheTable were pulling together efforts – online – that were powerful and awesome. Others existed in that same period that were equally astounding; but maybe those missed Hefner’s radar.
Hefner is not alone in the “old hippies” anti-youth of today movement. Todd Gitlin, a once-leader of the still-influential Students for a Democratic Society, thinks so little of today’s youth activists that he thought to write a snide, cynical diatribe against young people, wryly entitled book called Letters to a Young Activist. He is so disenfranchised by his named audience that he actually has the gall to write in the Introduction,
“You agree to indulge my lecturing on matters I didn’t quite understand until I was older than you, and I make every effort to connect to your passions and objections… even though you’re too young to have had the experience I draw on.”
Thank you, Mr. Gitlin, for that smart way of drawing in your young readers. Certainly now anyone who is forced to read your book by a sadly lost college professor will feel better about reading it.
Frankly, I’m tired of the convenient youth-bashing. I’m disgusted by the unethical, incongruent, disingenuous “reporting” that highlights falsehoods. I’m revolted by the masked ephebiphobia and the sly adultism of lawmakers, coupled with the wholesale abandonment of today’s children and youth by voters who refuse to fund the public schools their children relied on to become… SUV owners. I sick of the blame and retribution of police officers and the neglect and abuse of young people foist into homelessness and foster care systems that do nothing more than perpetuate cycles of neglect and abuse… I sick of hearing again and again that “youth are the future”, “I believe in children”, and “I vote for the kids” when nobody – no b-o-d-y – behaves as if young people are RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW.
Somethings gotta change. Amy Goodman, please tell the story differently next time. Keith Hefner, write an update, a real history of youth rights from today’s real perspective. Todd Gitlin, come to the Puget Sound and I will take you around for YOU to listen to young activists – because it’s obvious you need to. Let me know if you need some reading, and I’ll put you onto Henry Giroux, Mike Males and Robert Epstein, all of whom have the verbiage you might need to understand. Oh, and let me tell you some stories – check out the Washington Youth Voice Handbook, to begin with.
Let’s all do something to really change the world – together. Let’s stop bashing young people.