Thursday, 13 July 2000

Editorial on "Criminal children call for honesty"

The country is being rocked by youth violence. Next week, new measures on knife and youth crime and youth behaviour will be released. Many questions hang in the air.

What is it telling us? Will the frustration of those on the frontline of youth crime be addressed? Will those measures and reports contain inspired ideas or will they merely attempt to control the uncontrollable?

What are the ingredients of this time-bomb? Is there more abuse of children now, which is leading to an increase in retributive-style behaviour? Or are young people feeling more empowered, which is then interpreted by them – abused or not - as the basic human instinct to conquer and defend territories? And if they are interpreting it in this way, why?

Indeed: why not?

Whatever may be the answer to those questions, it is a fact that highly disturbed children from violent and abusive backgrounds can - and choose - to develop a positive interpretation of their power and also thrive in constructive and self-fulfilling ways when the environment is conducive. This is evidenced in the successes achieved by Camila Batmanghelidjh’s Kids Company.

SOS from industry
That Camila’s special skills and insights need to be replicated countrywide is clear. But let the vision be extended beyond the vulnerable to include the welfare of all children. For, unless the fundamental cause of the disease is treated, there will continue to be breakouts.

There are too many ‘ordinary’ children who feel oppressed by the current school system and by the attitude of society towards them. A number of reports over the years from experts and from UNICEF reveal UK school children to be among the unhappiest testify to this.1

All of these make reference to a wrong approach both to education and our attitude to life in the UK as partly responsible for this misery. It is possible that, the old-fashioned “what shall we do with them?” attitude to children has never really gone away. It has been replaced by placing an economic value on children, viewing them as future cogs in the wheels of industry. A view depressing to most adults let alone the young and the hopeful.

Our society often appears, on the surface at least, to be greedy, aggressive and selfish. These are probable contributors to the development of violent behaviour, as a recent article citing the government’s “behaviour advisor” Sir Alan Steer has pointed out.2

But there is also a lack of interest in learning for the sake of the individual human organism. It seems that any attention paid to education in the UK is out of desperation - that businesses are not able to source suitably skilled employees.

In the US the attitude may be the same. A letter in The Wall Street Journal3 from the chairman of the department of economics, Berry College (Goergia) criticises a May 16 article that bemoaned the effect on the economy made by the decline in students taking summer jobs.

After explaining that the reduction may be due to a wealthier society, he said: “Instead of bemoaning that, you might consider the pleasant possibility that two-thirds of teens now have the option of travelling, attending camps, or merely relaxing during their summers.”

The emphasis from school stage through to college and beyond is mechanical, inhuman and stressful.

Education is viewed solely as a means to get a career, to earn money, or to be the best, to achieve excellence, to be respected or famous.

Where is the little individual person in this system of shiny hard perfection and production? Little ordinary me is taken out of the equation very fast. And that is frightening. In such a system, it would not be surprising if everyone at some point asked: “How can I keep up with these great wheels of systems and society and expectation?”

Children protected by loving and supportive families may survive, but without that protection the individual would be extremely vulnerable.

People who find themselves in this oppressed situation risk losing their sense of self and then their sense of self-worth. This would make them vulnerable to the negatives of society - be that consumerist advertising or violent or materialistic role models.

It is probable that this situation would be the perfect weapon to incapacitate a person, make an individual apparently incapable of finding work, or suitable work that fulfils them, maybe for the rest of their lives.

Ken Livingstone summed up the cold truth in a news interview the week of June 30 2008. He said that there was no getting away from the fact that today’s society needs people to be literate and numerate.

A harmless comment? Common sense? I would argue that the comment embodies our current emphasis on the system over the individual. It is an example of an apparently practical and harmless viewpoint that is entirely unpractical in its approach, and that amounts to an act of violence on the human spirit. For, it is an ultimatum – and this ultimatum is unbearable for those who have not the resources to concede.

The spiritual lessons of The Birdman of Alcatraz
In a powerful scene in The Birdman of Alcatraz the lifer Richard Stroud explains to the chief of Alcatraz why the penal system’s attempt to force people to conform to a set type, to kowtow to the system, is a blind and unworkable approach: it is akin to the tyrant beating down his subjects until they become his obedient slaves, his allies, or escape through death. And, after all, what is a physical death compared to a spiritual one?

Leave alone the complex and damaged psychology of abused children, most children and young people per se do not have a sufficiently developed mind or ego to make good use of a tyrant.4

For most, the first and only recourse to maintain self and dignity in tact is some kind of physical or verbal violence. A physical violence in return for a spiritual one.

A call for a ‘leap of faith’
The mounting levels of youth violence are calling for honesty from the system and from society, according to Camila Batmanghelidjh (see related blog).

Elsewhere she explains that the dishonesty is forced by a system that is unsuitable. For example, a social welfare system that is expected to “mimic business”. Social work is not allowed to be an “emotional vocation” any more, it must be business.5

The same argument could be applied to the education system. There are already excellent examples of alternative education methods that place human – intellectual and emotional - values over economic ones. These systems recognise that wealth is born from Man not the other way around. They therefore nurture the human first. So, why are these alternatives being ignored by those in charge of mainstream education?

Is it because it requires a greater trust of human beings and of their capacities – their intelligence, their inner powers, their perceptions? Is it because it requires a humbler understanding of the great gifts that children offer to society and how to best enable them to endow society?

The call is to transform this society from a steel and concrete juggernaut into an organic hothouse where every human cannot but blossom to their greatest potential.

It’s possible that some find it frightening to think of our leaders and our governmental parent, who now can be harrassed into controlling us and telling us off and laying out rules for us, being replaced by a truly free society. But if it is true that “When liberty turns to licence, dictatorship is near”6, it may be that we have no choice and that we will be forced in the end to take that leap of faith. But, how many lives must be lost before then?

1 Three are listed by The Independent (March 11, 2008), which states the following:
(1) “Global Report on Child Welfare and Happiness” by UNICEF - Just over a year ago, this report by Unicef, the UN children's agency, revealed the results of a survey which showed that UK schoolchildren were the unhappiest of 21 countries surveyed in the Western world. The report blamed a lack of social cohesion and poor parenting for its findings.
(2) A Review of Primary Education by Professor Robin Alexander - Two reports from this Cambridge-based review of primary education – the biggest inquiry into the sector for 40 years – highlighted similar concerns. One revealed a worrying "loss of childhood" among today's youngsters. This, it said, had led to schools being engulfed by a wave of "antisocial behaviour, materialism and the cult of celebrity". The second warned that constant interference by politicians in the primary school timetable with the stress on tests and league tables had put pupils off lessons and damaged their learning.
(3) An Inquiry into Testing and Assessment by the National Association of Head Teachers - After taking evidence from a range of academics and writers, it said that ministers had presided over the death of fun and play in the primary school curriculum. It, too, argued children's education had been damaged by putting them off learning through too much repetitive teaching for tests.
2 The Guardian “Youth Crime: Greedy, rude adults ‘fuelling teen violence’” (July 11, 2008).
3 The Wall Street Journal “Many Teens Reject Summer Job Concept” (May 28 2008).
4 The Fire From Within, Carlos Castaneda (chapter 2 “Petty Tyrants”).
5 Shattered Lives, Camila Batmanghelidjh (p 23)
6 The Life of Greece, Will Durant (quoted from “On the trail of utopias”, by Aurovane, Auroville Today, p. 11).