Uniquely human: the basis of human rights



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Piaget was struck by the response of one boy whom he interviewed. On being asked why he does not hit back when he has been struck, the boy says: “Because there is no end to revenge.” Piaget comments that “the child sets forgiveness above revenge, not out of weakness.” The boy’s response leads Piaget to speculate that there might be a further stage of morality that would start with a language other than equality and justice.497 Piaget’s suggestion of care and compassion as a language of morality was picked up by women authors in the 1980s. This moral language is neither a “stage” of morality nor a morality only for women. Rather, it is Piaget’s work that is limited to one stage of moral development and findings that seems to have a male bias.

Historical Snapshots

The history of children would be as difficult to write as the history of the human race because being a child is not a class of people but a universal condition of human beings. The human race may eventually devise something different but until now every human being has been born as an infant who needs immediate and constant help to survive. What many people have sought to write in the last century has been a history of childhood, that is, the history of the idea and the institution called childhood. Implicit to writing a history of childhood is the claim that children existed for millennia previous to a moment when an idea of childhood was invented. Among authors who have written on the history of childhood there are differences about where to draw the line but there is a general consensus that childhood is an invention of modernity.

Histories of childhood, similar to the literature on children’s rights, usually have a problem insofar as they assume that the world consists of adults and children. Childhood is thought to be the construction of a space protected by adults. Children are presumed to be inhabitants of childhood until they cross over into the independent world of adulthood. The literature on the history of childhood, like that of children’s liberation, usually neglects adolescence as a transitional period. The assumption that there are only two states of life, dependence and independence, creates clarity for the thesis that childhood was invented at a recent moment in history. It also creates a current dilemma of whether to keep the wall separating childhood and adulthood or else to tear it down.

A more messy but realistic thesis would be that the human race has always had an awareness that infants and younger children need special care if they are to survive. Very often the conditions for survival were not there. Throughout most of history at least half of the infants died. Parents and other older people, including older children, would have been aware of the vulnerability of infants and younger children. Society took what measures were available for nourishing the young, and people made use of their scant knowledge about treating illness. Infants that did survive to be children of six and older were gradually assimilated into the work of the society.

What happened in modern times, as health care improved and the nature of work changed, is that childhood, that is, the idea of being a child, was more clearly articulated. Furthermore, the idea of being a child was extended to age twelve, sixteen, eighteen or even later. Now adults had privileges that were held out before “the child” who had to toe the line if he, and recently she, was to reach the promised land of adulthood.

The best known history of childhood is Centuries of Childhood by Philip Ariès, a maverick historian.498 The book influenced the nature of historiography because it was among the first histories to start with the working of society and to draw conclusions from the stuff of ordinary life, including the evolution of popular language. Ariès was inspired to study childhood from noticing that in medieval paintings children are dressed like small adults. Piecing together a variety of data, most of it French, he arrived at the provocative thesis that childhood was an invention of the eighteenth century.499 He noted, for example, that there was no separate (French) word for bedroom until the eighteenth century and speculated that until then sex was not a secret hidden from children.500

The earliest history of young children’s experience might possibly be found in fairy tales, a secret code of children throughout the centuries.501 A great many of these traditional tales are stories of horrifying violence. What could be worse than visiting your grandmother and finding out that she is not your grandmother but a wolf that has eaten your grandmother and intends to eat you? Fairy tales are filled with witches, giants, evil stepmothers, and ferocious animals intent on destroying children. Such stories, it has been theorized, allow a child to externalize its fears and thus get some control of them. Given how infants and children have suffered in most of history, their fears were not without a basis.

Infants and children throughout the centuries seem to have been beaten, as though there were some evil force within them that had to be driven out.502 There are no available statistics for most of the past which is why fairy tales have to be used as an indicator of how widespread was the practice. If the full extent of the abuse of children were known, it might be revealed as the single worst scandal in human history. The practice of beating a child was not called “child abuse” until recent centuries.

The emergence of a literature on child abuse in the seventeenth century might suggest an increase in the practice. More likely, the contrary is true; that is, the routine beating of children began to be recognized for the abuse that it is.503 Child abuse has probably been in decline in modern centuries though it continues to be a widespread practice. The euphemism “corporal punishment” was coined to cover up a lot of abuse.

An important seventeenth-century book on the treatment of children was John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education.504 Locke introduced many humane practices into the education of infants and young children; he was very attentive to the young person’s interests and desires. Most of his prescriptions still make sense today. He proposed “respect for children,” something that was novel for his day.505 As for child beating, he was generally opposed to it, believing that there were better ways for directing a child, using love and friendship, or if necessary, shame.506 Unfortunately, he did not leave it there. He wrote: “Yet there is one, and but one fault, for which, I think, children should be beaten, and that is, obstinacy or rebellion….Stubbornness and obstinate disobedience, must be master’d with force and blows: For there is no other remedy.”507

Almost a century later, Jean-Jacque Rousseau in Emile seemed intent on challenging Locke’s influential book. But on the matter of beating a child, Rousseau’s view remained similar. The stereotype of Rousseau is that he was extremely “permissive,” a forerunner of progressive education. Like Locke, Rousseau was attentive to children’s desires and interests but the tutor in Emile was clearly in charge and entertained no challenges to his authority. When correction is needed, “punishment as punishment must never be inflicted on children, but it should always happen to them as a natural consequence of their bad action.”508 That principle seems reasonable but it includes this corollary: “If he seriously dares to strike someone, be it his lackey, be it the hangman, arrange that his blows be always returned with interest and in such a way as to destroy the drive to revert to the practice.”509

Locke and Rousseau agreed that education begins at birth and that the first few years of life are crucial for the success of education. Both of them were against the practice of swaddling a baby instead of letting it stretch its limbs and freely move about.510 Locke, who was a bachelor, has surprisingly detailed instruction on the toilet training of an infant.511 The common view about Rousseau is that he wanted to let children follow their own interests. That is largely true but he does not make the mistake of equating a child’s interests with a theory of lifelong education. When the child is ready for rational explanations, it is ready for the end of childhood and the beginning of teen-age adolescence. It is in adolescence, Rousseau says, when the hard work of education begins.512

A Gentler Education

Rousseau’s influence on U.S. education did not occur until the 1830s when other changes in the culture created an openness for taking the child’s experience as a guide. Even then, Rousseau remained only an indirect influence. Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827), who tried to carry through on Rousseau’s theory of education, was the preferred author for the “experience-centered” education that was to flourish in the United States.513 There were efforts to incorporate Pestalozzi’s insights into school curricula. Significantly, Pestalozzi’s main model for how to teach is the activities of a mother. She shows the school teacher how teaching is to be done.514

Pestalozzi’s influence was part of a different kind of child-rearing that was emerging in the 1830s led by Catherine Beecher’s professionalization of motherhood and by advice books for mothers. A kinder and gentler attitude toward children was recommended to mothers who were supposed to be single-minded in their devotion to motherhood. A young woman could prepare for motherhood by being a school teacher and providing “loving tenderness” to pupils.515

Beecher thought that the men who were teachers should be working in the textile mills so that the women could be the school teachers.516 She thought that one of the ugliest abuses women had to witness was turning over tender children to “coarse, hard, unfeeling men, too lazy or too stupid to follow the appropriate duties of their sex.”517 Beecher soon got her wish to see school teaching become almost exclusively a woman’s job.

From the 1830s to the end of the century, children were given a prominent place in U.S. culture. Some people thought that they were given too “permissive” an education. Foreign visitors, such as Francis Grund and Harriet Martineau, found the country’s children to be precocious, that is, noisy and disrespectful of their elders.518 After the U. S. Civil War there was even more emphasis on the goodness of children and the need, especially for women, to retain a childlike attitude. Beth in Little Women says: “Let me be a little girl as long as I can.”519

Manuals for sexual education, such as Sylvanus Stall’s What a Young Boy (Young Girl) Ought to Know, were very popular. The answer for what children should know about sex was: not much or not much that was accurate. A boy’s innocence required that he avoid all thoughts of sex, an outlook that guaranteed a Victorian obsession with sex. Sexual education was very different for boys and girls. “Whereas the masculine super-heroes achieve sexual segmentation by renunciation, heroines like Heidi simply remain in the pre-puberty state forever.”520

Science Demands Strictness

In the early twentieth century the science of motherhood was replaced by the science of childhood which reversed a laissez-faire attitude toward child-rearing. The modern field of psychology emerged and with it a collection of (male) experts who dictated the proper way to raise a child. It was implied, or sometimes explicitly stated, that mothers did not know enough to be in charge of raising a child.

The leading baby doctor in the 1920s was John Watson. His 1928 book, The Psychological Care of Infant and Child, contains such gems as: “No one knows enough to raise a child” and “It is a serious question in my mind whether there should be individual homes for children – or even whether children should know their parents. There are undoubtedly much more scientific ways of bringing up children which will probably mean finer and happier children.”521 Watson was confident that his “behaviorism,” emphasizing scientific control as more important than parental love, was the key to child-rearing.

The family, however, remained outside a full application of scientific management. A better arena for the use of scientific theories and the measurement of progress was the school. Children in school were at the mercy of experts who knew how to control small children. A popular 1932 book on the sociology of education, while generally humane, has a description of a psychiatrist “who has had remarkably good success in establishing rapport with sub-adolescent delinquent boys.” The psychiatrist attributed his success to a technique described this way: He first had the boy strip naked. “He sometimes had his secretary, a woman, assist in the process. He reassured the boy from time to time, ‘It’s all right. You’re just a little boy and it’s all right’….He remarked that it was very difficult for a small boy to remain defiant when he hadn’t any clothes.”522 The new science seems to have been mixed with some old-time humiliation of children.

The World Up For Grabs

World War II began a change in the scientific control of child-rearing. Some of the aura of science held on throughout the 1950s but a revolution was started with Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care in 1946 which sold twenty-two million copies.523 In some ways, Spock fit the stereotype of the male doctor telling mothers how to raise their children. However, mothers found his advice to be a practical support to their own sense of how one should treat an infant and young child. Spock would be tagged in the 1960s as the overly permissive guide to a generation of young people who had no respect for authority. His book was actually very supportive of parental authority; it was more a throw-back to an earlier time than it was an invitation for children to rebel against authority.

Spock was only one strand of a gathering of forces that exploded in the 1960s. Starting with the civil rights movement, the decade gave birth to a multitude of “liberation” movements, often led by adolescents. The young could not have done it alone; they were joined by people of all ages who suddenly seemed dissatisfied with their lives. During the 1960s one had the sense that the whole world was in turmoil led by young people with an unrealistic expectation that a better world could easily be created. The most general description of the decade is that there was skepticism about the very idea of authority. It seems unlikely that such a widespread change could have occurred earlier in history.

Among the groups who were “liberated” from authority were older children and adolescents. Their sudden new-found freedom was exciting but held some dangers for which they were not prepared. When they were released from the authority of home, school, and local policing, adolescents were sometimes overwhelmed by the availability of alcohol and other drugs, as well as by a lack of guidance in sexual matters. The decade was not as disorderly as it is sometimes portrayed; it was more than a time of ridiculous clothes and loud music. At its best it unleashed protests against war, poverty and racism. It established a world culture that holds unlimited possibilities as well as world-shaking dangers. Authority has never been the same.

The call for children and adolescents to take control of their own education was difficult to resist. The fixed curriculum disappeared and democracy was introduced into the running of schools. One of the popular books of the decade was called Summerhill which describes an English school that had begun in 1910 but was almost unknown in the United States until the publication in 1960 of Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing.524 The author of the book, A. S. Neill, was the founding father of the school which claimed to be a total democracy. Each student and each staff member had a vote on any policy. Children would decide when and if they went to class. Neill professed the belief that “a child is innately wise and realistic. If left to himself without adult suggestion of any kind, he will develop as far as he is capable of developing.”525

The Summerhill approach found enthusiastic supporters in the United States. What they often failed to realize was that Summerhill was a boarding school presided over by a patriarch. It was a school with open classrooms within a closed system. The children were free to move as they wanted – within the system. Attempts to imitate Summerhill without its conditions often ended in disaster. One experiment began with the principle that the school would have no authority until – or if – authority was needed. An account of that experiment was entitled “Summerhill, Some are Hell.”526

It seems impossible that the attitude to infants, children and adolescents can ever return to what it was before the 1960s even though previous generations have also believed that a new swing of the pendulum was unthinkable. It is not that we have finally found the proper balance and the right way to raise children. Older people will probably always be perplexed about the next generation and their strange ways. Technology has in some ways opened a wider gap between children and adolescents on one side and their parents, school teachers, and other adult guides on the other. But while communication across the generations is difficult, all ages have now been thrown together in a single world instead of living in a world of separate spaces. Children and adolescents cannot be confined in one place while the grown-ups run the world. Finding workable forms of authority that will help young people remains a major challenge.

The “end of childhood” that was written about in the 1980s has not resulted in children once again becoming little adults but rather in most people over the age of six becoming “adolescent.”527 Adolescence started as a brief transition between childhood and adulthood but adolescence sometimes seems to be swallowing both childhood and adulthood. Qualities formerly associated with teenagers, such as sexual experimentation, were increasingly found among young children and also among older adults. Popular entertainment on television and in the movies seems not to be aimed at either adults or children but at the adolescence of everyone. Wearing adolescent clothes such as jeans and t-shirt was adopted by both children and much of the adult population.

To the extent that “adolescence” means instability, emotional fragility, and instant gratification, there are obvious drawbacks in a society of forty-year olds or sixty-year olds acting as adolescents. Forty-year old parents should be able to give some guidance to their teen-age sons and daughters. But “adolescent” in its meaning of becoming adult can be an admission that an endpoint of maturity is never reached and that there is always the possibility of becoming a more complete human being. Teen-agers will continue to not understand their parents but parents might improve their insight into the minds of teen-agers.

Human Rights for Infants, Young Children, Older Children, and Adolescents

The lengthy heading above should not be necessary in that one can simply say that “human rights” applies to all people of all ages. The problem is that the discussion of “children’s rights” has been beset by several confusions. One problem, as I have indicated, is a lack of clarity in the meaning of “child.” A second problem is the failure to distinguish between human rights which are universal and those political, social, and economic rights that vary according to both culture and the age of a young person. While human rights should apply to all cultures and to all ages, some political and economic rights of children and adolescents may not.

The failure to make any distinctions of age in the meaning of “child” is common. Unfortunately the United Nations document, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, shares in that failure. The Convention simply stipulates that for its purposes the term child means anyone under eighteen years old. That pronouncement does not face the problem and has the effect of undermining the provisions within the document. Some of its statements make little sense if the child is two months old; other statements are not appropriate for teenagers. A related failure of the document is the confusion of human rights with rights that vary by culture.

Like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child contains far too many claims for human rights. There was a U.N. Declaration on the Rights of the Child in 1959.528 It was shorter and more to the point than the 1990 Convention which represented not an application of the Declaration but a change of direction. The Declaration emphasized protecting the child. The Convention, while it does advert to the special care that (younger) children require, tries to give voice to the (older) child. In doing so, it obscures the desperate need of millions of infants and small children for protection from attack and for help that is needed to flourish. Nearly all of the Declaration seems to refer to infants and younger children; in contrast, most of the Convention seems to be talking about teenagers.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child garnered nearly universal support.529 It was approved faster than any similar document in the history of the United Nations. Only two nation-states refused approval. One was Somalia because it lacked a functioning government. The other was the United States of America which had a mixture of reasons for its reservation. One scandalous reason was that the United States wished to retain its power to execute people under eighteen years old. And the reason why President George H. W. Bush refused to sign the Convention was that it did not protect the “unborn child.”

Another reason why the United States would not approve the Convention was a fear that it authorized too much intervention in family life. A right of self-determination by children (in the Convention’s meaning of child) could have the effect of liberating an older child or an adolescent from the parents only to result in the state becoming responsible for the welfare of the child or adolescent. A concern with family authority might be justified. But a fear of the family being undermined was exaggerated by the political right wing in the United States which is suspicious of anything that the United Nation does. President Bill Clinton in 1995 authorized signing the Convention but he was blocked by Senator Jesse Helms in the Foreign Relations Committee who described the Convention as “yet another attempt in a growing list of United Nations’ ill-conceived efforts to chip away at the U.S. Constitution.” 530

Articles five and eighteen in the Convention affirm the authority of the parents. But articles twelve to sixteen affirm that the child has rights to express its opinions, to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, to freedom of association, and a right to privacy. Because of the ambiguity as to which rights belong at which age there was legitimate cause for concern. There could be tension within the family if children have the right to express their views in matters affecting them, including medical decisions.531 Still, the Convention deserved a serious debate in the United States and perhaps approval with stated reservations. At least the United States would then be forced to report regularly to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on what the country is doing about the disgraceful level of poverty among its own infants and young children.



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