“Kids! What’s the matter with kids today?” The song from Bye Bye Birdie” is a question as old as time. The ancient Greeks complained that young people wore their hair funny, listened to weird music and thought of nothing but driving around too fast in chariots and drinking too much. Some things never change – but some do and there has been a great change in our society; one that causes me to be concerned for the future.
The kids have been tamed and that may be good for the police, good for the bankers, good for the stuffed shirt bureaucrats who run most of our schools and good for time-serving politicians but it is most certainly not good for the future health of our society.
I am of the last generation that went to schools where the desks – ornate cast iron affairs with actual wood tops, were screwed to the floor in neat rows, where you stood up and said “good morning” in unison when the teacher entered the room. That may sound far more regimented than today’s school environment but in fact it was far less so. NO teacher or administrator would have dreamed of calling the police because little Johnny had drawn an inappropriate picture or brought a water pistol to school. Today the sight of elementary school students being hauled to jail in handcuffs is routine. Administrators sniff and defend such actions with “zero tolerance” policies, as if that justified terrorizing little kids.
Such policies are defended on the grounds of preventing events such as the infamous Columbine shooting, as if school violence was a new phenomenon. It is not. Only the average American’s total ignorance of history makes it seem so. Go to Wikipedia and search “history of school shootings” and you will find a long list going all the way back to a particularly hideous massacre of an entire rural school near Greencastle, Pennsylvania by Lenape Indians in 1764. Violence perpetrated by students is not new either. The issue of students carrying guns to school was a topic of discussion dating to the mid-1870s, as noted in this 1874 Los Angeles Herald article wrote about, “… the too common habit among boys of carrying deadly weapons. We do not know that this habit can be broken up. We do not know that school teachers have the right, or would exercise it if they had, of searching the pockets of their pupils, but it seems almost a necessity that some such rule be enforced. The hills west of town are not safe for pedestrians after school hours.”
The salient fact however is not that boys like guns or that violence has occurred in schools but that in fact it is extremely rare. That Wikipedia list may seem long but compared to the total number of schools and pupils in the United States, it is insignificant. To use the common phrase, you have a better chance of being hit by lightning than experiencing school violence. However, the modern combination of surveillance technology and vastly expanded police forces has focused on this issue as a justification for tightly regimenting many schools, imposing impossible standards of conduct and control and treating all infractions as criminal.
Our society makes a very great deal of pious noise about protecting children but the moment a child steps out of line he or she is instantly re-defined as a “perpetrator” to be entrapped, subjected to our appalling juvenile justice system or even shot out of hand by police as has been recently demonstrated, for example, in New York where an unarmed boy was chased into the bathroom of his own home by police before being callously murdered in cold blood right in front of his terrified grandmother.
Young people then arrive at college conditioned to lock- step behavior. The college years impose on them an even more effective set of official shackles; student loan debt. When I attended the College of New Jersey and then University of Delaware for graduate school, my father paid the bills out of pocket just as he paid the electric bill and the cost wasn’t much different. Today, a student graduating from those same schools will easily carry a debt of $25,000 to $30,000. Extensive graduate work such as in medicine can add debt as high as half a million dollars. With that burden hanging over one’s head, one does not get involved in protest movements, burn draft cards or organize resistance to police infringement of constitutional rights (such as the notorious stop and frisk practice in New York) Student loan debt is the single greatest control device ever created by those in power.
Young people who do protest against this control or the rampant injustices of our society must, in the view of authority, have something wrong in their heads. In 1980, an increasingly authoritarian American Psychiatric Association added to their diagnostic bible (then the DSM-III) disruptive mental disorders for children and teenagers such as the increasingly popular “oppositional defiant disorder” (ODD). The official symptoms of ODD include “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules,” “often argues with adults,” and “often deliberately does things to annoy other people.” I am not a psychiatrist but I am a teacher with over 30 year’s experience in dealing with all kinds of kids from brilliant college students to incarcerated offenders and I’m here to tell you ODD is pure BS. If any so- called professional tells you your kid is afflicted with ODD, tell him or her the kid comes by it naturally and give the official the finger.
Those symptoms pretty much describe every single one of the Stonewall rioters and I say that from personal acquaintance with several of them. It describes most of the anti-Vietnam War demonstrators and today, a great many of the Occupy participants. The difference is, at Stonewall, we didn’t know we were crazy. We thought we were oppressed and decided we weren’t going to take that crap any more. During the Vietnam demonstrations, we had no idea we were suffering from ODD. We thought we were objecting to a government that had massively lied to us and was throwing our lives away in a pointless, insane war. Silly us! Time moved on and Occupy ended quite differently. Young protestors were corralled, maced, herded and arrested by a police force that had in fact become an army of occupation. Constitutional rights were trampled in the dust by police who were never held accountable. The movement evaporated and the bankers and corporate titans it was directed against remained more in control than ever.
The ever-increasing coercion level of our society has profound psychological effects. Jared Diamond who spent many years studying the very un- coercive hunter- gatherer societies of New Guinea, in his book From the World Until Yesterday (2012), concludes that by our society’s attempt to control children for what we believe is their own good, we discourage those traits we admire:
“Other Westerners and I are struck by the emotional security, self-confidence, curiosity, and autonomy of members of small-scale societies, not only as adults but already as children….These are qualities that most of us admire, and would like to see in our own children, but we discourage development of those qualities by ranking and grading our children and constantly telling them what to do.”
Numerous anthropologists have remarked on the virtual absence of mental disease such as schizophrenia in primitive societies. We conclude that authoritarian control produces intense resentment, depression and rebellious attitudes. By defining these emotions as conditions such as ODD, society convinces the subject that he or she is sick, rather than oppressed and defuses the potential for joining with others in protest.
What are the results of these changes? Half a million homeowners are defrauded and evicted by predatory banks and they almost all go quietly. A century ago, they would have burned the banks and hung the CEOs from lamp posts. Over 86,000 young people are entrapped and arrested for small amounts of marijuana by a predatory New York police department and where is the outrage? Our phones are tapped, our email is read and our kids are routinely stopped and searched on the street – all conditions highly reminiscent of the totalitarian societies the previous generation fought so hard against and sacrificed so much to defeat – and where is the outrage? Where are the mass demonstrations? Youth, the vessel of change and the avatar of liberty, has been broken to the wheel of compliance and this bodes ill for a future in which the infamous one percent more and more resemble lords of the manor and the rest of us – their serfs.