The question I pose in the title may seem outrageous: of course someone cares! Everyone cares, don’t they? When media outlets feature a story that is explicitly about some instance of child abuse, outrage is expressed on all sides. And certainly no one actively defends such situations when they surface! So what is this essay about, anyway?
Hold it for a moment. Look at the subtitle. Am I making a claim that child abuse is rampant in the most advanced societies in history – and that not only does everyone see it, but that it is actually sanctioned, most particularly by the political, moral and philosophical elite that sets the tone in modern culture? I am making that claim, and I hope to convince you of it.
Let’s begin with physical abuse. One of the cardinal tenets of the proponents of due process in the enforcement of laws is that a person may not be confined to a place not of his choosing (imprisoned, in short) unless convicted of a crime – where a “crime” is a violation of a law duly passed by a legitimate governmental authority. The only exception is brief incarceration while waiting for proper charges to be prepared, pressed, and proven in a court of law. One of the hallmarks of a modern, civilized society is the absence of arbitrary arrest and confinement absent due process.
However, one of the hallmarks of the very same modern, civilized societies is the universal practice of confining children, day after day, in a location chosen by governmental authorities, labeled “a school”, for an arbitrary number of days every year, and an arbitrary number of hours every day. This practice extends to every child for as many years as the governmental authority decrees. At no point is any claim put forward that those confined have violated any law. The only justification offered is that they are guilty, prima facie, of being . . . children1.
Suppose, as an example of the arbitrary nature of this incarceration, one heard that every person who has blond hair should be confined to a building called “the blond hair training center” for five hours a day, five days a week every week from early September until late June, with certain exceptions called “vacations”; and that during that confinement they should be subject to “expert” training preparing them to overcome the deficits that they possess by virtue of their having blond hair. “What specific deficits?” you may ask. Well, the one that studies made by professional psychologists have revealed them to have in modern societies, ones that were previously unrecognized in more “primitive” settings. Such an edict would be greeted with general scorn – hopefully – now, but perhaps not after the studies were published in professional journals “peer-reviewed” by others of the same profession.
When we turn to emotional abuse, the situation turns out to be grim indeed. The government, at its site www.childwelfare.gov, publishes a “Factsheet” on its “Child Welfare Information Gateway” which contains the following explanation, in its listing of “Major Types of Child Abuse and Neglect”:
“Emotional abuse (or psychological abuse) is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth. This may include constant criticism, threats, or rejection as well as withholding love, support, or guidance.”
Now, if there is anything that characterizes the atmosphere in traditional schools (the overwhelming majority of public and private schools alike) it is that most students have an impaired sense of self-worth, generated precisely by “constant criticism”, “threats” of failure in courses or on standardized tests which are central to their success, absence of “love” in any form, and withheld support for their personal goals.
If you think I am overstating the case, consider the following statements in the Factsheet referred to above. It includes a section titled “Recognizing Signs of Abuse and Neglect . . .”, which lists the following general “signs” for children:
“Child . . . has learning problems (or difficulty concentrating) that cannot be attributed to specific physical or psychological causes; . . . Is overly compliant, passive or withdrawn; . . .”
A separate section devoted to “Signs of Emotional Maltreatment” elaborates further, as follows:
“A child who exhibits the following signs may be a victim of emotional maltreatment: Shows extremes in behavior, such as being overly compliant or demanding, extremely passive, or aggressive; . . . Shows signs of depression or suicidal thoughts . . .”
Reports abound concerning precisely these features of a great many children in schools today – in particular, withdrawal, depression, suicidal thoughts and even actual suicide. And totally widespread is the phenomenon of “learning problems (or difficulty concentrating)”, which have proliferated to an extent that has led to the creation of a major industry devoted to dealing with them – one comprised of teacher aides, special education teachers, school psychologists, and purveyors of pharmaceutical interventions.2
There are three options open to us at this point.
We can deny that what goes on in most traditional schools in modern western societies is child abuse. If we do that, we must reject the very definitions of child abuse that underlie the punitive, judicial and societal activities that purportedly are directed at eliminating it from our culture.
We can defend what goes on in most traditional schools in modern western societies by saying that, though it apparently meets the criteria for abuse that are widely accepted, it is justified by a greater good, the greater good being the preparation of children for life as adults in modern society which necessitates extraordinary action that includes behavior otherwise forbidden. It is reminiscent of the justification long given for corporal punishment in schools or at home, all in the name of “doing this for your own good”. Such justification is a slippery slope, to say the least. It leads directly to a societal acceptance of virtually any violation of an individual’s rights to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness when some greater good is identified by those who have the power to enforce their actions on others, whether the recipients are willing or not to be subjected to those actions.
That such a slippery slope has already been slid down is evident for all to see in the global events of recent years. Modern schooling has paved the way, and it has been taken. The problem is that, as the Factsheet states, “Child abuse . . . can have lifelong implications for victims and their well-being. . . . . Children who are maltreated may be at risk of experiencing cognitive delays and emotional difficulties, among other issues, which can affect many aspects of their lives, including academic outcomes and social skills development.” If this outcome is accepted as a necessary consequence of actions done “for the greater good”, then at least we should acknowledge that.
The third alternative is to abandon the practices of traditional modern western schooling in “advanced” societies, and grant to children all the rights we have granted to adults. This would actually be a reversion to a human condition that prevailed from the emergence of our species several hundred thousand years ago until the invention of the “modern” educational system for “developed” countries about 175 years ago – a condition that produced all the advances of human societies everywhere from the beginning of history, and showed signs of benefitting humanity in increasing measure as the centuries went by.
In fact, many societies today have not yet adopted the practices of modern western schooling at all. But more to the point, there is a growing number of places that provide environments within which children can grow to adulthood without having any of their rights infringed upon – places with a track record of outcomes that justify the confidence in their ultimate success. The products of those places – the graduates – have gone on to live fulfilled and distinguished lives by any standard, and have given the lie to the claim that the abuses of modern schooling are a necessary evil for the good of society as a whole.
Sudbury Valley School, and other schools inspired by it since 1968, are examples of such places for children to grow. As these spread across the globe, the claimed need for environments that abuse children will fade away, and the result will be the elimination of such environments once and for all.
1.And the very definition of the “crime” of being a child depends on a purely arbitrary choice of the maximum age a child may be labeled as “guilty” of being a “child”.
2.There is a particularly sinister element to the phrase in the Factsheet that qualifies “learning problems” – namely, to qualify as child abuse, the problems should be those that “cannot be attributed to specific physical or psychological causes”. Not surprisingly, the very same people who perpetrate the behavior that leads to these problems have invented a whole set of “specific physical or psychological causes” that they define as diseases, so that they can justify “treating” them not as the products of abusive behavior towards children, but as the result of some diseases that the children have contracted. It’s a devilish device: you cause a problem by your behavior, then ascribe the problem to an inherent defect in the victim. It’s as if a person who claims physical abuse reports it to authorities, shows bruises, and then is told that “we’ve diagnosed a number of hitherto unknown diseases that lead people to exhibit bruises – so there is no way to justify your complaint of physical abuse.”