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Monday, April 23, 2007

"Do Something"?

Every so often the Detroit Free Press puts on its Sunday editorial section a page devoted to "Young Voices". On Sunday April 22nd the Freep carried its "young voices" section on the subject of the genocide in Darfur. It begins with this introduction
Teacher Laura Roth gave her geography students at Tappan Middle School in Ann Arbor a simple assignment that yielded an outpouring of critical thought. Her seventh-graders wrote about the genocide in Darfur, as they were instructed. But they also became advocates to raise awareness about the crisis. They're proof that American teens, properly inspired, will gladly look beyond themselves to embrace the world. Below are excerpts from some of their essays.
Pursuant to my previous post in which I objected to 9 yr. olds being scared to death by environmentalism I wrote
These kids are way too young to be introduced to such complex subjects as planetary climate systems not to mention all the political and ethical and social issues involved. Young minds like this cannot cope with the higher level abstractions required to make any kind of rational judgement.
I also think that 12 and 13 year old kids are still too young to be trying to formulate judgements on such complex issues as government, justice, war, peace, society, and so on and like the 9yr olds, can only respond to such issues emotionally.

There were 21 quotes on the page and admittedly they are excerpts from longer essays so I can't really say if or how badly they were taken out of context. But let's look at a few. First,Younkyoung Lee writes:
Civil wars have added plenty of tension in Africa, but now a genocide in Darfur has caused an unnecessary number of deaths and more than 2 million people to flee their homes. It has been four years since the genocide began, and after 21 years of civil war in Sudan, how much more do people need to suffer?

Too many of us seem to care more about entertaining ourselves and making money than people who need our help. Which do you find more important, a child dying in Africa or a celebrity shaving off her hair?
His first two sentences are correct but his last two indicate the acceptance of an unearned guilt. There were one or two others that echoed similar sentiments. I hope they check their premises when they get older. Most however did not share that viewpoint near as I could tell.

There seemed to be several themes that ran through all of them. 1) That the tragedy in Darfur and the prosperity in America are the metaphysically causeless given. 2) That somebody needs to "Do Something" as the headline in the print edition shouted.

There were only a few that blamed the Sudanese government's support of the Janjaweed for the genocide and even these did not address why this is so. But there were a few that impressed me. One by Murphy Austin who wrote in part: "The power of the leaders of our country comes from the people they represent, and it is high time that those people demand representation." That he understands where the government gets its power from is a good sign. But I was really impressed by student Nick Shannon who said:
UN forces won't go in simply because the Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir (who tops the list of the world's worst dictators) is denying them access to Sudan. The United Nations says it needs permission to help. What do you think of that? Should we get a killer's permission to allow us to stop him from killing?
Well now, if he wrote this without any adult help, I would say that this youngster will become a very rational adult.

The thing I object to the most is the theme of Do Something then asking kids for suggestions. They are simply too young to properly conceptualize cause and effect in terms of principles that would guide them towards rational solutions. Some of the kids suggested things like donating to humanitarian agencies or giving new cots or putting pressure on the Sudanese government via sanctions and so on. But these are all concrete bound ideas.

These kids are being encouraged to think in terms of concretes instead of principles. Without principles, "Do Something" usually translates into "Do Anything". It has to since without principles there is no way of knowing what that "Do Something" should be, so "Do Anything" substitutes for "Do Something."
And "Do Anything" is the prescription for altruism, the morality of intentions over results. They will grow up believing that virtue consists of performing an altruistic ritual of "It's not for me but for others" and when no real results are forthcoming they will believe that more people need to perform the ritual and the need for forced sacrifices will of necessity brew in their minds.

In closing I have two more objections: that a geography teacher should be teaching something other than geography to her students. If my child were a student of hers I would insist that she stick to geography and leave the political science for later in high school. It is good that these kids think something should be done but they need the guidance of principles not feelings. Secondly, I also object to the Freep's characterization of this as kids who are "properly inspired." There is nothing proper about it.

In a future year I would like to see a teacher have these kids identify all the nations with capitalism and free markets and those without and then measure the degree of prosperity of each. Now that would be a priceless lesson in cause and effect.

7 comments:

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Anonymous said...

Great post, Mike! Sadly, I would add that kids are ill-equiped to opinionate until they get out of today's educational system altogether. And to environmental issues, add those concerning health and nutrition, especially given so much of such information being taught even through college age is from animal and vegetarian activist organizations. Incredibly.

Mike N said...

Student: I am looking into doing something. Will get back with you on this.

Anon: Good point about the public school system. Alas, even when many are out of the system completely, Their ability to judge rationally has been destroyed.

Younkyoung Lee said...

I do not care if i am too young because everyone no matter who has the right to freedom of speech. you cannot tell us whether or not we should take a stand on the world. at least we are doing more than you are. Plus i am a girl thank you very much.

Mike N said...

Younkyoung Lee:
I think you may have misunderstood my post. You certainly do have the right of free speech and you should render an opinion when ever called upon to do so--provided you have some knowledge of the subject. It is not the students right to give opinions that I object to; it's the teachers who call on students to render opinions when they don't have the requisite knowledge to render a rational one. Did your teacher give you a history of Darfur in terms of its political history, its religious and cultural history so that you can see how any biases or prejudices may have evolved and why? Did she teach you the purpose and nature of a proper government? From where does a government get its authority? What are Rights? What is the difference between starting the use of force and retaliating with the use of force? Which of these is the proper province of a government and which should never be granted to any government? This knowledge and much more is required to make rational judgements. You will get that knowledge as you grow in your education. This does not mean that you shouldn't render opinions. Just the oposite, the more often you try to make rational judgements the better you will get at doing it. So keep it up. Just be careful about how much you actually know when called upon to render a judgement. There are adults with PHDs who don't understand what's going on in Darfur. You say you are doing more than I. You don't know that but even if you did, it is not important. The whole point of my post is that to 'do something' doesn't mean doing good if it just means 'do anything'. This then becomes nothing more than a ritual which only makes the doer feel good but doesn't do anything to help the victims. The annual G8 meetings to help Africa are a glaring example of this ritual. If your teacher wants to raise public awareness of Darfur, that's fine. Let her do it through other channels. Her job is to raise your awareness--of geography and leave the politics go till you reach high school.
By the way, I'm sorry I didn't know you were a girl. It's fine with me that you are. If you have any questions please don't hesitate to ask.

Anonymous said...

mike u have no friends

Anonymous said...

u thought younkyoung was a boy, how delightfully ignorant u r