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.
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