Human Rights Begins With Our Children by Austin Dodd

            “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

Nelson Mandela said this in 1995 as he launched the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.  Today in the United States there is not a phrase that rings more true.  As we continue to heal the reoccurring wounds in our country from racism, sexism, religious intolerance, violence towards the LGBTQ/Queer community, the degradation of our brothers and sisters who are differently abled, and countless other forms of superiority and elitism, we cannot forget that it begins with our children.  It must be said that the only way these social ills are continued is through the education of our children.  When I say OUR children, I mean it, as a society it is our collective responsibility to raise our youth in a manner that will uphold human rights and dignity.  Yet, our system of education sheds responsibility and chooses to objectify our children as if they are merely a number.

In a true sense, humanity has been taken out of education.  In Providence, students take at least three standardized tests a year, plus another one that is required by the state of Rhode Island.  These tests label our students as above grade level, grade level, on watch, needing intervention, or urgent intervention.  These labels are supposed to be used as a diagnostic tool in order to aid students in learning the material they struggle with. Yet, the reality is far from this.  As these scores play out, it becomes apparent why it is necessary to call them labels.  Teachers begin to treat students differently who have lower scores: challenge abates and expectations become shallow.  Then, those students who can learn more quickly, have a better background, more educated parents, parents with the time to help them study, etc… are pitied and teachers speak of how sad it is that they must be in class with these “others.”  There soon comes a division of those who can and those who cannot.

While working with students it is not uncommon to hear one say that they are “stupid” and sadly not uncommon enough is that some teachers tell students, before an entire class, that they are stupid or worthless.  The reality is that student worth, the worth of our children, is being decided on how well they can take a standardized test.  Those who cannot perform in a vacuum are seen as not worthy of investment.  They become an object in a seat needing to be endured until the year is over and they can be passed on and forgotten.  Our children, and their parents, are seen as the problem and a fantasy is built that school would be a better place without them.  The institutions that are training the minds of our children see them as a burden.

It is easily forgotten that education is for the student: there would be no need for teachers if we as a species did not need to be coached, guided, and developed.  Without someone to teach us to walk and talk we can get nowhere – it is an obvious reality that we need people to support and invest in us to succeed.  Yet, as Justin Roias has said,

some of our students are being taught to govern while others are being taught to be governed.

One student is encouraged to be a cop, another student is threatened that if he does not get off the handrail he will be arrested by the cops.  This is the reality that our children are facing.  We have children in wealthy, predominately white, communities that are treated as the children they are and we have children in urban, predominately non-white, communities that are not allowed to be kids.  We have one community of kids seen as our saving grace and another community seen as the problem.

Basic interactions starting from elementary school teach our children that they are only as good as the test score that represents them, never getting to express themselves in any other way than purely rote academics.  These interactions morph into some kids being supported, celebrated, and invested in and some kids being left behind.  Our children are being taught their place in society before they are even developed enough to make their own choices and decide for themselves who and what they want to be.  With this foundation it is apparent why so many “–isms” reign supreme and so many people are marginalized.  We are taught from an early age.  This is a symptom of our society.

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

Austin Dodd is from Putnam, CT and a graduate of The University of Connecticut with a dual degree in Psychology and History.  Austin is currently serving as an AmeriCorps Member with City Year in Providence, RI and will be moving to Baltimore in June to begin a four year teacher residency program with Urban Teachers.  All views expressed in this post are his own.

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