Friday 16 October 2009

Children’s rites

'I'm Adult! Aren't I': Understanding Juvenile Delinquency and Creating Adults out of Children: The Case For A Formal Rite of Passage, by Geoffrey Ben-Nathan (Rubin Mass 2009)

The problem of what to do with teenagers has always been with humanity, but has become ever-more pronounced since the word ‘teenager’ was popularised in the 1950s. Since then, only the terminology has changed: today’s ‘feral youths’ are yesterday’s ‘juvenile delinquents’. Yet Western society’s concern about what to do with ‘bloody kids’ has certainly become more acute. No day seems to pass without reports of youths ‘as young as [insert age here]’ terrorising council estates, becoming pregant, taking illegal drugs, and so on.

This phenomenon, and certainly its perception, has been heightened, argue some, by a blurring of the the boundary between adulthood and childhood. Today’s adults are a nostalgic, Facebook/Friends Reunited generation forever longing for their youth, as television programmes such as I Love [insert year here] and popularity of the Harry Potter books testify. This state of affairs was symbolised in a recent story about children trying to sneak into a Skool Disco nightclub. Here were kids dressing up in their school uniforms to get into a night club where grown-ups dress as schoolchildren. Children pretending to be adults who pretend to be children: truly a postmodern parable.

Geoffrey Ben-Nathan’s work seeks a diagnosis and proffers a prognosis to this problem. Its title is the response given by an anonymous adolescent when asked why he was smoking. Ben-Nathan believes a root cause of our predicament is an absence of sanctioned rituals that fulfill the adolescent desire to take risks, which is one of the main impulses of teenagers trying to gauge their sense of individuality: the impulse literally (pardon the gender-specific noun) to test their manhood. In the absence of officially prescribed rituals, teenagers resort to joyriding, drug abuse and ‘antisocial behaviour’ as a means to fill this void. Ben-Nathan’s solution is a state-sponsored ritual that not only satisfies teenage impulses, but acts as a clear unambiguous demarker between childhood and adulthood - or a readily understood performative process that brings the individual from the first state of affairs to the second.

’[T]he root cause of adolescent misbehaviour is Western society’s failure to provide a social mechanism for chldren to enter adulthood… In the abscence of an official state-organised exit/entrance programme, children develop their own ad hoc change in personal-status agenda, which is characterised by behaviour change, extending from mild fractiousness to sustained criminality.’

And to call his project slightly statist is something of an understatement. ‘What is now urgently needed therefore is a state-supervised programme of socialisation, a state-supervised rite of passage,’ he writes. ‘Just as there is a Ministry of Education, so there may need to be, ungainly as it sounds, a Ministry of Socialisation’.

If you think the above sentence merely employs an unfortunate turn of phrase, then alas Ben-Nathan’s programme displays a disconcerting and misplaced belief in top-down solutions. He praises Antisocial Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), laments the abolition of National Service, uses alarming dehumanising metaphors –  ‘Young people may be compared to motor vehicles: in the same way that motor vehicles are not allowed to career around our roads without formal (and regular) testing, so adolescents should not be allowed to “career around society” without adequate preparation’ – and applauds many of the results of the Hitler Youth, of which the ‘impact and… impression should not be underestimated’.

Utilitarian statists, both Left and Right, usually justify their stance by arguing that the end justify the means. But what if this is not even the case? The author casually issues the caveat that ‘The very last thing most adolescents want is to receive accolades from the Establishment. Such accolades are bad for street-cred!’ without attempting to come up with an answer to the age old problem that children will invariably do the opposite of what authority figures tell them to do. And if he believes the state is part of the solution, he will have a mountain to climb, as it increasingly appears that it is part of problem, in Britain at least. ASBOs are not only judicially dubious, issued at the hearsay of a disgruntled neighbour, but their efficacy has been very much open to question too.

The British government’s current attitude to adult guidance, and its move to make the process of vetting child-minders even more stringent and invasive, is leaving more children with fewer opportunities to experience the outdoors. Likewise, the demise of adult participation in scouting, a victim both of exaggerated fears of paedophiles and health and safety concerns, has left adolescents bereft of further chances to experience risk in a constructive way. As reported in The Times, practical experiments in chemistry lessons are also swiftly vanishing as a consequence of health and safety fears. What future for scientific experimentation in the UK? What future for the adult of tomorrow who has never seen a Bunsen burner?

Geoffrey Ben-Nathan’s intentions are admirable, and his prose pleasant, but he fails to differentiate between state and society. Officialised rituals can emerge organically, and state intervention needn’t be the default panacea for any of society’s perceived ailments. The Jewish Bar Mitzvah and the Roman and Anglo Catholic act of Confirmation, both rituals of adolescent transition, pre-date the ‘state’ as we understand it, and remain outside it. Ben-Nathan’s call for a Ministry of Socialisation is also a superfluous one. He proposes, as a central part of his statist ritualisation programme, life-skill educational courses on ‘hygiene… cooking, economics… first aid… orienteering… dangerous sports… Children might henceforth regard reading and writing as the one skill they must ... acquire’. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought this is what’s called ‘schooling’.

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