The Politics of Schooling and Adolescent Life


Due to the widespread belief that schools and youth represent our nation’s future, schools remain at the center of “culture wars.”‘ Political leaders emphasize the role of education in cultural life and champion school reform as central to the achievement of particular visions of humanity and society. Indeed, every recent decade has brought significant attempts to foster fundamental reform. As cultural trends change, each succeeding generation develops its own criticisms, anxieties, and frustrations about thepurposes of education and the organization of schools.

Adolescent behavior has always differed from that of the mainstream community and from parental mores. The peer group significantly shapes the period of adolescence. In addition, just as previous broad social changes accompanying urbanization and industrialization contributed to the invention of adolescence, recent developments contribute to its reinvention. The mass media, the commercial marketplace, globalization, and even new approaches to the study of adolescence currently contribute to shaping the adolescent experience.

Political responses to schooling fail to the extent that they ignore such changing realities in adolescent behavior and attendant changes in students’ interests. Indeed, such responses exacerbate the problems facing youth and the failure of schools that these responses attempt to address. There are several elements to the link between school failure and the failure to consider students’ interests and experiences in formulating approaches to education. First, in the educational environment, students confront cultural and political issues as they confront their own journeys through adolescence. Students experience profound changes in their own emotional, physiological, and biochemical systems and behavior while also developing their cognitive faculties. Second, adolescents remain the most politically unrepresented group. They do not possess the right to vote and directly influence political processes that affect schooling, and are arguably also the group with the least readily enforceable legal rights. Lacking formally recognized legal rights, adolescents are unable to influence curricular decisions and the structure of schools. Third, in addition to not having a formal legal voice, students do not have even an informal voice in efforts to improve their own educations. Discussions of reform deliberately or un- wittingly exclude youth.10 From the perspective of adolescents, the problem aptly may be described as schools failing their students. Yet, commentators continue to view schools as failing our society, youths’ parents, the economy, or our political system. Defining school failure as asocial failure, rather than as a failure for adolescents themselves, commentators champion reform efforts that increase community input, especially that of parents. The politics of schooling ensure that adolescents are not directly involved in determining their roles in their own educational experiences.

Commentaries on law and educational policy-making reflect the failure to include youth’s interests in attempts to address the continued failure of schools. Even more problematic, legal commentaries that discuss educational equality and opportunity ignore the rights of individual youth; those concerned with legal change focus more, for example, on class, gender and racial equality. The plight of adolescents is considered only as it relates to other groups–especially the poor, women, and racial minorities. While commentators have developed strategies for meeting the needsof adolescents who are also disadvantaged, they have ignored the needs ofadolescents as a whole.

This review explores the need for increased inclusion of youth in educational reform efforts. The investigation necessarily rests on the valuable contribution of those who champion a need for educational policies that better reflect the demands of democratic societies. Although numerous books now urge that schools become more democratic this essay advocates what I call the “participatory model” of education and examines the need to take adolescents’ interests and rights more seriously. Responsible democracies provide individuals and communities with meaningful opportunities to participate in matters that affect them. In terms of preparing students for the fulfillment of their responsibilities and the enjoyment of their rights as citizens, the participatory models has four significant strengths. First, the model addresses society’s failure to include all its members in determining the nature and purpose for education. Second, the model addresses pressing political needs, stressing the need to acquaint youth with cultural diversity and to help them recognize and adjust to rapid social change. The model strives to ensure that no group remains at the periphery and attempts to meet each group’s needs. Third, the model reflects an active image of democracy, in which people participate directly rather than through elected representatives. Fourth, the model has increasingly gained empirical support from research showing both why people obey the law and how people in pluralistic societies achieve tolerance. In brief, the participatory model is motivated by a commitment to democratic processes and the belief that schools serve an important democratic purpose.

In Part II of this review, I highlight Kenneth Howe’s recent efforts to rethink the role of schooling in democracies that have become increasingly heterogeneous. While Howe takes the first step by acknowledging that schools need to adopt a more participatory approach to schooling, his perspective is still too much that of an educator, and he fails to take adequate account of the needs of youth. Part III discusses Ira Shor’s and Sheldon Berman’s attempts to build upon the participatory model suggested by Howe, and to demonstrate ways in which schools fail both society and their students because they do not prepare students adequately for democratic participation. While Shor’s work takes us part of the way towards the sort of participatory model for education that I advocate here, Berman’s work improves upon Shor by conceiving a classroom environment that supports students in developing their senses of the responsibilities of democratic participation.

Part IV addresses the extent to which legal obstacles may hamper efforts to recognize adolescents’ peculiar interests. While the Supreme Court took positions in the 1950s and 1960s that indicated a general receptivity for the participatory approach to education, in subsequent decisions, the Court has made it clear that it regards the interests of the state and of parents as outweighing those of children and students. Because the law does not adequately recognize the rights of youth, legal decisions have failed to consider contemporary theory on educational reform in rendering decisions that determine the nature of youth’s educational experiences.

Suggested Reading