Do we really want civically able young people?
I’m impressed. Quinn Mitchell, 15, is engaged, determined, knowledgeable, civically responsible, and seemingly fair-minded. As Shannon Larson described, Mitchell is honestly interested in politics and has a strong knowledge of history, giving him perspective with which to assess current events. In his New Hampshire hometown, he asks political candidates of all stripes tough questions, good questions any politician ought to be able to answer. But we don’t expect teenagers to be engaged, determined, knowledgeable, civically responsible, and seemingly fair-minded. And maybe we don’t want them to be.
Teens, and popular neuroscience, have given us all cause to believe they just don’t have these capacities. First, neuroscience. Our brains don’t develop until we are what, 25 now? And boys may be even slower. Teens’ brains are designed for risk taking, right? Questionable choices are part of what teens are wired for apparently. And now the behavior. Our high schools need police officers to keep the “peace,” bathroom access must be limited in even small suburban high schools due to vaping and sex in the stalls, and who hasn’t seen that completely filterless TikTok you wish you hadn’t?
And yet. Young people become adults before they leave their teens. 18-year-olds are deployed to protect our liberties, move across the country to attend college, create the code to enable painless online purchasing, and work boats to bring in our beloved seafood. And they can vote in political elections, they can serve and vote on our school committees, they can join local town councils. They can, and do, become mayor. So why is Mitchell such an anomaly? Don’t we want many, if not all, of our young people to have the qualities necessary to participate actively in civil society? Shouldn’t high school be teaching this sort of thing?
This simply is not what our high schools are doing. If we were to acknowledge this strange incongruity, perceive the contradiction between what is needed by young people and by civil society and what our public high schools are providing, we would have to rethink how high school is governed.
John Dewey, the 20th-century American philosopher, wrote that democratic societies must develop in their youth “the habits of mind which secure social change without introducing disorder.” Sounds good doesn’t it? Especially the part about not introducing disorder. Well habits of mind are just that — habits. We know habits are not formed by reading about democracy in a book. They are formed through practice. And in this case, practice is not engaging in debate, which is useful for learning argument formation but not for solving social problems. This is practice in democratic participation and governance — developing solutions to the common problems of a diverse population with often competing needs and desires. High school is nothing if not a diverse population with often competing needs and desires. If we truly do want Mitchell to be one of many, young people should practice participation and governance before it is time for them to launch.
Yet high schools, the most obvious place for such practice to be grounded, are governed by top-down models simulating corporate structures more than democratic society. This is the case even in Massachusetts, where Governor Francis Sargent, in 1971, introduced the State Student Advisory Council, and where local schools committees have their own student advisory committees.
Our principals are in the business of getting things done — stat. Democratizing some decision making requires adults to take the time to reach across the generational aisle. And maybe at least some of high schoolers’ disordered behavior is rooted in our active ignorance of their capacity for participation. Prioritizing efficiency, and letting our preconceptions of what teens are capable of being and doing constrain our imagination for the democratic training ground high school could be, we are doing ourselves and our teens a disservice. One that is immensely impactful for our shared future. So maybe we really don’t want more Quinn Mitchells in the world. Maybe we, like De Santis, are content to brush aside the future.
But that’s only if we don’t want our future leaders to be engaged, determined, knowledgeable, civically responsible, and seemingly fair-minded.