Don't Try This At Home

April 11, 2010
/ Author: Rick

When I was a kid, we had a lot more freedom.  Our nation had this little document — a document which was primarily responsible for the fact that we became a great nation — called the Constitution of the United States.  In it were encoded and enshrined the guiding principles of our nation.

As kids, we used our freedom to explore, to poke and prod, to dissect.  As we got a little bit older — but we were still kids — we used our freedom to make out, some going so far as to make love and even to (after a fashion) make war.  We sometimes got into fights with other kids.  We sometimes — either deliberately or accidentally — blew things up.  I remember I once accidentally set fire to a battleship by firing missiles shooting matches at it.

Apparently model glue and plastic are quite flammable.

I managed to get the fire out before it spread.  But I could not get the lump that had been the battleship to come unstuck from the floor — it melded with the linoleum — and I could not hide the smell.

Boy, did I get a whipping!

Today we have become so focused on making everything “safe” that things like this cannot be punished by a mere whipping.  Those same behaviors, which are fairly common among those of us who are still growing up, would land me in the Juvenile Justice Campus.  Some of the things I did would have resulted — under today’s rules — in felony charges.  I don’t think I ever quite did anything serious enough to land me in a Department of Juvenile Justice facility (i.e., California’s equivalent of a prison for youth), but that’s probably just because none of the other behaviors were punished in any juvenile court.

Heck, I don’t exactly know if any of the places I lived as a kid even had juvenile courts.  I suspect they must have.  As Edward Humes notes, juvenile courts were initially conceived at the turn of the century.  Significant changes, largely with unintended consequences, occurred starting about 1967, and by 1980 the destructiveness of these changes — for the children, the courts and society — began to take its toll.  By the mid-1990s, only one state (Hawaii) still charged and tried everyone under 16 as a juvenile.

I started thinking about this (again) today by accident.  I was actually writing another article: a riff on Scott Greenfield’s “Three Hours Is All It Takes” and a comment there by Dan. I came to a section where the phrase “don’t try this at home” seemed appropriate, but for an entirely different reason than the one I’m using it for here.

As is my tendency, I decided to look for an interesting article to link to the phrase.  I found this. The article talks about how the drive to make the world a safer place has all-but-eliminated the study of chemistry from our school systems.

Reading the article, my day changed.  The riff I was writing on Scott’s article was relegated (at least temporarily) to the “Drafts” folder of the blog.  The article stunned me.

You see, the other thing I did as a kid was futz around with my Chemcraft chemistry set.  In high school, I graduated to classes innocuously titled Chemistry 1A and Chemistry 1B.

Well, maybe not so innocuous anymore.  Chemistry has apparently become a very scary thing.

“A lot of schools don’t have chemistry labs anymore,” explains CEF educational coordinator Laurel Brent. “We want to give kids lessons that tie in to their real-world experiences without having them deal with a lot of strange chemicals in bottles that have big long names.”

This explains why the United States, which when I was a kid ranked third in the world for the number of science and engineering degrees awarded to individuals aged 18 to 24, now ranks 17th.  Seventeenth!

And while our fourth graders come out at number six when compared to the rest of the world in basic science, by the time our kids are in the eighth grade, they’re in ninth place.

We better enjoy our superpower status while we can.

This also helps to explain — to those of us who know something about science — why so many Americans can watch the Arctic ice disappear and still curse those who talk about global warming, let alone those who try to actually do something about it.

Apparently the ignorance goes beyond mere politics, however.  Like so many of the rules currently structuring society these days, the rules that have banned chemistry education have bipartisan appeal: they stem from fear, the need to keep people from doing things that might harm, the need to ensure absolute safety.

To Bill Nye, the “Science Guy” who hosted an Emmy award-winning series on PBS in the 1990s, unreasonable fears about chemicals and home experimentation reflect a distrust of scientific expertise taking hold in society at large. “People who want to make meth will find ways to do it that don’t require an Erlenmeyer flask. But raising a generation of people who are technically incompetent is a recipe for disaster.”

But the disaster has already begun.

Compared with students in previous generations, he says, undergraduates raised on hands-off science seem passive: “They want someone to do things for them. Even those who become chem majors and grad students are not as versatile in the lab, because their experiences in middle school and high school were so limited. This is a terrible shame. By working with real substances, you learn how to ask the right questions about the physical world, which is half the battle in science.”

Since becoming a criminal defense attorney with a significant component of my practice devoted to juvenile law, I’ve been disturbed about the “big picture” implications of the way we treat our kids.  Under the watchful eyes of law enforcement, judges and prosecutors with little understanding of the laws that made our nation great, and even less understanding of kids, has negated the possibility of the occasional explosion.  All the while, our appreciation for what made us great — our laws and our children — has imploded.

Our policies aim for maximum safety; nothing else matters.  No thought is given to the question of diminishing returns.  No time is spent considering implications.

In our courtrooms, this expresses itself in a policy of shackling children, lest one of them “disrupt” the hearing by jumping up and running around.  It doesn’t matter that the doors are locked, the guard is armed and escape is impossible.  Our concern for the smooth operation — the safety — of our procedures is what matters.

At the end of his book No Matter How Loud I Shout: A Year In The Life Of Juvenile Court, Edward Humes writes:

A year ago, … seven children found themselves before the Juvenile Court, kids accused of car theft, of murder, of violent assaults, of armed robbery, and of violating probation by skipping school and dressing like a gangster.  Three of these kids had been hard-core gang members.  Two were very poor, one was very wealthy, the others somewhere in between.  The system of juvenile justice, where rehabilitation, not punishment, is — or was — the theoretical goal, was supposed to save them all, or to at least go down swinging.

It saved three.  It proved itself impotent before the one remorseless killer among them.  And the system gave up on the rest.

There is no easily identifiable reason for these divergent results.  There is little logic to Juvenile Court’s successes and failures.  But for a bit of luck, a chance encounter with a caring judge or probation officer or volunteer — or, conversely, with a tired bureaucrat, an incompetent lawyer, or an inflexible DA — any one of the seven could have traded places with the others.  That is the heartbreak of Juvenile Court, the wonder of it, and the scandal.  Heartbreak, because every kid cannot be saved.  Wonder, that this broken, battered, outgunned system saves even one child.  Scandal, because it so seldom tries to do anything at all. (Humes, p. 371.)

I disagree with Humes on one point: “this broken, battered, outgunned system” did not save even one child.  The children who were saved were, like those who go on to become scientists (and particularly chemists) in spite of our gutted, broken and battered educational system, not helped by the system.  They got lucky.  They were saved by individuals who recognized them for what they were: children, in need of something they hadn’t gotten before.

Humes himself recognizes this when he notes in his article that one of the problems with the juvenile courts is they’ve become focused on legal ritual — procedures, policies and the facts of the crimes children have committed — rather than focusing on the children themselves.  This is also what I was referring to when I said we don’t stop to think about the implications of our policies and procedures.  We’ve become so focused on our juvenile justice system that we’ve forgotten about the juveniles we run through — or run over with — that system.

Increasingly, our focus on absolute safety is shutting down our children, making childhood impossible.  Whether it’s at home, or in the schools, or in our juvenile courtrooms, we’re killing off the opportunity for learning the skills needed to survive and thrive in any kind of a non-dysfunctional society.  We’re creating stupid kids, then, when they get old enough, locking them up.  We’re taking smart and bored kids and — if they manage to stay that way — locking them up.

I guess in the end its a good thing we’ve banned chemistry.  The Constitution, today, is just a piece of paper.  Can you imagine what would happen if our kids learned how to read it and had the tools to start a revolution?

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