Student Voices Need to Be Counted, Not Just Heard

The #NeverAgain movement is challenging our democracy in all the right ways — here’s how we can help it create lasting change

Photo credit: Lorie Shaull

The survivors of the Parkland shooting are not children nor are they adults-in-waiting — they are simply young adults. If that wasn’t clear a month ago, it is certainly clear now. For too long we’ve perpetuated this idea that there’s some type of supernatural significance in turning 18; however, in terms of finding and using our own moral voice, nothing could be further from the truth. Now this is not to say that age limits are useless — they’re just better reserved for situations involving increased risk of exploitation or harm. If anything, having a bright line age restriction on political enfranchisement does more to hurt both young people and the political process itself. This is why the time for student enfranchisement is now.

Despite our increasingly polarized politics, there is still modest agreement on at least one thing: American democracy is in the grips of an existential crisis and nothing short of a radical cultural shift can address it. As John Shumaker observes, we often think (young people, especially) that our problem is depression, which is an isolated and individualized problem, but the real culprit can often be demoralization, which is pandemic. Of course, nothing stops these two problems from going hand-in-hand but, as Shumaker argues, we need to be more mindful of demoralization because it’s the greater “psycho-spiritual crisis” in which we increasingly find ourselves but are increasingly blind to. Like depression, it often leaves us treating the symptoms rather than the disease itself. And the disease, according to Shumaker, is greater than any one political issue — it’s an entire world that’s failed to earn our respect and has caused “former beliefs and convictions [to] dissolve into doubt, uncertainty and loss of direction.” Nobody feels this more acutely than young adults. If you need any further proof, go to any meme page where the prevailing jokes are all based in how the world is consistently trying to rob them of their self-respect — and too often succeeding. Of course, the ways in which this happens are all open for debate and study, but that’s not a debate for Harvard professors in a lecture hall — that’s a debate communities need to be having for themselves.

With Millennials set to become the largest voting bloc in America, and the younger generation soon to follow, the question that remains for older citizens is simply this: Will we help them build the inclusive future that they want or keep trying to imprison them in our fictionalized past? So far, the greatest criticism of these student protestors is that their youth and inexperience must somehow equate to immaturity. However, those critics would be wise to remember that citizens of a democracy are not called to be subject matter experts; they’re called to testify to their own personal truth. In this regard, these students have already done more in a month to fulfill their civic duty than most “adults” do in their entire lifetime. So, how exactly do we change our democratic institutions to recognize their passion and courageousness in real and meaningful ways? What might that system actually look like?

The answer is we start by recognizing the one democratic institution that’s been hiding in plain sight and closer than any other to the matter at hand. In this country, we have more than 98,000 public schools — and they are in fact democratic institutions as important as any other. At their best, our schools don’t manufacture educational products; they provide an educational experience. They are centers for civic engagement; they are where we first learn how to engage people that are different from our own families; they are where we learn what it means to have a voice and what it means to use that voice in public — or at least they all could be. Now, there are countless ways we can strengthen public education in this country and none of them should be pursued to the exclusion of any other. In other words, there is never a bad time to start respecting teachers with living wages, proper resources, and greater control over their classrooms. There is never a bad time to reject high-stakes standardized testing, which does not serve any legitimate pedagogical purpose and exists only to commodify students and education itself. However, what we can acknowledge, right now, is that all of these methods would naturally become priorities in any system that first and foremost regarded our public schools as the important democratic institutions that they are.

Right now, we have a unique moment in history to employ 98,000 epicenters of dialogue and deliberation across the country, giving our students greater control over the conversations we have too often driven to stalemates. In the process, we can make our democracy radically more transparent, radically more inclusive, and radically more accountable to the people. For those that say it will be a messy process, they’re absolutely right. But, within that mess, we are going to find a much-needed form of national psychotherapy to treat this age of demoralization. It will be a way of addressing all of those deep-seated philosophical issues that lie at the heart of our existential problems but we never bother to articulate or productively discuss. By promoting public participation from within our schools, we will actually stand a chance of producing the radical cultural shift we all know needs to happen and everyone desperately wants to see. The heart of this movement would be community organizers (just like the leaders of #NeverAgain) who will lobby their local and state governments to enact and update public participation laws. These laws will specifically authorize and legitimize the voices of local students and empower them to make real and meaningful changes from within their own schools enlisting the help of their communities. These laws will go hand-in-hand with curricula teaching the art of promoting dialogue and deliberation across many different lines, and these curricula will simultaneously help students find their own moral voices and respectfully consider the moral voices of others, which is the most essential skill for active and meaningful citizenship.

So, in the near future, when the students of your community call a town hall meeting to discuss gun violence (or any other important issue), workshops will be formed, proposals will be drafted and re-drafted, and votes on those proposals will be received and counted from everyone, including the students. Those votes will then be received by your local governing body and translated into real policy changes in accordance with your local public participation laws. Unlike other policies, which are often a matter of checking a box, pulling a lever, or enacted in silence in an empty room — these laws will carry a piece of you and your neighbors on with them. In so doing, they will also be the clearest sign of respect and support that we can give our students as they fight to define their own future.