Adulting from nowhere

For some years, I have been somewhat irritated by the rhetoric of some in education that posits that there are adult interests and children’s interests, and that opponents of their preferred policies (whatever they are) are somehow privileging adult over children’s interests. It’s a slick rhetorical move that’s about as close to ad hominem as you can get without crashing over the line explicitly, but I’ve struggled with explaining to others why I find it unproductive. So, the various not-very-satisfactory explanations:

  • There is a long record of privileged (generally white) education and social reformers who claim to speak on behalf of poor and otherwise disadvantaged children, and the policies and practices they pushed often worked directly against the interests of those children’s communities or parents. In many cities in the late 19th century, for example, the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Children was often termed just The Cruelty by working-class parents for their arbitrary and capricious power to remove children from households. I know that when John Dewey wrote, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy” (in School and Society), he was speaking as a good Progressive… and from a position of privilege, assuming that there was a very specific “best and wisest parent” who could dictate children’s interests. So call me skeptical based on the history.
  • We are always talking about adult values when we debate things like education reform. Even if we think we are a proxy for children’s welfare, they are our adult values about what childhood should be and the type of society we are preparing children for. Calling some of our positions privileged because they assert children’s interests obscures the fundamental adult nature of the conversation.
  • Schools are about the least adult-friendly white-collar work environments you could imagine. As I wrote almost a decade ago, where else can adults be vulnerable to being hit by children, be told when they can go to the bathroom, and be told that their own intellectual development does not serve the organization’s interests? Colleges are better unless you’re talking about contingent faculty and then, not so much, and they’re the majority of those teaching undergraduates.
  • Speakers using adult vs. child/student interest language often have their own material interests, which are neatly erased in the rhetoric. This inconsistency is obvious to those who are the targets of the rhetoric. That’s more than a wee barrier to conversation about the specific issues.

More broadly, I think that when someone indulges in the adult vs. child/student interest rhetoric, they are engaging in the education politics equivalent of the journalists’ “view from nowhere.” In 2003, Jay Rosen borrowed this language from philosopher Thomas Nagel to argue that there was a tendency for professional journalists to present the news as if they had been plucked out of the universe, something Rosen later tied to the claim of authority by professional journalists:

In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position “impartial.” Second, it’s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance.

In education, I think that the adult vs. child/student interest rhetoric is Adulting from Nowhere, a bid for authority in debates over the good education as well as the assertion that Other People are biased and not to be trusted. I do not have a solution to this–there should be a way for us to talk about the concrete interests of every adult who touches education as well as the broader goals of society in education. What I know is that adult vs. child/student is not the way to go.


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