Saturday, July 10, 2010

Children's Votes


Apprentice Citizens (draft II)

By John Taylor; 2010 July 10, Rahmat 17, 167 BE

My 15-year-old daughter often points out with characteristic ardour that it is unfair that children cannot vote. I respond with the usual objections to children's enfranchisement, that it might subject them to manipulation by unscrupulous adults, or that unformed minds are unready, irresponsible and unduly prone to frivolous influences. She is not convinced, and I am beginning to see her point. If we treat the young as irresponsible, even if they are irresponsible, they will remain that way. But if we treat them as concerned citizens, at least some, if not all, will surely respond by becoming responsible. And such an improvement would have an effect on society for many decades.

It may be true that children would make more mistakes as first-time voters, but the same is true for a novice in any trade. We have no choice but to accept the higher rate of errors for new doctors and apprentice carpenters. Such is the price of replacing the old with a new generation. Why do we not have the same tolerance for error among novice citizens?

My favourite educational reformer, John Amos Comenius, thought that schools should take on the attributes of the society they are preparing children to enter,

"Every School should be a miniature Republic, abiding by definite laws and executing them strictly, both for our present purpose (that everything appertaining to School should be maintained at full strength), and with a view to the future, so that the schools are like preludes where the serious duties of life are correctly rehearsed." (Comenius, Panorthosia, Ch. 22, para 31, p. 53)

I submit, therefore, that under the controlled conditions of a school, children could safely be given a full adult vote. If their vote is as "real" as any adult's vote, most pupils would take their studies much more seriously than they do examinations (in the case of my son and his nine-year-old buddies, this is not very seriously at all) and study the issue in question more diligently.

I deplore our educational system's over-reliance on tests and examinations. A course that ends in a vote rather than an examination would tend to reduce the need for such brutal, Darwinian assessment. A course in health, say, would not end in a gruelling test that teaches nothing, is soon forgotten and takes up class time. Rather a class might vote in a plebiscite or poll on a matter of health concern for their household or neighbourhood.

Because such votes are over specialized issues that parents and significant adults in their lives are not directly involved in, it is unlikely that any of them would try to manipulate the children's opinions. Usually, recently-learned knowledge in specialized issues counts more than long life experience. There is no reason, then, that children should not be as qualified as any adult to vote upon such questions.

Very young children could start off by routinely having what Comenius called "rehearsals" for their role in the democratic element of our republic, perhaps with votes among themselves in group projects. I think that the educational system is to blame for the fact that, after hundreds of years of nominal democracy, the workplace is still all but untouched by democracy.

Another interesting possibility to invite pupils to participate in active research on the democratic process itself. Older pupils would be ideal investigators to experiment with elections for members of student councils.

One of the most interesting experiments in linguistics that I have heard about took place in an unusual multi-ethnic pre-school in Hawaii. A group of infants, none of whose families spoke the same language, were put together in a classroom. After a couple of years together they had invented their own language. It was entirely unique, not a lingua franca, but a complete language with its own vocabulary, grammar and syntax. I have often thought that this would be an equitable way to invent the world inter-language; if the number of children is proportionate to the population of a given culture, its influence on the international language would be approximately fair. In any case, if youngsters are so creative with language, there is no reason why they could not also invent their own, improved forms of democratic elections as well.

Even if it is decided that children cannot vote in real political elections, they should at least be called upon to vote frequently in lesser matters, especially whatever has an immediate effect upon them. For example, if a school corridor is to be painted, why not let pupils vote on the colour? Habits gained in childhood last a very long time, and are an essential part of one's education.

It certainly was to mine.

When I was about eight-years-old Canadian schoolchildren participated in an open vote for the design of our new flag. As I recall, it was a choice between a single and a triple maple leaf. I think I voted for the flag with the single maple leaf, and was gratified when it won. Silly as the election was, it is something I have remembered all my life. Since it was something I did at his age, I shared this story of this children's vote to my son, Thomas, who is now ten years old. Every once in a while he remonstrates with me for voting for the single maple leaf, a poor choice in his opinion.


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