Youth Gone Wild

It was a fluke, you might say. A rare event. You’d be right, but that won’t stop people from being terrified of packs of young people going on the rampage, as a group apparently did in my neighborhood this week. And, in fact, the history of schools has always been, in part, a history of adults trying to control the potential violent threat of youth going wild.

Here’s what we know: Here in sunny Binghamton, New York, a 76-year-old man was beaten into the hospital by a group of kids. Apparently, he said “hello” to them and they started a confrontation that escalated rapidly.  The group of four to seven children ages twelve to fifteen began shouting at the man, then punching, kicking, and biting him. The man ended up with bite wounds, cuts, and, according to his granddaughter, a neck injury.

On one hand, it’s a story that gets attention precisely because it’s so unusual. On the other hand, America’s fear of young people runs deep. And that fear has influenced America’s schools for centuries.

Consider comedian John Mulaney’s take. As Mulaney puts it,

Thirteen-year-olds are the meanest people in the world. They terrify me to this day.

For the founders of America’s public school systems, there was nothing funny about it.

As I’m discovering in the research for my new book, the dawn of the 1800s brought renewed fears of what wild children might do. Joseph Lancaster, founder of a new type of urban school for poor children, warned in 1807, left out of school, kids

will become the burden and pests of Society. . . .  It is in vain that laws are made for the punishment of crimes, or that good men attempt to stem the torrent of irreligion and vice, if the evil is not checked at its source; and the means of prevention, by the salutary discipline of early education, seasonably applied.

LOOK AT ME

Notes from 1804…or is it 2019?

The kind of school Lancaster had in mind was all about teaching children to obey, obey, obey. Like students in today’s ‘no-excuses’ charter schools, Lancaster insisted that his students learn to behave in a submissive, docile way. As he put it in 1804,

That whenever they are spoken to they give a respectful attention by looking at those who address them make the necessary reply without delay or hesitation but always be careful to speak consistently with their knowledge and to express themselves in as few comprehensive words as they are able.

Did it help? Back in 1804, when Lancaster promised to corral and control wild urban youth, did it work? Not really. Then and now, the promises of urban school reformers can’t keep up with the harsher realities of urban life.

I don’t think young people are really any more violent or explosive than adults, but for centuries Americans have been terrified of what might happen if more youth go wild. I can’t help but think that my 76-year-old neighbor will think twice before he says “hello” to any more kids on his block.

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