Questions of Justice. Chris shute

Thanks for Chris for another ‘Fireship’. Chris has really become even more prolific with his writing over the last 12 months. Always readable, always something to take from his reflections. Here Chris looks at justice and young people.

When I was a teacher I assumed that I was the fount of all wisdom.  This was natural, I suppose. I was 23 years old, the holder of a Gentleman’s Third degree, imbued with the idea that clever people know best, and children need to listen to them and do what they say. In pursuit of that conception of how life works I strutted around my first school, a grant-aided grammar school in the East End of London, at first laying about me with a cane, then, when I had established my reputation as something of a Discipline Machine, handing out detentions and other punishments. I felt proud of myself, and clever, and professional, and it never occurred to me that anything I did might just possibly be unjust.

Years later I fostered difficult adolescents. I learned from them some valuable lessons about the status of young people when they clash with the interests of adults, and particularly when those adults are professionals and have had to spend years getting qualifications, they expect the young people to have nothing to say for themselves, and to accept their decisions without complaint. One of my wards was, it is safe to say, what used to be called a Moral Moron. He lied habitually, and stole anything he happened to feel he needed. One day he was accused by his school of stealing something. No-one had actually seen him do anything untoward, but the teachers had decided that he had the opportunity and the disposition to steal, and therefore they accused him, and the administrative Vehmgericht imposed a punishment. I was as certain as anyone that he was guilty, but it occurred to me that, ironically, if he’d been reported to the police they would almost certainly have refused to press charges for lack of evidence. I suggested to his social worker that this was a case of ‘round up the usual suspects’. He was not open to this suggestion. “They’re professionals. They know what they’re doing. It’s up to us to support them.” That retort made me think hard about a question which began to haunt me. It was: “Are schoolchildren, or indeed any other kind of children, entitled to the same standard of justice as any other person faced with an accusation of wrongdoing? Is it only when they break the Law of the Land that they can benefit from the Presumption of Innocence, and the obligation to prove the case ‘beyond reasonable doubt’?

Certainly, in everyday life, different standards of judgement apply to the actions and behaviour of children. If I say that a child is ‘naughty’, the case is generally proven against them because I am a fully paid-up adult, and it is assumed that I would not accuse a child falsely. Whichever offence I say the child has committed I may punish him or her for, and provided I don’t trespass on certain sensitivities, notably hitting the child – only parents are allowed to do that without attracting a charge of common assault – I will not be accused of injustice.

This attitude towards children expresses a cultural prejudice which one can only criticise at one’s peril. I remember once, in a Staff Meeting where discipline, the perennial gripe, was being discussed. Once again the complaint was raised that the pupils were not obeying the detail of the list of rules by which they were supposed to govern their lives in the school. I waited for the usual wave of bile directed against the pupils to die  down, then I took the conch and reflected, rather nervously, that, ‘The pupils would probably take more notice of the rules if they took a more active part in drawing them up. Then you could at least say to wrongdoers, ‘You are breaking the very rules you drew up’.” The reaction was, I suppose, entirely predictable, and determined by centuries of simplistic attitudinising towards children: one of the Great and Good expressed the Management’s view of my suggestion thus: “We can’t let 11 to 16 year-olds determine the school rules!” That was all. There was no more to be said, ever, if I knew what was good for me.

In the Channel Isles there is still a survival from feudal times which is still invoked occasionally. It is called the ‘Cri de Haro’. It provides a simple remedy when someone is doing anything which impinges on your rights. To operate it you assemble witnesses, kneel down in the presence of whoever is hurting your interests, and say loudly, “Haro! Haro! A l’aide, mon Prince, l’on me fait tort!” (Oh! Oh! Come to my aid, my Prince, they’re doing me wrong!). Then you say the Lord’s prayer in French, and whoever it is must stop what they are doing and go to the local Court to have their activity adjudicated by the competent Authority. Perhaps we need to establish in our schools a similar convention: we wouldn’t need the Norman French and the Lord’s Prayer, just a short, easily memorised form of words, like, say, “I demand the School Council”, whereupon the conflict would have to stop and be referred to a properly elected school council. This would have the advantage that both sides could cool down, think about what the conflict was really aimed at achieving, and reflect on how far both sides were responding to stereotypical images of the other. Since most conflicts between staff and pupils are about petty matters like pupils’ lack of deference or disruptive behaviour, the hearings would not take up a great deal of time and, with experience, would become less frequent. The feeling of being taken seriously would tend to make both pupils and teachers more thoughtful about their general demeanour.

 The question of justice for children has been slow to achieve even the limited attention which has been afforded to it in recent times. I want to suggest that the main reason for that is the image we have of children as trivial, unreasonable, even dangerous, better kept under subjection and obedience, and likely to fail if given any serious responsibility.  Sometimes they are, especially if they are brought up in chaotic homes where they are not respected, but that is no good reason for establishing a general image which assumes that all children are the same, and all are characterised by unreliability, malice and naughtiness. We need urgently to reconfigure childhood in a radically different way from our present culture. First, we need to use a resource which is rarely given the attention it deserves – our own experience of being a child. I remember vividly as a child the helplessness I felt when I was punished unfairly, without my case being heard. I suspect that most us have had similar experiences. Why, then, do we not campaign against the attitude which makes such injustices possible?

Perhaps the reason was teased out by Dr. Alice Miller, who theorised that, overwhelmed by the stress produced by their upbringing in traditional Western society, children have no alternative but to drive out of their consciousness the indignation and mute terror that they feel when adults  treat them in with the haughty lack of consideration that passes for commonsense parenting in our enlightened times. It is, of course, axiomatic that no experience which is traumatic is ever entirely forgotten, but it can be assimilated and transformed into attitudes which are seen as appropriate to a person of the age which the young adult has attained. Consequently, young adults tend to reproduce in their treatment of their own children the patterns of behaviour which they had to endure when they themselves were children.

I want to suggest that illiberal parenting, reinforced by a tolerance of illiberal compulsory schooling has led in our times to a general resistance to anything which seems like ‘softness’ towards anyone who cannot defend themselves and lack status in society, a category headed up by children, closely followed by the poor, foreigners, criminals, and more distantly – these days at least – women. We cannot do justice to people we do not respect, and a tendency to respect is only nurtured in those who have received from their earliest years.

Chris Shute

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