I like Andrew Rosenthal‘s New York Times columns as a rule.
But there are exceptions to every rule, and this is one of them.
Rosenthal’s February 8 column is entitled “Donald Trump – Middle School President.”
His column drips with condescension — not so much towards Trump, an easy public target, but towards our middle schoolers, who have little if any opportunity to defend themselves from Rosenthal’s pejorative stereotypes.
One would think, as I did once again (yes, New York Times staffers are consistently, belittingly stereotypical towards our youngest citizens), that a New York Times staffer would be less close-minded and would challenge his assumptions more carefully.
But not so. Here is yet another Times writer who falls into the unsubstantiated trap of classifying our adolescents as Trump-like, when nothing could be further from the truth.
As Ronald Reagan said to Jimmy Carter, “Here you go again.”
Here is Rosenthal’s intro to his column:
Any parent who has had children in middle school is familiar with their teenage excuses. First, they complain that the teachers are mean and assign too much homework, then that the reading is boring, and then when all else fails, they give you that aggrieved look and whine, “It’s tooooo haaaaard.”
The point is that whatever happens, it’s someone else’s fault.
It’s annoying when it comes from a 13-year-old. When it comes from the president of the United States and his team, it’s downright terrifying.
There’s only one problem. It’s not true. Certainly not universally true by even the remotest stretch. Rosenthal’s column and the false assumptions towards our adolescents that it repeatedly conveys is far more terrifying than anything a run of the mill adolescent might cook up.
For more than twenty years now, I have had the privilege to be wowed repeatedly by the unequalled ability of middle schoolers in particular to engage in the most nuanced and insightful philosophical inquiries. They have no equal.
When their teachers (who sometimes do have them pegged in the same ignorant and stereotypical way as Rosenthal) witness this for themselves, they change their entire outlook on their young charges (especially, quite often, those they had considered the most problematic, and they now realize probably just had never been given the proper chance to shine and show just what they can do).
I have had this experience repeatedly, hundreds of times, with middle schoolers at schools of all types throughout the U.S., and the globe (just check out the dialogues in Philosophy of Childing or any of my other works, replete with insights from middle schoolers, who have such unique stores of wisdom). It anecdotally ‘proves’ that they are not in any way, as a rule, as Rosenthal demeaningly characterizes them.
Middle schoolers, as a whole, do not do not do not operate from the dictum that “whatever happens, it’s someone else’s fault,” that Rosenthal asserts.
It appears that Rosenthal’s only evidence to support his assertions is his own child. And I would wager that his child has a point, and is not making an empty assertion. (Just as I’d wager that I bet Rosenthal was like the invented middle schoolers he’s scandalously mischaracterizing.)
Middle school kids are so often wholly left out of being part of any sensible curriculum, not to mention of civic participation, and they can be subjected to mean teacher who give them work that is difficult and with little rhyme or reason (as a former middle school teacher who has had to foist mindless curricula on middle schoolers, I know painfully of what I speak).
Middle schoolers typically are marginalized, placed in an educational twilight zone, at the hands of uncaring or heedless adults who have little insight into adolescent and their extraordinary capacities, and who don’t give a hoot to be educated about it and then radically alter how they go about educationing middle schoolers.
Rather, what they tend to do is what Rosenthal does — to place all the onus of blame and fault on the middle schoolers.
Talk about a pernicious, hypocritical case of ‘pot calling the kettle blackism.’
Of course, this blog of mine will not reach Rosenthal, alas, though he would maybe benefit (as would his middle schooler) from taking into serious account my belief, based on cogent evidence,that our middle schoolers deserve far greater rights to self determination, and if given half a chance, would be our most meaningful participants in the civic sphere. But they are not given half a chance.
According to Rosenthal, Trump isn’t just a whiner — oh no; engages in “juvenile whining.”
This terribly tendentious and unsupported remark by Rosenthal makes me feel badly for each and every juvenile, not a single one of whom whines like our President that I know of. Trump is whining like an adult with an inane sense of entitlement who is used to having no limits placed on him and does not cotton to criticism of any sort.
Trump’s is not juvenile whining. His is smarmy adultish whining. And it is a grave injustice to juveniles to be lumped with him. Let them whine in their own unique way –heaven knows they have plenty of very good reason to whine — thank you very much (and if Rosenthal himself, through this particular column, isn’t an epitome of whining adult style, I don’t know who is).
Middle school adolescents continue to get the baddest of raps for the flimsiest of reasons. Here’s a tiny part, hopefully compelling, of how I try to set things straight in my newest book, The Philosophy of Childing:
to this day, in American society, adolescents are still considered the most problematic among us. Nancy Lesko of Columbia University’s Teachers College, a specialist in adolescent development studies,… challenges us to quit seeing adolescence as a problem and instead to look on this special stage as an opportunity, one in which we actively draw on their unique talents and make them full partners in the civic enterprise, since she considers them perfectly capable of making well-reasoned and responsible choices. The important questions posed by Lesko in Act Your Age!: A Cultural Construction of Adolescence are:
“Can we work to enhance youths’ life conditions without the confident characterization that youths are at a different psychological stage from adults? Can we work to improve youths’ life conditions without the hierarchy of adult over youth? Can we consider youth as more than becoming?”
To which, I [Christopher Phillips] maintain that one should add: Can we consider adults as more than being, as if they have “arrived”? If adults looked at themselves in this way, might they treat those younger than them with more humility, even treat them in a more egalitarian way? Moreover, wouldn’t this seismic shift in how we adults view ourselves enable us at long last to learn a great deal from adolescents, and in ways that would help us – and them — flourish?
I’m not done. Not by a long shot.
Here’s another snippet from the book:
Lesko holds that “in these times of fast capital and welfare state down-sizing, we need a new vision of adolescence.” In her estimation, “with these current challenges come new opportunities for re-visioning them; if we are to advocate for youth today, the images and reasoning about their slow coming of age are not viable.” Yet it’s precisely because we live in times of fast capital and welfare state downsizing that any sort of new re-visioning of adolescence, much less implementation of a new vision, isn’t likely to happen. Certainly it won’t be driven by the adults who have a vested interest in keeping things as they are.
It’s not as if adolescents are somehow predisposed to be disconnected from society, any more than they are naturally directionless or cynical, much less aggressive to the extreme. Yet the “system” itself can breed such traits in them, making it almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, since any group that is ignored and deliberately made powerless to be included in decisions that affect them directly might lash out at such tyranny in self-destructive ways. This in turn can mislead adults into believing that such qualities come naturally to adolescents, or can serve to justify some adults’ deep-rooted and distorted prejudices about them.
When Dewey asserts that everyone has the right to fit into society, he is not equating “fitting in” with conforming. Rather, he means that we should be able to mold society in ways that make it possible for all of us to be part of it. Those adolescents, for instance, who challenge the commonsense wisdom or mainstream values of their day, are, by his yardstick, “conforming” to the ideals of a democratic society, in that they are doing what they do best to make it so they are included in its circle. If one is in agreement with Dewey’s conception of what self-realization is all about, adolescents who challenge the system in ways that might strikingly alter the status quo aren’t just rocking the boat for the sake of it, but are fitting in, adolescent style.
Ralph Waldo Emerson declares in his essay “Self-Reliance” that “whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist,” which he characterizes one who questions conventional society’s ways and challenges the commonsense “wisdom” of the day. Such skeptics are thorns in society’s side in the best sense; they refuse to accept that society is virtuous or good just because those who steer it insist that it is. Emerson might just as well have asserted, “whoso would be an adolescent, is a nonconformist.” They have built-in hypocrisy detectors, and a peaking social conscience and intellectual integrity.
And then, a few paragraphs later in The Philosophy of Childing, I have this to say:
We need colorful people, people who think in colors. The young have few preconceptions, and even fewer prejudices, about what they are seeing; they are not wedded to belief systems that would prescribe certain rigid lenses for how they should see, much less how they must see. As a rule, they don’t want what is patently in flux to stay still, to be fixed and anchored, and they have no desire to ward off the world of colors and filter what they see through monochrome lenses. They are at home with those qualities that give color to the world’s palette—ambivalence, doubt, uncertainty, incompleteness, skepticism—also a sign of an “Emersonian” intellectual maturity that can lessen or even wither on the vine altogether as time goes by.
If only middle school adolescents, among our nation’s most defenseless, had a chance to defend themselves against Rosenthal and by extension our President.
No, Andrew Rosenthal, Donald Trump is most emphatically not “(l)ike a teenager who didn’t do the homework, …. always eager to blame someone else” — he’s like an adult who didn’t do the homework and always eager to blame someone else.
And you didn’t do your homework on teens either. Here’s hoping you don’t blame someone else.