Amid all the coverage of the National School Walkout, one moment in particular seems especially popular among conservatives: the kids in Tennessee who used the opportunity to rip down an American flag and, allegedly, hop on the roof of a police car.
Unfortunately, it is difficult for even a well-organized march to police its fringe hard enough to stop this sort of thing. So the day after a protest frequently devolves into opponents gleefully sharing photos of outrageous behavior, while supporters retort: “That’s not who most of us were!”
But this time, supporters have another defense available: “C’mon, these are kids.”
And indeed, the kids in the video don’t really look like dedicated radicals trying to express their contempt for their country; they look like teenagers having a bit of fun. Searching for some deeper ideological content is like trying to decode secret messages in a bowl of alphabet soup.
But if you are prone to write off the events in Tennessee as an example of kids being kids — or to say the same of militant protesters disrupting college campuses, or to condemn people who criticize the views of Parkland, Fla., high school student David Hogg on the grounds they shouldn’t be mean to a 17-year-old — then consistency demands that you apply the same standards to the walkouts. Which is to say, they’re kids, and we discount their views and actions accordingly.
The idea that children, in their innocence, have special moral insight goes back a long way in Western culture — perhaps to the biblical injunction that, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” It has, of course, always warred with some variant of the belief that “children should be seen and not heard” — that children are not yet ready to hold up their end in adult conversations.
So when does the special moral insight of children manifest itself? When they are telling us that algebra is a stupid waste of time and the drinking age should be 14? No, funnily enough, children are only gifted with these special powers when they agree with the adults around them. Our long-standing cultural dichotomy lets adults use them strategically in political arguments, to push them forward as precious angels speaking words of prophecy to make a point, and then say, “hush, they’re just kids” when the children mar that point by acting like, well, children.
Adult organizations helped organize the walkouts, while casting them as a pure expression of youthful insight. Liberal communities proudly enabled the walkouts; liberal parents posted gushing accounts of their children’s protests on Facebook; liberal elite universities rushed to assure kids that walking out wouldn’t hurt them on college applications. Conservative communities, meanwhile, threatened to enforce the rules against disrupting class time. So the protests often ended up a better reflection of adult priorities than childish wisdom.
That is not to say many of the kids aren’t entirely sincere; undoubtedly, many are, passionately so. On the other hand, a friend of mine with a teenage son recently expressed concern on just this point. She lives in an ultraliberal college town, and is herself ultraliberal (she told me on the same visit that she tries to not read too many of my columns for fear it would impair our friendship). But, she said, she hated the fact that there was no easy way for her son to sit out the demonstration. The teachers were all for it, and refusing to participate would mark him as a troublemaker; the peer pressure from fellow students was enormous.
The reluctance to stand out from your peers is strongest in high school, especially with college admissions on the line. We should take that into account when we talk about how many students demonstrated on Wednesday, as well as the fact many students will happily leave class for any reason.
Kids today do know something that the rest of us don’t: what it’s like to be kids today. But the rest of us do remember what it was like to be kids . If children really were special repositories of virtue, then it is doubtful so many people would recall their school days as the lifetime peak of personal meanness — both receiving and giving. And while teenagers are near the peak of their ability to absorb information, they are decades from the peak of “crystallized intelligence” — their stock of knowledge about the world, or what we might call “wisdom.” Which is why so many of us wince a little to recall all the stupid stuff we once said and did.
That is not to say that gun-control advocacy is stupid. But if you wouldn’t be swayed by a 17-year-old’s passionate advocacy for a lower drinking age — or for that matter, their ideas about Federal Reserve policy — then you should probably apply those same cautions to their other views, especially when they’re under so much pressure to conform. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Wednesday’s mass walkouts. But there’s nothing especially right about them either.