Sabine Andresen, Bielefeld (Germany
The poet Elisebeth Barrett Browning published a poem in 1844 called “The Cry of the Children” in which she discussed the question of socially disadvantaged children and justice in Manchester capitalism. This poem played an important role in English social reform, e.g. the Fabian Society, and for European reform in progressive education.
„But the young, young children, O my brothers,
They are weeping bitterly!
They are weeping in the playtime of the others,
In the country of the free.”
In industrialized England, the “weeping children” were the children who worked in the mines and factories, who had no chance for education or proper conditions for developing their capabilities.
A present-day poet would have to find a different way to describe the situation of marginalized youth. Here we may refer to American social ecologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, who points toward the continuing persistence of certain stress factors for disadvantaged families. In Germany, this includes:
- the dependency of social background
- the selection of students by schools at an early age
- the lack of individual support
- the lack of support for at-risk youths, particularly during transition phases
- unemployment and low-paying jobs
- accumulation of problems in certain regions, such as Bremen, parts of Berlin, and Eastern Germany
All of these issues and problem areas are tightly connected to discipline and profession. But neither the pedagogy nor the social services in Germany can effectively change the class structure of our society. Based on our specific function, we must identify which changes are within our capabilities. This means that the social scientists must find a way to overcome the lack of proper language to define and analyze the marginalization that occurs in our society. Together with schools and social services, we must develop strategies that fight against the tendency to define only certain aspects of the situation and ignore the larger context.
And which contributions does the cultural discourse offer today? Especially concerning the international debate about growing up in Europe under equal conditions, we must observe the different positions of certain respected intellectuals. The Scottish writer Allison Kennedy states that young people in Britain today are weakened by the very educational system which they are dependent upon. She criticizes the lack of financial resources and the reduction of education to grades and standardized testing. I think this analysis can easily be applied to the current situation in Germany. We can observe the increasing privatisation of education, health care, and leisure activities for only those who can afford it. If this process continues, we will never achieve a public system that integrates the vision of J. Dewey, who argues for democratic experiences in schools.
The access to education is indispensable concerning the question of a fair childhood and youth in Europe. Educational and learning processes are the prerequisites for children and young adults to develop their abilities and decision-making skills independent of family background. In order to apply these skills, young people must have different options and be able to choose between them. The Capability Approach, developed by Armatya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, brings two perspectives together: the potential of individuals and the social conditions under which they develop and change their abilities. According to poverty researcher Christoph Butterwegge, this also means that we cannot pretend that the poverty of children and youth and Germany can only be solved through education. The latest educational report in Germany shows the variety of conditions for poor children and adolescents, which often include a low level of education as well as few material and social resources. These adolescents have, in effect, no perspective with which to organize their future. Again we can observe a lack of proper language to describe the situation, which leads to a certain helplessness and lack of effective change. According to the Allison Kennedy, this is a symptom of modern societies, and she explores the solutions involved in access to education as well as change in economic conditions. Above all, states Kennedy, stands the aspect of literature in its ability to create the fantasy and power which allow us to imagine a different life. “It allows us,” she claims, “to influence our fate.”
In Germany, the intellectual potential goes into the privatisation of education for the privileged or into the debate over discipline and control, which especially applies to the marginalized groups of our society. It is worth pointing out that the majority of the population no longer truly believes that politics have the ability to create other conditions for marginalized adolescents. The results of many empirical studies demonstrate these tendencies, which are especially apparent in the ever-decreasing trust that parents place in the school system. As a result, we see another kind of privatisation taking place—the members of a community become engaged in creating a social change within their own means.
The question now is whether we have exhausted our intellectual potential and how we can overcome our lack of proper language and the helplessness that stems from it. The history of marginalized groups and individuals gives us examples of the effects of exclusion and the lack of empowerment. As Barrett Browning expresses in her poem:
„If he heard us, He would surely answer, smiling down the steep world very purely, come and rest with me my child.
But no! say the children, weeping faster, he is speechless as a stone.”
Sabine Andresen works as professor for educational science at the University of Bielefeld.
Picture: www.pixelio.de (Photographer: england_is_great)