We hold children to be important. We talk about them as our future. We cherish and care for them, follow imperatives to protect them, and commit to giving them the best possible education and healthcare. And yet, juxtaposed to these views is the very visible fact that we accord them little respect in their daily lived experiences. How to explain why this dichotomy exists, presents us with some interesting issues. Why, for example, there remains such resistance to calls to reform practices and institutions which subject children to adult measures of competency and why children’s autonomy, independence and capabilities are constantly questioned? In considering these issues, I have been reading Miranda Fricker’s ‘Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing’ (Oxford University Press, 2007). Her work provides interesting insights into why it might be that the outward facing narrative of valuing children is not mirrored by the inward facing reality of practices in children’s lives, homes, schools, communities and institutions.
Traditionally children have been seen as the incomplete article; the unfinished human engaged on a journey to become the finished one. They are subject to policies and practices which the adult world prioritises. Knowledge, experience and unquestioning obedience are the currencies valued on their transformative journey. To support children and to ensure they gain the right knowledge and experience, we assign adults to key positions to protect children. This process operates in all spheres of life and has impact on children’s development at home, in school, in healthcare and in law. It acts as an all encompassing ‘safety net’, although it might also be considered something of a straitjacket, depending on the position from which you view the process. It does however, at first glance, seem compatible with the outward facing narrative that we value children and want what is best for them.
But what if this system is flawed? What if the transformative journey and the carefully structured safety net placed around it, is actually rendered damaging by the societal bias adults hold against children? What if the very adults who are supposed to be supporting and developing them hold such unacknowledged bias that they are complicit in perpetuating a system which successfully undermines children and ensures that their rights are never completely expressed or realised? Fricker’s work allows us to view the child’s world through just such a lens of possibility, dealing first with the idea of social power as,
… a capacity we have as social agents to influence how things go in the social world. (p9)
If we try out this idea in the context of education, it becomes apparent that teachers have greater power to influence how things go in the world of the child than the child themselves. In this respect we might conclude that teachers possess a greater degree of active social power, whilst children, though not powerless in this social sense, operate at a more passive level and certainly at a level subject to the teacher’s social power. It is difficult to find an area of life in which children do not have to operate at such a level, but if we continue to focus on the model of the transformative journey, of children being incomplete, and of them needing to ‘become’ the full adult, we can justify children’s weaker social agency because we consider our power as social agents to be supporting them towards adulthood. These assumptions need challenging however and with a particular focus on the very idea of social power itself.
Whilst Foucault asserts that,
Power only exists when it is put into action.
I question this in the case of children, who operate under a continual patchwork of social power, whichever sphere of life they move between. You do not have to be disciplined by a teacher to know that such discipline exists but rather, operate within the system so that the influence of such power is minimised. The knowledge that such power exists, exerts a control over the individual child, despite the fact that they may not be disciplined themselves. Individuals, groups, institutions and practices all act to exercise power over children in this way. Fricker encourages us to ask questions about who or what is controlling the social action of whom, and why. She notes,
… the point of any operation of social power is to effect social control… (p13)
When we consider education, the social control is exercised at both an individual and structural level by adults over children and when we try to answer the question of why, it seems to require a willingness to investigate the ready, superficial justifications relating to notions of the incomplete child. Fricker identifies the problem of having,
…shared imaginative conceptions of social identity (p14)
As adults we continue to focus on beliefs relating to a shared imaginative conception of the social identity of children, something Fricker calls the operation of identity power. We have clear ideas about how children need to behave, learn and relate to adults, based on a shared but flawed understanding, of what it means to be a child and the capabilities they hold. Our collective dismissal of the capabilities of children is an example of identity power working negatively. Our shared beliefs about children and our insistence on continuing practices which reinforce those beliefs act in ways to undermine agency and autonomy for children and which more importantly, generate system wide injustice.
This system wide injustice in relation to our treatment of children is illuminated by Fricker’s work on testimonial injustice. She is concerned with the way in which identity power might influence the way we communicate with each other, specifically the way in which knowledge can be imparted from speaker to hearer. A crucial point she makes is this:
…identity power is an integral part of the mechanism of testimonial exchange because of the need of hearers to use social stereotypes… in their spontaneous assessments of their interlocutors credibility. (P16)
… if the stereotype embodies a prejudice that works against the speaker then two things follow: there is an epistemic dysfunction in the exchange – the hearer makes a deflated judgement of the speaker’s credibility, perhaps missing out on knowledge as a result; and the hearer does something ethically bad- the speaker is wrongfully undermined in her capacity as a knower. (p 17)
Fricker’s argument seems relevant to adult treatment of children since the collectively held ideas inherent in beliefs about children’s social identity act to prejudice adults against children as agents qualified to offer knowledge. Put simply, this means that because of the widely held negative beliefs about children’s capacities to make decisions, hold rights and act as reasoned individuals, adults systematically devalue them as speakers and knowledge holders. The testimonial injustice that results means we give them limited credibility and therefore feel it legitimate for us to persist in the practices that create testimonial injustice in the first place.
The question that follows from this, relates to the harm this approach causes. Fricker identifies two types of testimonial harm and I argue that both relate specifically to children. The first harm done to children stems from a credibility deficit, in that the knowledge a child possesses is not successfully passed on to the individual adult hearer. This might be summarised as,
…prejudicial stereotypes distort credibility judgements: knowledge that would be passed on to a hearer is not received… (p43)
The second form of harm caused, relates to the injustice done to children when the prejudicial stereotype,
…prevents speakers from successfully putting knowledge into the public domain…and therefore acts as a serious form of unfreedom… (p43)
To be wronged in this way, both as a knower and a speaker, and to have the way your knowledge is valued and shared curtailed and controlled, is a harm which harms on the basis of something essential to the value of a person as a person. Fricker makes this point when she says,
When one is undermined or otherwise wronged in a capacity essential to human value, one suffers an intrinsic injustice. (p44)
The expressed views and opinions of children are routinely and persistently undermined by adults in this way. Adults demean and dismiss what children say and do. They do not recognise or pay attention to their own bias caused by the identity power stereotypes they hold and the level of credibility deficit they normalise. How adults respond to children and reason about the character and nature of childhood are examples of testimonial injustice at work and explain the intransigence towards according children greater respect and participation in all areas of society. In Fricker’s words,
When someone suffers testimonial injustice they are degraded qua knower and they are symbolically degraded qua human. (p44)
Fricker’s work makes me conscious that it is long overdue for adults to recognise the bias they hold towards children and to begin their own transformative journey to reflect on ways they might choose to address such bias. In this respect they might become the truly supportive and knowledgeable adults children deserve them to be.