Friday, March 26, 2010

Age Discrimination

The real story of Colin Carlson is with his talent and ambitions, and no doubt remains to be written. At thirteen, he's pursuing two degrees at a university level, and plans on going for Ph.D.'s in ecology and evolutionary biology, as well as a degree in environmental law all by the time he's 22. And just like all trailblazers, he's already running into some tough opposition.

UConn, his school, has rejected his request to take a course which includes travel to South Africa as part of it's summer field work requirement. Though he's qualified in every way, and no one doubts he couldn't hold his own on site with the other students, it's his age that's holding him back. Now he's claiming he's being discriminated against because of his age. And though he doesn't want to have to fight for this opportunity, he's determined to see it through:

"When people are drawing lines in the sand, you're going to have to cross them," he said. "I'm not going back."

Of course he's talking about the arbitrary age limits that are encroaching on his ambitions. Now obviously most ordinary students aren't placed into the position that Colin is, and extraordinary young people are inevitably going to face the adult-defined legal restrictions, but even more ordinary students face many unnecessary legal restrictions on a daily basis. And even when legal restrictions are waivered (as his mother has offered to chaperone his voyage as well as sign away all the university's liability for him), extraordinary youths seem to inevitably run into adult thickheadedness. Obviously nobody wants to restrict a young person pursuing their goals, so long as those goals are along a preset scale of expectations.

Let's hope, however this turns out, that Colin gets to go to South Africa.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

School Lunches: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

The inedible school lunch is one of the most recognizable jokes in our culture, and yet it remains largely forgotten about by mainstream society despite the fact that kids have been cringing for decades. And it's easy to forget, because after all, those making the decisions (the adults) aren't the ones who will be staring down those endless trays of spongy pizzas, mystery meats, and soggy greens day in and day out.

But one teacher is working to change putting those lunches in the face of adults everyday for a change. Mrs. Q over on The School Lunch Project blog has committed to eating school lunches every day and posting her experiences with pictures. The results? Some good, some bad, some ugly.

But think for a moment, how would you feel, as an adult, having to eat this food every day of your life? Or maybe you're still in school and actually do. Mrs. Q adds extensive commentary and analysis on this issue, and obviously the school lunch issue is very complex, but I'll attempt to simplify the basic reason why nothing much is changing:

1. Nutritious = expensive... Tostitos = cheap
2. Good food = costly to prepare... Cheap food = easy to prepare
3. Bad tasting = well... adults don't have to eat it.

A better alternative? Make sure you check out this post where our brave teacher lays out a few guidelines on how to make school lunches better.

This is why I brown-bagged it for 12 years.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

I've Been Quoted!

Once you've spilled a lot of e-ink, you begin noticing yourself popping up in very interesting places you never thought you'd be. Let me just say I'm flattered to have been quoted in the "review section" at the official site for Dr. Robert Epstein's new book, Teen 2.0: Saving our Children and Families from the Torture of Adolescence, from a post I made to this blog over two years ago concerning Epstein's research on the adolescent mind and an earlier edition. Since that time, I've kept a link to the Epstein-Dumas Test of Adultness up, which you can take online, because I find the research to be a fascinating glimpse behind the myth of adolescence.

Unlike many researchers writing about teenagers these days, Epstein uses the word "torture" to mean the forces that unnecessarily restrict and infantilize young people rather than using it to mean the old storm and stress model often used to justify more controls. Also unlike many of his contemporaries who focus on the differences between adults and adolescents, he's done a great deal to promote the message that they're really not all that much different and that most of the restrictions against them are not only culturally based and unnecessary, but in some cases can be dangerous to their development.

In anticipation of this book, it's also fascinating to peruse some of the reviewers also included on that page, particularly the words of Newt Gingrich, who has in the past come out in support of "ending" adolescence.

“Adolescence was invented in the nineteenth century to enable middle-class families to keep their children out of sweatshops. But it has degenerated into a process of enforced boredom and age segregation that has produced one of the most destructive social arrangements in human history..."

If you're unfamiliar with Epstein's work, I invite you to check out his website or view this blog post of mine. In the meantime, Teen 2.0 is set to be released on April 14, 2010, which happens to be National Youth Rights Day--talk about a fit scheduling.

Monday, March 1, 2010


I was waiting for the dust to settle on this case because it's literally so earth-shattering that I didn't want to find myself jumping the gun (as I've done numerous times before). If you haven't heard about the case of the student class-action lawsuit against the PA Lower Merion School District, one so big it's been given it's own "-gate" by the media, then here's the run down.

The Lower Merion School District has been accused of spying on it's student population through webcams mounted in the district's official laptops. They're one of the first public school districts to give out laptops to their student population, but apparently didn't tell parents or students that these devices were being used to not only log everything the student writes or sees when using it, but even more disturbingly, to actually monitor what the student is doing at home while using it.

If you listen to the school department heads, they've never used the remote monitoring for any other purpose than tracking down missing or stolen laptops, but the real firestorm of controversy over this comes from a student who apparently was facing disciplinary measures for engaging in inappropriate activity at home via a screenshot they were able to obtain from his laptop's webcam. Apparently they mistook some candy on his desk to be drugs, or thought he was dealing drugs, called him down for questioning with the screen shots in hand, and that's when they broke the news to him that they'd obtained their evidence through the school-issued laptop.

Outraged, he and his parents filed a class-action suit against the school district and a judge has ordered the school department to shut down all use of its remote monitoring devices. Now the FBI is even looking into the case to see if federal wiretap or computer intrusion laws were violated. The school district admits that it's laptops came with devices used for covert monitoring, but denies any wrong doing.

Isn't this unreal? Usually inflammatory comparisons are pointless in these kinds of cases, but this one I think has every right to be compared with George Orwell's 1984, particularly the use of the Telescreens that "both acted as transmitters and receivers" and hung so innocuously in every residence. One can't help but agree with this local blogger who writes:

But if this story is at all true … holy shit. Spying on kids, in their bedrooms? What if they, you know, decide to change clothing? It's one thing to track how students use school district property — if they're visiting hardcore porn sites or whatever — it's quite another to use a webcam to monitor and capture their daily activities, outside of school, in the supposed privacy of their own homes...

This person goes on to say, "I can't imagine a more asinine invasion of students' privacy." And neither can I. And certainly this writer has some interesting thoughts on the issue as well that ring true:

Schools are in an absolute panic about kids divulging too much online, worried about pedos and marketers and embarrassing photos that will haunt you when you run for office or apply for a job in 10 years. They tell kids to treat their personal details as though they were precious. [The only message they're sending kids is] your privacy is worthless and you shouldn't try to protect it.

My thoughts exactly. Regardless of how this case turns out in the end, the very idea that school districts thought they could get away with this strikes a pretty powerful chord at the heart of exactly how far off the deep end society is heading in the pursuit of keeping kids safe or out of trouble. They've begun to act like the very threat they're supposedly trying to shelter the kids from. When you think of people watching your child online, you think of creeps who don't have your child's best interests at heart--you don't typically think of the child's school as one of them.

But maybe you should, because this isn't the only school district that seemed to be perfectly fine with this entire setup. Just last month a PBS Frontline documentary "Digital Nation" aired featuring a school administrator from the Intermediate School 339 in the Bronx bragging about his own laptop spying program (includes the video):

"They don't even realize we are watching," "I always like to mess with them and take a picture," and "9 times out of 10, they duck out of the way." He says the students "use it like it's a mirror" and he watches. He says 6th and 7th graders have their cameras activated.

Now obviously this program seemed to be more about keeping students on task while inside of school--which I don't see much a problem with. While inside of school, using a school-issued laptop, the school has every right to monitor whether the kids are using them appropriately. What's disturbing here is that any mention of the students' privacy concerns are completely absent from the documentary. What happens when they take their laptops home? I am not the only one creeped out at the thought of some guy, a school administrator no less, leering at 6th graders over a laptop webcam mount. Once again, Cory over at Boing Boing gives a final, chilling word on the obvious double-standard at play here:

What kind of educator thinks that this is a good practice? Certainly no teacher's union I know would put up with principals and administrators putting this kind of surveillance into their lives.

I don't know for sure, but I have a suspicion that being a kid today would absolutely suck.

Remotely tapping into a computer to use its hardware to take videos, pictures or record audio is in fact wiretapping -- even if the computer is government owned. I am sure that many parents would not consent to the use of such laptops at home if they were made aware of the ability to carry out such monitoring. I certainly would not consent to usage of a laptop by my own child in my own home under those conditions if I had a kid--which is unfortunate, because a laptop can be a vital resource for many students.