In his book, Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen (winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics) examines the substantial issue of participation as a part of the process of economic development. Participation represents a critical component of freedoms that individuals must exercise in a progressive economic society–which also relies on freedoms in political and social engagements.
Sen focuses on individuals as agents that are capable of participating in economic, political and social arrangements. In this sense, individuals are seen as a homogenous group of capable individuals. Departing from Sen’s argument, I am interested in considering how children, as a group, are capable agents in their own economic, political, and social (EPS) realities–or even within the wider EPS realities that do not directly affect their lives.
I believe there is a process of development that includes the full participation of children as capable agents. Whereas, Sen (1999) positions that “adults” need the necessary, “knowledge and basic educational skills” (p.32) to participate, children represent a special case where the responsibility to include them rests on the acknowledgement of their participation from adults. The acknowledgement of children’s participation in economic, political and social arrangements by adults is a necessary first step because of the deeply embedded inequalities between children and adults in society. Those inequalities are manifested during multiple interactions between children and adults, including decision-making processes, familial arrangements, educational opportunities, etc.
The perception is that children may not have the necessary knowledge and basic educational skill to participate because of their relative inexperience in terms of ‘years being alive’–however, this should not exclude them from directly participating in their social arrangments. Children, as a group, have been denied freedoms on the grounds of this relative inexperience and immaturity (see Young-Bruehl’s and Wall’s interpretation of ‘childism’). This same argument has been used throughout history to subjugate groups of people in order to favor the developmental needs of the “elite” or dominant group in society (ie: slaves and slave owners, development aid in impoverished regions). The argument is that the “elite” or dominant group is successful simply because they are dominant, and that they know what is best for others based on their formula of domination. There is ample evidence that inequalities between groups in society and domination from a particular group is a detriment to overall human progress, so I will spare the discussion (if you are interested in this discussion, check out Richard Wilkinson and Joseph Stiglitz who write extensively on how inequalities in society harm progress and violate democratic rights). My point is that children experience the same type of subjugation and domination by adults that prevents them from participating in society–and that this has detrimental effects on their individual development and to the development of society as a whole.
Take, for example, our public educational system in North America. This system is obligatory for children to attend and there are strong incentives to succeed. The failure of some children to succeed in public education has long-lasting repurcussions throughout their individual lives and society in general because of our meritocratic and hierarchical system that relies on institutionalized educational attainment (read Illich, Freire, Giroux for this discussion). Without the official merits of educational attainment, children and adults are excluded from participation in economic, political and social systems. However, as Illich and Freire have articulated extensively, our public education system is not the only means of learning and teaching. Individuals learn and teach in almost all contexts and situations during their daily lives. Then why is our obligatory school system the only validation that someone has learned something and is capable of full participation in society. I believe that on some level, children understand this incongruity between obligatory schooling and learning in every day life–which causes some of the failings and conflicts within our public education system.
When children are acknowledged as full participants in society and are capable of exercising their freedoms (while taking into consideration the responsibility that adults hold over children), Sen’s ‘development as freedom’ can be realized which includes all members of society, regardless of social status, cultural affiliations, age and gender.
More reading material related to this post:
Pierce, C. M., & Allen, G. B. (1975). Childism. Psychiatric Annals, 5(7), 15–24.
Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. Random House: New York.
Wall, J. (2008). Human Rights in Light of Childhood. The International Journal of Children’s Rights, 16(4), 523–543.
Wilkinson, R. (2009). The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Penguin: London.
Young-Bruehl, E. (2012). Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children. Yale University Press.