I am 23 years old and I have never learned Algebra.
When my Algebra-I teacher, who spoke very little English, called me and a few other students “stupid,” the meeting between my parents and the principal came swiftly. ”We just don’t have enough money,” the principal explained, shortly after declaring to my parents, rather unabashedly, that the algebra teacher did not have the qualifications to teach, let alone to teach math. “We just don’t have enough money,” was the reason I was given for the large chunk of information that was missing from my education. It was also for this reason that, the next year, when it was time to learn Algebra-II, I had no teacher at all; my class was taught by a series of substitutes that gave worksheets to the class, with no intention of collecting them, while my fellow students talked, played cards, and gambled.
I went to a Philadelphia public school with a freshman class of about 710 students and a senior class of about 320. Before I was 17 years old I knew the consequences of being poor and being educated in an even poorer, unequal, and often segregated public education system. So, when I was strolling through the campus of Kutztown University (a state-funded school), watching members of the student government telling a group of fellow students, via megaphone, that Pennsylvania Governor, Tom Corbett planned to drastically cut spending to state-funded schools, I was pissed; I was really pissed. That day I held up signs in protest and exclaimed to all of my friends the great dishonor that was being shown by our state’s government. I proclaimed that I would call the governor’s office, I would call my congressman, and I would rally in Harrisburg until I was able to rip the budget proposal in two with my bare hands.
Sadly, after I got home, I did none of these things. I did nothing for the thousands of children who also never learned algebra, or chemistry, or english. I did nothing for the puddles of urine that settled in my school’s stairwells. I did nothing for the missing textbooks or the missing teachers. I did nothing for 1700-plus students at my school that were crammed 35 to a classroom meant only for 23. I knew the stakes and even worse I knew what I could have done, yet, I did nothing.
Corbett’s proposal passed, cutting public school funding by $860-million, mainly affecting Pennsylvania’s most struggling schools, and effectively disenfranchising tens of thousands of Pennsylvania children.
Across the country, state and local governments are cutting funding crucial public programs and services that benefit the growing population of poor, unemployed, and elderly citizens in order to save money. Though people have been and continue to fight back, their numbers are dwindling and their messages are being muffled. It has long been known that a true and functioning democracy is bred from activism and protest (neither our country nor the many great programs/institutions that we depend on would exist without protest). Throughout history, the main proprietors of activism and protest have been the youth of the world, gallantly fighting a never-ending battle for what they believed in. To the extreme this can be seen in countries like Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, etc. in what is being called the “Arab Spring;” millions of youth fighting for the political and social reform they believe in, sparking full-fledged revolutions.
For a less extreme example, in 2010, millions of French workers—of the waste management system, oil refineries, transportation system, etc.—protested in the streets for over seven weeks against the government’s austerity policies that would leave them without pension and other benefits. For weeks fuel stations were blocked by protestors, thousands of tons of trash piled in the streets, and many public services were halted.
In America, the idea of several million people on strike for nearly two straight months seems both incredibly profound and just about improbable. The days of youth, moving by the millions with the intent of changing their communities, their country, their world, have been missing for too long. In decades past, the problem of “the missing youth” was reasoned to be caused by a wide-spread lack of awareness brought on by the inoculation of constant television entertainment. This argument, that the more entertainment/distraction that is gained (24-hour cable, the internet, iPods, smart phones) the less active and aware the youth become, is valid in explaining the lack of awareness, but it does not explain the in-action of those that are aware.
The cause of this “intert-ness” of the youth that are aware and are empathetic, I would argue, is a rudimentary—and most likely learned—sense of fear, insecurity, and helplessness.
When I first heard of the proposed Pennsylvania budget-cuts, I began telling my friends, who, across the board, replied to the news with an only slightly distressed “Really?” followed by a nonchalant “Well, that sucks,” and those that seemed to care more so showed an attitude of “What the hell am I going to be able to do about it?” These attitudes are inherent within the leagues of twenty-somethings of my generation and stem from a number of things. One reason could be the long scrutinized No-Child-Left-Behind, standardized testing, Ritalin/Adderall enforced schooling that forces children to obey, learn the material, get ’proficient’ test scores, and to not act out or think for themselves. It could also come from the inescapable student-debt that settles on our shoulders, dragging us down, reminding us to stay on track and not to mess up or take risks, lest the debt becomes heavier.
Whatever the reason, the point is this: until the fear, insecurity, and helplessness of America’s youth is addressed, we will be fighting an uphill battle when attempting to organize protests for social change or political reform and we will be left unable to truly express what it means to live in a democratic society. Television/distraction and lack of awareness are no longer the only culprits in the case of “the missing youth.” We must now face the challenge of correcting a society that subliminally and systematically strangles democracy.
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Roger West | Recent graduate of Kutztown University