The spate of murders of teenagers by teenagers in Britain has rightly made the news and drawn the attention of commentators to the problem. Alas, I fear that many of them are missing the point. The National Union of Teachers says that black fathers must do more. Tony Blair says something equally inane. Do any of them know what they are talking about? I can't claim any inside knowledge of the life of the underpriviliged black teenager, but I think I know where to start looking for a clue as to the nature of the problem. For that I must thank Juliette White for introducing me to Paul Graham.
I've cited Graham before in reference to his excellent 'Inequality and Risk' essay (see the Essential Reading list on the left hand panel). Today I recommend that anyone who has a sincere desire to get inside the mind of teenage delinquency read another titled 'Why Nerds are Unpopular'. I wish I had been able to read it when I started school.
Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In pre-industrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren't left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies. Teenagers seem to have respected adults more then, because the adults were the visible experts in the skills they were trying to learn. Now most kids have little idea what their parents do in their distant offices, and see no connection (indeed, there is precious little) between schoolwork and the work they'll do as adults.
And if teenagers respected adults more, adults also had more use for teenagers. After a couple years' training, an apprentice could be a real help. Even the newest apprentice could be made to carry messages or sweep the workshop. Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers. They would be in the way in an office. So they drop them off at school on their way to work, much as they might drop the dog off at a kennel if they were going away for the weekend.
What happened? We're up against a hard one here. The cause of this problem is the same as the cause of so many present ills: specialization. As jobs become more specialized, we have to train longer for them. Kids in pre-industrial times started working at about 14 at the latest; kids on farms, where most people lived, began far earlier. Now kids who go to college don't start working full-time till 21 or 22. With some degrees, like MDs and PhDs, you may not finish your training till 30. Teenagers now are useless, except as cheap labor in industries like fast food, which evolved to exploit precisely this fact. In almost any other kind of work, they'd be a net loss. But they're also too young to be left unsupervised. Someone has to watch over them, and the most efficient way to do this is to collect them together in one place. Then a few adults can watch all of them.
If you stop there, what you're describing is literally a prison, albeit a part-time one. The problem is, many schools practically do stop there. The stated purpose of schools is to educate the kids. But there is no external pressure to do this well. And so most schools do such a bad job of teaching that the kids don't really take it seriously-- not even the smart kids. Much of the time we were all, students and teachers both, just going through the motions.
In almost any group of people you'll find hierarchy. When groups of adults form in the real world, it's generally for some common purpose, and the leaders end up being those who are best at it. The problem with most schools is, they have no purpose. But hierarchy there must be. And so the kids make one out of nothing. We have a phrase to describe what happens when rankings have to be created without any meaningful criteria. We say that the situation degenerates into a popularity contest. And that's exactly what happens in most American schools.
Instead of depending on some real test, one's rank depends mostly on one's ability to increase one's rank. It's like the court of Louis XIV. There is no external opponent, so the kids become one another's opponents. When there is some real external test of skill, it isn't painful to be at the bottom of the hierarchy. A rookie on a football team doesn't resent the skill of the veteran; he hopes to be like him one day and is happy to have the chance to learn from him. The veteran may in turn feel a sense of noblesse oblige. And most importantly, their status depends on how well they do against opponents, not on whether they can push the other down.
Court hierarchies are another thing entirely. This type of society debases anyone who enters it. There is neither admiration at the bottom, nor noblesse oblige at the top. It's kill or be killed. This is the sort of society that gets created in American secondary schools. And it happens because these schools have no real purpose beyond keeping the kids all in one place for a certain number of hours each day. What I didn't realize at the time, and in fact didn't realize till very recently, is that the twin horrors of school life, the cruelty and the boredom, both have the same cause.
Graham is talking about suburban American schools and the persecution of the nerds (who realise that there is more to life than mere popularity) and the rest (who don't). But his words have a vital relevance to the violence on the streets of London. Young men are killing each other over arguments about who's got the best postcode. Parks that lie between two estates become battlegrounds for turf wars where absolutely nothing except 'respect' and 'reputation' is at stake. The problem may be mainly manifesting itself among the black teenagers of South London, but it could just as easily occur in places where everyone is white. The vital ingredient of this recipe is the chasm between what young people are doing and what is of relevance in the real world. As long as our education system promotes only academic learning and neglects vocational education, kids will rebel. It's very hard for a 14-year old to see the value in learning about the square on the hypotenuse, the marriages of Henry VIII or the causes of the First World War when his core concern is how he's going to get a career and with it the respect that comes from achieving something.
I observed over three years ago that a room full of young people aged between 17-20, half of whom were black, with little or no academic ambition was happy to sit in total silence when someone spoke to them about something that they thought would give them a career, money and respect. I said it then and I'm more convinced of it now. Making school more relevant is the key to reducing the violence and delinquency.