AAA 2017 CfP – A Bad Age for Citizenship: barriers to belonging in the school years

Call for Papers: A Bad Age for Citizenship: barriers to belonging in the school years
American Anthropological Association (AAA) 2017, Washington, D.C., 29 Nov – 3 Dec

Chair/Organizer: Samantha Grace (University of Arizona)
Invited Discussant: Caroline Bledsoe (Northwestern)

Youth and families around the world face a dilemma when school is simultaneously experienced as a site for establishing youth as full citizens and as a site of social differentiation, exclusion, inequality, and danger. Responses to this dilemma are shaped by imagined futures of familial social mobility as well as histories of familial exclusion; these responses are both constrained and made possible by the intersections of local, national, global, and transnational age-based rights and responsibilities (Bledsoe and Sow 2011). Just as the AAA 2017 theme highlights the diversity of anthropological engagements with contemporary crises of inequality, this panel seeks to diagnose the barriers to social justice where they intersect with schooling (arguably the most important hybrid global and local institution for remedying national inequality). In line with that goal, this panel’s discussion revolves around the theme of school-based citizenship as informed by a life course approach. Questions on that theme include (but are not limited to):

  • How do concerns about students’ futures guide family’s engagements with schooling in the present?
  • How are transnational citizenships shaped by familial constellations of age?
  • How do physical/bodily changes in youth and childhood impact expectations of students’ rights and responsibilities? And how do school structures and policies impact the physical bodies of students?
  • What can school-based language ideologies tell us about age and belonging? And how do discourses about civic responsibilities differentiate students?
  • How do concepts of “risk” shape student roles in their schools, homes, and communities?
  • How do school structures produce and constrain dangers to students?
  • How do (cultural and national) age identities limit and produce possible solutions to racial, gender, and class inequalities?

This panel seeks papers from the anthropologies of youth, education, and the life course that concern the differentiation of belonging and citizenship. The anthropology of youth has improved the interdisciplinary study of youth citizenship by highlighting the importance of youth cultural practices, and thus centering variation and differentiation over a search for a generically acceptable boundary between youth and adult rights and responsibilities (Bucholtz 2002). The anthropology of education has grounded interrogations of school-based citizenship through ethnographic analyses of how global and national directives are locally implemented and contested (Coe 2005, Koyama 2011). Life course anthropology has highlighted the importance of situating these questions within their temporal, intergenerational, and changing biocultural contexts (e.g., Johnson-Hanks 2006, Danely and Lynch 2013). This panel builds on the methodological strength of anthropological approaches in examining the contested belonging that youth and their families must confront while engaged with schooling.

Please e-mail proposed paper titles and abstracts (max. 250 words) to Samantha Grace ( by 5pm AEST, 4 April. Please use the subject heading, “AAA 2017” in your e-mail. I will let you know if your abstract will be included in this panel by 10 April. If included, you will be required to upload your individual abstracts to the AAA conference portal and register for the AAA by Friday, 14 April 2017 (5pm EDT).

School Choice vs. Equal Education: why we are talking past each other

With Betsy DeVos up for Secretary of Education, the debate over “school choice” is back.* Both sides of the debate agree that too many public schools suck, and both sides of the debate agree that children have a right to good education. But the conservative** solution proposed is to allow families to hold schools accountable by voting with their feet. The liberal side argues that, because not all families have equal opportunity to choose the “best” option, this sticks low-income families in the same crappy schools but with even fewer resources. Instead, the lefty solution is to minimize school choice in order to maximize community accountability for all schools.

You can argue this in terms of facts and figures, policy details, and assessments of different attempts to implement these systems across the country. But it seems like those arguments only convince the people who are already generally aligned with one side of the political spectrum. In other words, we are talking past each other. But why?

One big reason is that we are talking about rights in two different ways – ways we tend to associate with different age groups. In particular, I think this is (perhaps subtly) being framed as the right of parents to choose the best school versus the right of children to equal education. Or, in other words, the right to equal access and the right to equal remedy.***

The right to equal access is saying something like, you have the right to try and find work wherever you want, and no one can enslave you or make you a serf, and no one can refuse to hire you for irrelevant reasons (like being poor, Native American, old, trans*, etc). But equal access to work does not mean that you can be the president or a CEO or a professor just because you think that would be nice, instead you are accountable for your own specialized training and have to compete with other people on the same grounds of merit.

The right to equal remedy, on the other hand, recognizes that our society is not a level playing field, and is explicitly targeted at fixing that. The hands-down biggest way we have agreed to do that in the modern world is through education: all children have the right to be educated. It doesn’t matter if they have learning disabilities, it doesn’t matter if they refuse to do their homework, and it definitely doesn’t matter if they live too far away from a school. Unlike the right to equal access, equal remedy means that you have the right to go to the best school just because you think that would be nice. This whole idea of equal remedy justifies the (adult) framework of equal access. It’s how we justify to ourselves that our playing field is equal enough for adults to reasonably compete against each other based on merit.

So, back to school choice. It is, essentially, a framework of equal access and not equal remedy. There’s a reason we don’t talk about children “choosing” their schools: it’s because we recognize that is the responsibility of parents and adult guardians. We don’t frame children’s rights as equal access, because we don’t believe that children have the ability to compete based on merit. We already know that it’s adults competing on their children’s behalf.

That’s why, when lefties vociferously argue to protect public education as a right to equal remedy – that all children must have the right to education (in order to create a level playing field as adults) – they aren’t making any headway. Because the right already agrees with that. Instead, the right has reframed the debate to make it about families, not children, fighting for the best opportunities for their children. Just like how a parent, not a child, is responsible for working to keep their kids clothed and fed.

So, how can we start talking to each other? I think the starting place is to acknowledge the place that both ethical frameworks have in our society. Yes, we do think that it is a parents’ responsibility to fight for (and provide for) their children. And yes, we do think that children have the right to education, food, and clothes, even when their parents aren’t able to provide them.****

And from there, I confess, the next step seems obvious: parents should be able to fight for school choice and anything else for their children, but they must do it within a system that ensures children the equal remedy of education. But I’d love someone to argue with me.

*Of course, there are plenty of other things people have problems with about Betsy DeVos, but I don’t really have anything new to say about those.
** This debate doesn’t perfectly break down along the lines of left/right, conservative/liberal, Democrat/Republican, but it’s close, so I’m going with it.
*** I secretly think these terms are kind of confusing, but I can’t think of any that are consistently clearer, and these are classics – they are how T. H. Marshall distinguishes between civil and political rights on the one hand and social rights (like education) on the other in his long essay “Citizenship and Social Class“.
**** I could write a whole other essay about how we fail to convince each other of anything when we pretend the “other side” doesn’t agree with either of these propositions.