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Let's think of our children as people, not economic units.

Turning Kids into Kid$

Now and then I'm asked to go to conferences of urban school officials, corporation leaders and consultants, and the representatives of agencies that serve (or as the jargon now requires, "service") inner-city youth. The atmosphere is very different at these sessions than it was only about 10 years ago. The dialogue is mostly managerial and structural. It tends to be a cumbersome and technocratic dialogue, weighted down by hyphenated words such as "performance-referenced," "outcome-oriented," "competency-centered." One hears a lot of economics, many references to competition and "delivery of product" and, of course, high standards and exams. Questions that concern the inner health of children, or their happiness or sadness, or their personalities as complicated, unpredictable, and interesting little people don't come up at all or, if they do, are often treated as a genteel afterthought and handled with dispatch and even traces of derision.

The settings for these gatherings, which business leaders sometimes underwrite, are generally extravagant. Guests are inundated with expensively produced materials: shoulder bags embossed with corporate logos, loose-leaf notebooks filled with corporate position papers. The feeling of a public school is far removed from all of this. The tenor of discussion seems a thousand miles away from childhood and youth. There's often an obsessive use of truly simple-minded slogans that belong to industry and marketing. Words like "replicate" and "utilize" and "implement" and "reinvent" keep coming up.

People rarely speak of children at these conferences. You hear "cohort groups" and "standard variations," but you don't hear much of boys who miss their cats or 6-year olds who have to struggle with potato balls.

The relentless emphasis at these events is on the future economic worth low-income children may, or may not, have for our society. Policy discussions seem to view them less as children with fingers, elbows, stomachaches, emotions, than as "economic units" — pint-sized deficits or assets in blue jeans and jerseys, some of whom may prove to be a burden to society, others of whom may have some limited utility.

"The right kind of investment," says the former CEO of a large corporation that sells toothpaste and detergent, "from conception to age 5, will pay back every dollar we spend at least four for one, plus interest, plus inflation. I don't know of a factory anybody can build that will give that kind of return. …" However intended, it seems a peculiar way to speak of children.

Even groups that advocate for children do not seem to feel it's safe to make an argument on their behalf without convincing us that being kind to children will be cost-effective. Money invested in nutrition programs and prenatal care, we're told in countless publications, "saves hundreds of thousands of dollars" that might otherwise be spent to place brain-damaged children in intensive care. "Investing in Futures" is the headline of an article on the cost-saving benefits of giving inner-city children decent healthcare and good preschool, published in The Boston Globe. We invest in soy or oil futures. So we may invest in "child futures" also.

Advocates for children, most of whom dislike this ethos, nonetheless play into it in efforts to obtain financial backing from the world of business. "A dollar spent on Head Start," they repeat time and again, "will save our government six dollars over 20 years" in lowered costs for juvenile detention and adult incarceration. It's a point worth making if it's true, although it's hard to prove; and still, it strikes one as a pretty dreadful way to have to speak of 4-year-olds.

"We should invest in kids like these," we're told, "because it will be more expensive not to do it." Why do our natural compassion and religious inclinations need to find a surrogate in dollar savings to be voiced or acted on? Why not give these kids the best we have because we are a wealthy nation and they're children and deserve to have some fun while they're still less than 4 feet high?

The problem is not only that low-income children are devalued by these mercantile criteria; childhood itself is also redefined. It ceases to hold value for its own sake but is valued only as a "necessary prologue" to utilitarian adulthood.

"We must start to think about these inner-city children as our future entry-level workers," we are told by business leaders as they forge their various alliances and partnerships with poorly funded urban schools. It's said so frequently that it occasions little stir. Still it's fair to ask why we are being urged to see "these" children in that quite specific way. Why are we to look at Elio [a child featured in Kozol's book] and see a future entry-level worker rather than to see him, as we see our own kids, as perhaps a future doctor, dancer, artist, poet, priest, psychologist, or teacher, or whatever else he might someday desire to be? Why not, for that matter, look at him and see the only thing he really is: a 7-year-old child?

This essay is excerpted, with the author's permission, from "Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope," (Crown: New York, 2000) by Jonathan Kozol, a respected and authoritative observer of public education in this country.

He speaks Tuesday, Sept. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Richmond as the kickoff for the Jepson Leadership Forum, which this season offers Views and Voices on The City. The forum is sponsored by the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. A book signing follows the lecture. Tickets are free and may be reserved for will-call by calling the Modlin Center box office, 289-8980.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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