by Ken Low
What comes to mind when you think about power? Typically, first thoughts equate power with dominance, social status, wealth, or influence. But power is much more complex. If we study power closely we come to understand its underlying structure as the ability to produce change, live with change and adjust both adaptively.
All living things have power – dandelions, viruses and humans. The key difference between the power of dandelions and humans is that dandelions learn as a species, not as individuals. Humans, on the other hand, have ability for individual, social, and cultural learning beyond the biological power pre-programmed in the genetic endowment of our species. Along with the ability to learn, we also have the ability to decide what to learn. The types of challenges we choose to engage with individually and collectively determine the range and type of powers we develop. How do we decide what powers to develop? If we want to be ‘fit’ for life our capacities must match existing and future life challenges. How do we know what life challenges we should be prepared to handle?
Historically the challenges of life have been created, defined and structured for us by our societies and cultures. We make our way in life only indirectly by the way that our culture organizes and interprets life for us.
It is important to recognize that humans are domesticated animals [OK, some of us are only semi- domesticated]. Culture and institutions are the means of domestication. Throughout the 20th century the growing scale of our institutions, specialization, standardization and the drive for efficiency and ease of administration made our human and social developments look increasingly like factory farming geared to the current governing philosophy of society, neoliberal economics and endlessly expanding consumption. Adapted to life inside the factory farm, people have become increasingly isolated from real life challenges and the catastrophic damage that is being done to the natural systems by the factory operations.
History is full of examples of societies that collapsed because their culture didn’t or couldn’t adapt to changing circumstances – which is inevitable if there is little or no capacity to assess what could and should be learned beyond existing conventions.
Youth empowerment is a fundamental social task. How well we – and others – accomplish this task ultimately determines the quality of our collective futures. Yet empowerment is poorly understood. Though generally seen as a ‘good thing’ by both adults and youth, few stop to think about the implications and requirements of real empowerment. Empowerment is more than getting a good formal education, or listening to youth, giving them responsibilities, or permitting them to make their own decisions, although it includes all of these things – and more.
Youth empowerment is often directly connected to education – as it should be, but what constitutes an effective education is not well understood. Equating education with schooling is a common mistake. Education is everything a community does to prepare its people (and everything people do to prepare themselves) to meet the problems & opportunities of their time & place in history. Every society throughout history had a system of education. Even small troops of nomadic hunter / gatherers must have a constellation of ways to equip succeeding generations with the requisite capacities, knowledge, resources, caring and responsibility levels required to sustain survival of the group. Schools are a limited, institutional subset of the larger education system that includes a diverse ecology of learning, informing and engagement opportunities.
When schooling is taken as being equivalent to education it becomes institutionally habit-bound and loses sight of the larger ecology of learning. The limited processes and objectives of schools tend to displace those of the larger learning systems and the institution becomes self-justifying: the definitive source and judge of effective education. This severely limits the adaptive learning capabilities of both the students and the schools.
School reformers persist in trying to overcome the institutional constraints of schools and build effective links with the larger ecology of learning, but success is hard won and usually temporary. School reform is an essential part of a larger societal struggle to create adaptive communities & institutions, but is resisted by the same forces and interests that are threatened by any change in the status quo – especially those who benefit from preserving limits to the horizons of caring, power and influence of others.
At its root, empowerment means acquiring both the commitment and the ability to take creative control of one’s own life learning journey in a way that transcends the limits of convention and the dominant culture. The only way to transcend the limited empowerment potentials of the factory farm is to develop the capacity for “life ranging”, exploring and extending horizons of learning, understanding and caring beyond the immediate culture and conventions to include human and life systems. This is a complex, open-ended task – a lifetime journey. There are other terms for this journey: becoming an elder, the pursuit of wisdom, enlightenment, self-actualization. Different cultures have different terms, but all of them convey something of the rare and special nature of empowerment.
Real empowerment is rare because there is a simpler option – conventionalization. It is always easier to teach people to conform to rules than it is to teach them how to think and act well for themselves. In fact, for most of history the standards of good conduct were defined by local norms, traditions, and institutional authorities. An individual was assumed to be sufficiently ‘empowered’ when they had internalized these external controls. Questioning or moving beyond these controls was almost always seen as a threat to the established order, and was strongly suppressed.
The emergence of global culture over the past century eroded the authority of local conventions. Conventionalization no longer worked well as a way to prepare people to handle our rapidly changing and complex society, but none of our social arrangements for nurturing youth were effectively geared for anything else. This resulted in a constellation of human and social development problems with a wide range of symptoms, most noticeable as youth alienation, drugs, suicide and gangs, but also showing up as depression in adults trapped in routines and lifestyles in which they find little meaning, but feel powerless to escape or to control. And there is a bigger problem: our civilization is unsustainable. We are destroying the natural systems that make human systems possible. We cannot course correct without developing our capacities for life ranging.
The need to empower youth can be arrived at from many different entry points of concern. Any issue arising from a need for responsible and creative judgment in a variety of life situations will track back to empowerment.
Wide scale, life ranging empowerment of youth is a social development frontier. Navigating the frontier and handling it well will require leadership and vision. The good news is that the required methods and disciplines are discoverable – if we know how to look for them and care enough to do it.
“A statement of the aim of education need not be a long list or even a short list, it can be made in a single sentence: In a free society, the proper aim of education is to prepare the individual to make wise decisions. All else is but contributory.”
– Paul Woodring, A Fourth of a Nation, 1957