One of the common denominators of childhood and youth, at least in more economically developed countries, is schooling. Therefore, if we want to analyze the contemporary conditions of childhood and youth, we will have to include the conditions that schools and other educational settings in more economically developed countries create for children and youth. In this short essay I want to outline briefly a set of perspectives that allow us to understand the different demands that schools make of children and youth as well as the responsibilities schools have toward them. My focus is on reconceptualizing children and youth based on ideas of decentred subjectivity and of reception and response.
Decentring Autonomous Rationality, Decentring Adulthood
Traditionally, schooling has viewed children and youth primarily as not-yet adults. The focus has been on helping children and youth become adults in the sense that schooling allows young people to leave the dependence that characterizes childhood and youth behind and become independent and rational adults. Ylva Bergström, for example, has analyzed how the universal right to education, included in the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights and reiterated in a variety of forms in other Conventions, is based on ideas of the child as not yet rational and autonomous and in need of help in becoming so: the right to education is not [End Page 133] really a right of the child but rather, to borrow from Thomas Marshall, a "right of the adult citizen to have been educated" (qtd. in Bergström 173).
Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the ideal of the rational, autonomous subject has been heavily critiqued. As I explain in my essay "The Empty Chair," these critiques have revolved around the idea that the subject is not nearly as rational and autonomous as it has been held to be. Critics have charged that the subject's apparent physical and mental autonomy and self-awareness are predicated on a fundamental dependence on who and what lies outside of it—on the Other, whether in the form of the personal Other, the Unconscious, Death, or some other Other. As a result of these critiques, the subject has been moved from its central position to a decentred one.
The idea of decentred subjectivity opens up new ways of seeing children and youth. If human beings are by definition dependent rather than independent, and remain always susceptible to interruption by the Other (such as in the form of one's own illness and death, the death of loved ones, or one's Unconscious), then dependence is no longer the distinctive characteristic of children and youth, but a characteristic of human beings at all ages and stages of life. As Judith Butler remarks in dialogue with Sunaura Taylor, "there's an idea of self-sufficiency that might be a fantasy and kind of an ideal norm that doesn't actually suit any of us" (187). Consequently, if autonomous, rational adulthood is a fiction, and if our responsibility to children and youth is not to turn them as expediently as possible into autonomous, rational adults, this raises the question of how we might conceive of our responsibility to children and youth differently.
Hospitality and Subjectification
In my work I have proposed that our responsibility to children and youth is to receive them into the world and to accept that they will change the world into which they are received. In developing this perspective I have made use of the work of several philosophers, including philosophers of education. In particular, I have argued for education to be guided by an "ethic of hospitality" as elaborated by Jacques Derrida and inspired by the work of Emmanuel Levinas. An ethic of hospitality is an ethical framework focused on receiving the Other, in which hospitality is understood as "an unconditional gift given by a host who is aware of her or his indebtedness to the guest. Immediately, this marks a departure from other conceptions of hospitality based on reciprocity or exchange [that is to say, conditionality], in which the guest incurs a debt by accepting hospitality" (Ruitenberg, "The Empty Chair"). In other...