There is a tendency today to look at youth in a negative fashion; to decry their achievements and highlight their failings. There is a tendency to believe today’s youth is worse than the young people of the past. I do not believe that is so.
I have two jobs. I am a researcher and writer, and I am a lecturer. I write historical fiction and non fiction and I lecture at Inverness College in northern Scotland. The combination of studying the people of the past and working with the people of the future gives me the opportunity to compare, and the comparisons are not at all bad.
Those of you who follow my intermittent blogs will know that my latest book: Glasgow: The Real Mean City examined the criminal past of 19th century Glasgow. My previous non fiction book, A Sink of Atrocity, looked at crime in 19th century Dundee and I have a third pending, looking at crime in the Scottish Highlands in the same time period. All these books have sections about youth and juvenile crime, and my conclusion is very simple: people have always believed that the youth of their day was worse than of previous generations.
Well, here is my take on it. That is not true. I work with youths on a regular basis. I teach Communications to lads who are hoping to be apprentice builders. apprentice car mechanics, apprentice plumbers; girls who hope to be hairdressers and beauty consultants, hopeful young business people and some who have lost hope. Life has dealt a bad hand to many of these youngsters; some come from broken homes or are in trouble with the law; many are in bad relationships and, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, ‘know the worst too young’. Some, far too many, have slipped through the education net and cannot see a way out, or a means of bettering their situation.
Of all these youngsters, I can happily say that only a very, very few are actively bad. I would estimate that 99 out of a hundred are decent people who have lost their way. With a wee bit help, they can find it again and get back on track for a decent life. My 19th century history research found case after case of criminal youths, from the Peter Wallace gang that terrorised Dundee in the 1820s to Glasgow’s Muldoon Mob, and from teenage professional thieves who broke through walls to rob shops to lads who specialised in removing the slates from roofs to get access to houses. The criminal element was as prevalent then as now and often for the same reasons: they could not see a way out. Most: the vast majority; need help and guidance and friendship rather than harsh punishment and rigid laws.
I will mention one of my students as an example. On the first day of the semester he came [reluctantly] into class with his ‘hoodie’ top pullled over his head and a scarf obscuring the lower half of his face. When he spoke it was in grunts rather than in intelligent words. Eventually we got to know each other. Three weeks ago he passed his first assessment; it was the first thing he had ever passed in his life; his first taste of success; his first ever achievement. He denied his success; he could not face the fact that he was not a failure, a loser.
All his life he had been told he was useless. His parents had split up; his mother let him run free, he has been in trouble with the police; his teachers had given up on him, he could hardly read and write. Whose fault is that? Not his but ours. Society had let this lad down. Last week he came to college with his head just a wee tad higher and no concealing scarf. He has found a little pride in himself. It is only a first step, but the first is always the hardest and the most significant.
There is hope for him; there is hope for society. Deny the detractors and pull for a future; have faith in our youngsters. If we show them the right way, they will hit the road running; that I firmly believe.