Yesterday, as part of the settling in small-talk I like to have with students before cracking on with an intense hour of literary analysis, I asked one of my GCSE candidates what they thought of the election that had just been called. In the midst of one of the most unsettling times in recent British politics, I thought that this would be an appropriate segue into our discussion of 1984...I was, however, mistaken. My student, as she informed me, had not read the news in several months, having chosen instead to knuckle down with her schoolwork and extracurriculars, none of which involved the slightest thought of contemporary political happenings. I was slightly surprised that this student - who I know for a fact has a startlingly intricate knowledge of 1940s European political agenda, seemed so strangely unconcerned by the major political events of today. Whilst childhood is, perhaps, a time (maybe the only time) in which the outside world can be ignored in favour of books and games, the ivory tower does not exist in a vacuum. And there are compelling arguments why now, more than ever, students should see that outside that tower, the fields and forests of youth are giving way to an increasingly complex world with issues they will necessarily encounter.
On social media, I have seen a very divided response to young people eschewing a day in education for a day of politics. Some laud those such as Greta Thunberg, who see themselves as part of a larger political conversation in which, if they do not speak out, they will necessarily remain a silent and unheard voice. Yet many have complained that each day outside the classroom is, to put it bluntly, a day which will not be caught up on, leaving teachers and students trailing behind in crucial years when many are over-examined and underfunded. And still others persist in their view of that age-old myth, that every young person is instinctively a rebel, and every rebel needs a cause, often arbitrarily chosen.
Yet there are essential reasons why young people should - perhaps, must - become more involved in the politics of the world around them.
Firstly and most importantly, because it is their world. The adage may say that the meek shall inherit the earth, but if the earth’s successors remain meek, who is to say what kind of world they will inherit? Often young people feel disenfranchised - partly because in the most literal of ways they of course are. Why should we care or campaign, when at the end of the day we don’t count, is a common question. (I make a side note that in Scotland, 16 and 17 year olds was able to vote in the Independence Referendum, proving themselves a motivated part of political society. As Catherine Bennett wrote earlier in the year, ‘teenagers [...] have proved that they could be competent and enthusiastic voters’.) Not to get into the debate on lowering the voting age more broadly - which is filled with its own complexities - but the idea that simply not having a voice is an obstacle to political participation is hugely flawed. Not only can young people participate in politics, they do so simply by being members of society, and indeed of the planet. Young people are necessarily affected by countless laws - they literally govern pretty much everything a young person does, from whether certain products they might buy are taxed, to whether they will need a visa to go on holiday abroad. Not taking part in the conversation has never meant that people aren’t saying things that directly affect you. Most recently this has been seen in the unprecedented work by environmental campaigns to lionize school aged citizens with one lesson - this is your world. If you want to keep it, you need to put the legwork in.
And as we have increasingly seen, student movements often have huge efficacy. Sometimes it is advantageous to be an idealist, and not have hit the point where a nap in the afternoon seems like a rare treat. For those like Scott Morrison who preached “more learning and less activism”, the sake of learning seems to have been entirely lost. What good to learn about our world if not to protect it? To work to enshrine the freedoms we want? To dissect an opponent’s argument before it sticks itself on the side of a bus and wins a referendum? Indeed, the efficacy of the youth vote might be seen in the Conservative party’s decision to allow 15 year olds to vote in their leadership elections - though troublingly not in a General Election. Yet whatever your personal politics, no true believer in democracy could ever argue that the need for all citizens in society to be adequately informed, and then supported in acting on that information, could possibly be a bad thing.
On a different note, but of equal concern, is the fact that while young people aren’t always direct participants in politics, they are almost without fail passive recipients of it. ‘Fake news’ was a buzzword during and after the last US Presidential election, but the dwindling of discussion of it does not mean it has died away. To the contrary, social media remains a bastion of nebulous propaganda, be it something as innocuous as filtering or as overt as counter-factual claims made in a space where they are highly likely to infiltrate one’s personal zeitgeist. Politics is often found in seemingly unlikely places, and as teachers it is our job to make young people not only aware of this, but able to be critical about what they read. In fraught times, division has never been healed with ignorance, or by burying our heads in the sand - and if we would like the next generation to do better than the last at creating a more sustainable and less divided world, we must give them the information to do so.
This is something which should be a crucial concern of parents, and indeed of schools. While I fully appreciate that many state funded schools do not currently have the money to sustain their core subjects, let alone introduce another, political awareness is something that must be grown. Otherwise, politics will remain dominated by those with the privilege to be brought up in it. Teaching young people about politics early on, and helping them engage in our political world is simply one way to make a more representative political system. And listening to them, as teachers and voters, may well help us learn a thing or two about the next generation’s priorities for the future. Tomorrow is always already beginning - it is a societal responsibility to equip the future for it.