Thursday, 9 December 2010

Where have all the adults gone? Europe’s winter of youth discontent begins

A political sea-change is occurring in UK and Europe, affecting ideas about sustainability and youth politics.

Standing outside the gates of parliament in London today at lunchtime, wearing a work suit and holding a briefcase, I was struck by my age. I was one of a few citizens over 30, let alone over 40 waiting for the arrival of the students marching to protest a rise of university fees in England and Scotland (from 3000 pounds to an upper limit of 9000 pounds per year). I was grateful to the colleague who had texted, reminding me to come.

Clusters of tourists were taking photos of Big Ben, strangely oblivious to the yellow lines of police who surrounded parliament, lines that seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see.

Even this early in the day, the tension was striking. The empty barricaded streets were filled with an uneasy silience broken only by the noise of helicopters and police sirens.

I could not visualise teenagers marching into this atmosphere, to me it was terrifying.

The advocates of the university fee increases argue that the rise is accompanied by a progressive tax rate which is fairer than requiring a flat upfront payment. Opponents argue the introduction of loans is not only unfair but will be as daunting for many students as the eerie quiet canyon of empty streets and waiting police.

Parliament square where the march was to pass is a grassed area reserved for free speech and peaceful protest. Even at the best of times its physically difficult to reach. There is no pedestrian crossing. A small island of democracy in a sea of traffic. Today it was surrounded by high barricades of wire fence. Later watching the evening news I wondered, surely the fences were not a holding pen for kettling young protestors?

Knots of media began rehearsing their scripts, all black puffer jackets and enormous camera lenses. A news reporter stepped into the empty steet, and took five takes to say ‘And so the stage is set for a political battle inside the house and outside the house’ accompanied by sweeping arm gestures, to the amusement of watching tourists.

A mother on a mobile rushed passed me- ‘Darling whatever you do don’t get hurt Ok’ , she shouted frantically into the mobile phone, her own placard firmly under her arm. As she bustled past some of the police behind me laughed, but not unkindly.

Then suddenly from out of nowhere, a roar. The protesters had arrived.

A surge of collective adrenaline. Then, just as suddenly as all that sound and fury had erupted, nothing...just a milling group of teens pouring into the square, with nowhere to go. Some groups were chanting but the mood was unsettled. A large gathering not sure what to do next.

What struck me the most about this crowd as I joined it –(still clutching my briefcase) was its youth, diversity and unpredictability- leaderless, but learning fast. There were no megaphones. Noone seemed quite sure what to expect- some older students dressed in medical scrubs peeled off back to class. They seemed far removed from the clusters of very young boys and teenage girls they had been standing next to.

A police loud speaker repeated a few times- ‘Ladies and gentlemen please move to Victoria Embankment, keep moving please'. The term 'ladies and gentlemen' seemed stilted. Some of those around me looked as young as 12, but the average age was probably about 16 or 18. Why would people protesting a historic vote going on in parliament move on once they’d got to parliament? No one knew quite what to do, but the mood was expectant.

A few people headed to the nearest café to queue for a coffee. Someone threw a plastic bottle and a pink smoke bomb, the effect was startling, like a daring prank.

The first of the fires began next to me- a group of boys, about 14 year olds wearing balaclavas and scarves scrambled onto a green metal storage case and after some fooling around and shouting, set fire to a placard. Young boys, pumped up but not part of the main group. Slightly older students around me, mostly girls worried, ‘Oh I wish they wouldn’t do this, it will look bad and undermine the message’.

The police drew closer together.

The taunts got louder.

In a side street the students' union were handing out leaflets, passing out banners and informing people what was going on and what the march was about. The student president did a piece to camera, effectively setting out the concerns of students. Three women students were passing out slips of paper informing students ‘these are rights if things get nasty, stay calm, be peaceful, read this’. Everywhere there were leaflets and student newspapers and signs and chants explaining what the march was about, but not what would happen next.... Many had never been in a protest before. A young student in school uniform, a blazer and tie, looked nervous and serious.

Two people laughingly rushed a barrier, it collapsed, no one seemed more surprised than they were, an elderly passerby shouted,'what do you think you are doing?'.

This protest was striking to me too for the way it was being e-recorded everywhere. In the middle of the milieu students were blogging, texting, twittering, filming ...Whenever a skirmish broke out puffer jacket journalists descended, but students were there first, blogging on iphones, recording on camera, the physical and the virtual world merging.

The e-messages may not be clear yet, but they're emerging. Referring to the wiki-leaks story a young student suddenly volunteered to me–‘it’s all coming out now, all this information, makes you look at the world differently, why did we not realise it before? Shell are all through the Nigerian government and now credit cards blocking wiki leaks...I mean its all oil and finance and war, these fees and cuts, it all seems so unfair given everything, sort of... corrupt, we aren’t going to take it!’. On television later in the evening a student commentator remarked, 'freedom is important to me, with the prospect of a huge debt I won't feel free'. Another asked a politician, 'how is the prospect of 30 years debt, progressive?'. A third simply said, 'my two youngest brothers probably can't go to university now, I am here for them'.

I left the protest as tensions were mounting. Later I heard the news that some groups had attacked Treasury buildings and the Prince's car. As I left a few horses were drawing up Whitehall. I watched television with horror as horses charged a young, vibrant, frustrated, angry crowd.

The lines of police surrounding parliament before the protests began, forced me to wonder what kind of democracy might turn on its children, or feel the need to protect itself from them?

I was struck on reflection however, by the absence of adults and the vulnerability as well as the anger of the protestors.

There were mums and dads and academics and grandparents there, but not many.

Certainly the 'carnival-like' atmosphere I heard described as the march started had disappeared by the time these very young protestors reached parliament.

In politics citizens learn by doing. But if, as the political rhetoric tells us, we are 'all in this together', student political learning needs intergenerational support.

Evening news reports compared the events that unfolded to poll tax riots. But this is not a generation that remembers the poll tax. Nor is it simply a new generation of university student protest.

This political movement is significant for the numbers of very young, diverse groups of children taking part, many of whom will only vaguely recall the anti war protests of the last eight years.

Where were the adults today as Britain's youth found their political voice and needed them?

Each generation has its own political moment, but at such a challenging, difficult time, don't we owe our children and our students something more?

Friday, 26 November 2010

Higher education and sustainability teaching

I attended a fascinating conference on Higher Education and sustainability teaching in Barcelona this week, called 'From understanding to action’. Any event in Barcelona would be fascinating but it’s fair to say the atmosphere of this conference was electric…..

Outside the conference Catalonian PhD students were protesting about real sustainability issues, they have to pay a 280%, (yes you read that correctly) increase in university fees this year as a result of Spain’s fiscal crisis.

However the devastating effect of the economic situtation seemed strangely disconnected from more narrowly framed debate about 'ecological' sustainability inside the conference.

But important connections were made by key speakers. The UN University Rector Konrad Ostterwaler welcomed delegates with an impassioned plea for universities to challenge economic growth policies that are unsustainable in the long term.

Christine Escrigas, the executive director of GUNI (Global university network for innovation) also bravely faced potentially cynical responses to argue that in teaching sustainability in higher education the most important thing we can do is to teach students to question what they take for granted and to imagine new realities (while projecting an image of the Little Prince, with the caption: ‘A new conception of being in the world').

The Spanish chair of the higher education and sustainability panel argued, ‘we don’t need to teach behaviour change, and we certainly don’t need more greener consumers, -what we need to teach is citizenship, to foster students who can think critically and understand their reality and take revolutionary action to change this reality. Strong stuff...

Prof Naranjo (Chile) argued we are teaching generations of students to ‘tame their activism’ and to think in a patriarchal dehumanized ways. He called for sustainability teachers to teach wisdom, rather than knowledge.

These wider visions appeared to be diplomatically rebutted however by at least one keynote speaker who argued that universities are the last remaining public spaces able to think long term. She agreed we must rethink values, but we should also research and teach about 'new technologies' as they are the key to 'reinvent our sustainable future'.

Later in the conference, much concern was raised about this argument. There was debate about whether teritary staff and students around the world, on short term contracts or facing high study debt, are in constant pursuit of funding and competing rather than collaborating with each other and with community groups. Do current funding arrangements threaten the long term vision of sustainability teaching and research? Are we constantly reframing sustainability in ways that might appeal to funders (predominantly business interests and philanthropic groups in North Amercia, government and international agencies in Europe or aid agencies, development banks and foreign investment in developing countries), rather than responding to the long term needs of our communities or our convictions about what matters and should be researched and taught?

All in all a tremendously stimulating conference- not your normal ivory tower gathering -but just as stimulating for what was going on outside the hall and in the corridors.

In those places there was intense debate about what teaching and researching sustainability means today. This meeting had followed a workshop between Palestinian and Israeli delegates about whether sustainability can be researched, let alone taught, in an atmosphere of oppression. In the regional workshops people debated sustainability in a context of economic debt, consumer societies, war, oppression, or corruption. Many expressed concern about the rise of fundamentalist thinking everywhere (be this religious, economic or scientific fundamentalism).

The sustainability concerns which troubled the students and delegates in Barcelona were varied and urgent. I was reminded that as teachers we often learn most from listening to our students and each other.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

This blog is the forerunner for a book we are writing called Children, Citizenship and Environment: nurturing a democratic imagination in a changing world.

Children, Citizenship and Environment is written for researchers, teachers, parents and community groups who want to support children growing up in a changing environment, to learn how to make a difference democratically on issues which matter to them.

I argue that to address far-reaching, complex environmental problems effectively in the future, young citizens will need fewer lessons in turning off the lights, and more opportunities to nurture a democratic imagination.

The new, complex problems that face children as they grow up like climate change, youth unemplyment, food insecurity and growing social inequality are problems that will require new citizenship skills. To address these problems, citizens will need skills of critical thinking, reflective action, effective listening, communication, and the ability to reason about justice. To add to this daunting list, citizens who want to make difference democratically about global change will need the virtues of empathy and tolerance, co-operation, moral reasoning, determination and courage and the ability to live and act within material limits- easy isn’t it?!

Over the next few months we welcome your thoughts and ideas as we explore and share new kinds of democratic thinking that might help children growing up as democratic citizens to think about and act on environmental problems more effectively.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Ben's favourite tree

Ben (12 years) took this photo of his feet as he spun around on a rope swing which the local council has twice taken off the big tree in the park at the end of his street in the UK. Thanks to whoever ignored the council and re-hung the swing, the only child centred focus in an otherwise bleak patch of grass on a small roundabout.

And thanks too to Ben’s geography teacher who set a broad project: 'go find your favourite tree near where you live and write about it, or do bark rubbings or photos or press leaves or anything –just tell us about its history and why you like it...'

For many children in the UK opportunity for informal outdoor play has all but vanished. Between 1973 and 2005 the percentage of children playing regularly in the street has dropped from an estimated 75% to 15% (Play England 2009). Play England estimates there are 2.3 square meters of public play space available for every child in the UK under the age of 12 years, that's ‘about the size of a kitchen table’(Play England 2009).

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Planting seeds

Tēnā koutou, welcome- Well the SEEDs are planted -and the journey towards understanding of the economic, social, political and environmental issues facing young ecological citizens begins -join us as we explore how children come to understand their community and their environment, the problems the face and ways to nurture young citizens' democratic imagination.

Bronwyn Hayward with members of the Youth Voices Voters and Visions research group in Political Science, University of Canterbury, New Zealand.