Leader: Young, gifted and slapped

Why is it that when young people express frustration at the bleak future they see ahead, we respond with another kick in the shins?

November 24, 2011

When did we start hating our young people? Last autumn's kettling of students on marches, the decision to allow rubber bullets to be used in the recent demonstration in London and the use of pepper spray on seated, non-violent students at the University of California, Davis during the Occupy protests last week are events that should make us all feel ashamed.

It is almost as though we are trying to turn the blame on them for the economic, educational and social mess out of which they have to fashion themselves a future. Even the initial statement regarding the pepper-spray incident from Linda Katehi, chancellor of UC Davis - in which she said she "deeply regretted" the students' not leaving, and that their actions gave "us no option but to ask the police to assist in their removal" - amounted to a kind of "we didn't want to but you made us do it" defence.

It's not a good time to be young. Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, summed up the plight of young people succinctly in his speech to Student Activism 2011 at the weekend. "I'm really tired of people putting this generation down. It's like taking the parachute off a skydiver and saying, 'If you flap hard enough, you'll be OK.'"

Some rightwing commentators have criticised the Occupy Wall Street protesters for lacking clear political objectives. But that is untrue. As Alan Ryan, emeritus professor of political theory at the University of Oxford, has pointed out, they have one clear demand: if bankers can be bailed out, why not students staggering under the burden of huge student loans?

Here in the UK, it makes the rhetoric of the White Paper and its title, Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System, sound rather hollow. The student experience is supposed to be king. Universities are falling over themselves to provide 24-hour libraries, new sports facilities, luxury accommodation and guaranteed contact hours. Amid these marketing appeals, it is hard not to be reminded of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and the "banking" approach to education he attacks in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which portrays students as empty bank accounts into which teachers make deposits. Freire argued for students to be treated as co-creators of knowledge. That, however, is not a role envisaged in the White Paper, which makes students into customers, purchasers of a service. Students are now in the driving seat, it is said. But what good is that if the road leads nowhere?

And who wants to be at the heart of something that seems to have mislaid its moral compass and lost its soul? Staff at UC Davis have been eloquent in their condemnation of events there. For Cathy Davidson, professor of English at Duke University, this is a "Gettysburg Address moment" for higher education. In her blog, she pleads with college presidents to stop sending for the police. "Our students face a difficult enough future. This should not be a time to beat them up, to spray them with mace or pepper juice, to kick and hit them."

The mess we are in is not the fault of young people; it's ours - we created it. Instead of lashing out at the young in guilty anger about the toxic legacy we are bequeathing them, we should be welcoming their efforts, confused though some may be, to find solutions. That is what they deserve, not blame.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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