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Getting schooled by young people

Fatima Measham  |  22 May 2018

kids in a classroomI’ve been thinking about my former students lately. Anyone who has ever spent time with young people over the past 10 years would see something inevitable in the recent movement over gun control in the US, where Parkland students went charging at the seeming edifice of the National Rifle Association – and leaving cracks.

The moments I remember most from teaching in the western suburbs were when I was the one getting schooled. Nothing snaps you out of being a grown-up more than being put in your place by a kid (gently, if you’re lucky).

Once, I set up a role-play for what was then called Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE) in Victoria. Our year eight class was studying geography, and I wanted to draw out perspectives on human interaction with the environment.

I assigned students to play a farmer, a developer, a local resident, an environmentalist, and the mayor, and concocted a scene where they would each make a case about how a piece of land was to be used. They were keen to rumble, and I was feeling pleased with myself for coming up with something engaging at the last minute.

Then someone piped up: ‘But, Miss, what about the Aboriginal perspective?’

It was like being crushed and enlarged at the same time. I felt thoroughly chastened, but also grateful for the knowing confidence of a Koorie girl. I regret that she felt compelled to speak up, just as I now feel mad that Parkland students have had to.

My students pried open other windows, not just for me but their peers. The kid who outed herself as gay in an oral presentation. Another who talked about being someone who was nearly aborted. Yet another who shared about fasting.

It has been obvious for some time that distinctive cohorts are coming through. Their classrooms are more diverse than those of previous generations. Technology has afforded them their own language and modes of being.

These are the post 9/11 generations that have taken in the charred waste of recent wars, and the near-collapse of economies from predatory and speculative financial practices. They are keenly aware that they will bear the brunt of climate change. They are likely to demand: ‘What do you mean this can’t be fixed?’

In developmental terms, they are far from a state of learned helplessness. Some of the dominant literary themes of their childhood involve teenagers banding together against

authoritarian figures, such as the Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games.

Their social justice vocabulary is more sophisticated than mine was in my 20s; their sense of agency more robust than in my 30s. Teenagers are suing climate polluters, defying occupiers, and organising anti-racism protests. They are making cheaper 3D-printed prosthetics, developing aquaponic systems to help drought-stricken farmers, delivering portable lamps for hurricane victims, and saving lives by devising lifejackets from recycled material.

It is easy to default to awe and admiration, or even relief that perhaps the next generation might yet save us. It certainly seems wise to not get in their way. But it is in some sense an indictment on our failures as adults, especially those in power, to privilege the perspective of young people, to engage with them as citizens and full persons, with an even higher stake in how societies and economies function.

From the things that they fight for, we can glean a fairer, more sustainable, and relational vision of the world, in which tech serves the needs of vulnerable people, and where democracy curbs power, as it is meant to. That is a vision to get behind.


Topic tags: healthycommunitylife, socialjustice-australia, valuesandmoraldecision-making

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