One of the occasional joys of the net, is that it can facilitate thought-provoking communication with people who one would not otherwise have met.
One of these interchanges for me was with Chris, a passionate and experienced educator in Spain.
He asked, "How do you feel about IgnitED informing young people about the state of the world, politics and economics? Although I agree that we should offer this, I worry that it will cause helplessness and despair". He elaborated on his concerns by suggesting I read "Confessions of an Economic Hitman" by John Perkins. To the uninitiated, this is an autobiographical account of Perkin's work as an ex "economic hitman" - hired by corporates and powerful individuals, to facilitate their economic agenda, often at the expense of democracy and the environment.
One classic example of this kind of corporate intervention was the hounding of Aaron Swartz - documented in the captivating, tragic doco - The Internet's Own Boy. When one reflects upon his life, work and ultimate suicide in the light of the recent demise of the net neutrality which Aaron fought for in the USA, his idealism is sobering. Environmental activists and journalists are often at the forefront of similar struggles. There are many others.
President Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore reflected on the concept of "irresponsible" idealism a few years ago, discussing the West's encouragement of pro-democratic demonstrations in the Ukraine, resulting in the crackdown by Russia:
"I think some people didn't think through all the consequences. You can understand the emotional sympathies: they share your values, they want to link up with you... these are idealistic and enthusiastic revolutionaries, in a way, you think back to Les Mis.
"But can you take responsibility for the consequences and when it comes to grief, will you be there?" He answers his own question. "You can't be there, you've got so many other interests to protect."
One of the premises of IgnitED, is that if students are able to learn to intervene intelligently, they are more powerful than they realize in creating meaningful and important change. However Chris was asking something deeper - even if our students do create such change, are we doing them a favour by promoting this as a way of life - to live as an ethical member of the community, when the best of them may ultimately find themselves crushed between their idealism and the weight of reality?
I have thought about this question for many years. My answer is a qualified "yes".
If you can educate them about what they are up against in terms of political or financial power, and help them deal with the fall out, you may create an empowering way forward.
The incredibly effective response of the Parkland students in response to the recent school massacre is an interesting case in point. The fact that shooting survivor, turned activist Emma Gonzalez, has more Twitter followers than the NRA, shows the students' passion and message is celebrated in a country which until recently had become disillusioned by the inevitability of the lack of legislative change.
Robert Reich reflects:
"Why have the surviving students in Parkland, Florida, been so strikingly passionate, articulate, and effective? Maybe because they had a good grounding in civic education. In 2010 the Florida legislature required civics be taught in 7th grade -- including civic activities requiring teamwork and collaboration, student participation in school governance, and simulations of democratic processes such as town meetings and mock trials.
The purpose of education isn’t just to get good jobs. [...] civic education is critical to our democracy."
I don't think teaching students to go for the safe path at the expense of their inner voice is the right way forward for them (or anyone). When one practices hiding what is truly important to oneself, it doesn't disappear. The void might be temporarily filled - self-medicating with food, booze, gym or drugs, unhealthy relationships, career status, or possessions will do the trick for a while.
The harder but more satisfying path is to educate students to take on intelligent, meaningful change. They don't need to change the world - just the things they understand, have influence over and can judiciously intervene in. It may as simple as outlawing the use of straws in school, preserving a local natural habitat, standing up against a bully, or voting for a politician with integrity. Or they may step up to the plate when bigger issues arise, as in Parkland.
When the big issues arise, at least they will be prepared. Make them aware it won't be easy. Any action taken must take into account the system within they operate. What works in one country, may not work in another.
Teach them emotional resilience. Calm in the face of opposition. Kindness. The ability to listen. Self-possession.
Let them know they don't need to know absolutely everything, to make a stand. Everyone who makes a stand has doubts about whether they are worthy. A solid basis of understanding should be enough. If they’ve been paralyzed, because they worry they won't please everyone, let them be assured, if they are doing important work, opposition is guaranteed. Many will criticize them but the people who need them will be encouraged. There is more safety in numbers.
As art critic Robert Hughes once said; "The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize." Comfort your brilliant, sensitive students when they are inevitably attacked.
The caliber of teaching required to instill these attributes is a big ask... but there are many great teachers out there - they need to be supported.
As the Parkland students show, the rewards for such education can be great.
Congratulations to those teachers who laid the ground work, and to the students who are now battling the wave of resistance. There are powerful interest groups under attack here, and progress may be two steps forward, and one back. But like the #metoo movement, something has shifted. And the students' response has been much more empowering for all of us than the usual saddened apathy.
Booker Prize winner, Richard Flanagan says:
“In the end, the only answer we have to politics, to power, to horror, is the love we might know for each other. It’s not a full answer, it’s not the basis for anything, but it is all we have.
And I would say love is the starting point, but then use that as a springboard for intelligent, thoughtful change.
Quotes above found in the following sources: