Could do better: why we must set young minds free

October 28, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedIn the same week that my 16 year old son began assessing his options for subjects and sixth form colleges for next year, his 11 year old brother made a bold but flawed attempt to bunk off school, managing to duck away from the school bus and secrete himself in the local churchyard with his packed lunch and a plan to sit out the day under a bush.

The closeness of the school community and his older brother’s vigilance meant that his absence was spotted and reported within an hour; to his chagrin he was back in school for second lesson. But there were insights to be taken from this traumatic, if brief experience.

His school – despite being one of the most supportive and admired in the region — has not been designed for bringing out the full potential of free spirits like his. Where his older brother, less affronted by the regimented timetable, lengthy rulebook and variability of lesson quality, has been able to deploy a philosophical distance at moments of cognitive and emotional dissonance, our second born is less malleable: inherently, psychically allergic, it seems, to the indignities of the machine.

Yet, lurking under those well-honed adaptations, the first-born too has inner conflicts to negotiate. He is quietly nonplussed by the prospects he faces for further education and finds himself asking, rather than which subjects, why subjects?

Finding meaning
As a family we are well versed in the factors conspiring to make the past not what they told us and the future not what it was. So what, we wonder, as an academically inclined, creative and inventive lad, should he (or any young person) study now? How should he lay plans for a life-path into a future characterised by ecological disintegration and loss, and by sporadic, violent societal convulsions as the sickening realisation that our species has conspired to destroy its own habitat sinks in?

What line should he follow in order to gain skills and knowledge that might facilitate some meaningful contribution to this world-on-the-brink, while keeping himself fed, housed, possibly even happy?

There are a surprising number of quality, top-rated higher education facilities in our rural part of the country. An arts college caters to the musically, dramatically and artistically inclined. A technical college offers all imaginable apprenticeships in practical skills. Two sixth form colleges promise quality teaching of a range of subjects to A level, enabling the academically inclined to get into the most demanding of universities.

Dazzled by the range and professionalism on display it is easy to feel privileged, spoilt for choice. In many ways we are. But a sideways look reveals something of an illusion. The apprenticeships are unashamedly geared to vocations in the “industrial world” – a world that depends on cheap energy, lax pollution legislation, an abundant, never-ending supply of minerals and fresh water, and an infinitely large landfill hole in which to dump billions of toxic, obsolete products each year.

All of the preceding things are in diminishing supply. The model cannot and will not remain buoyant for much longer. Even if it offers careers in the short term, the long-term is considerably more shaky, to say nothing of soul-destroying: where is the satisfaction in working for the pointless, hopeless goal of contributing to consumption rates until the planet can’t take it any more?

The arts courses offer impressive options for creative self-expression but, as they are described, no hint of the corporate stranglehold to which such creativity must succumb if it is to manifest a half decent income.

As for the A levels … well, they are the same as they ever were. Jam-packed intensives in single-subject assimilation and regurgitation, their basis a model of the world in which west is implicitly best, analysis comes from dissection and comparison, proof of competence comes from feats of memory, and modernity and growth go largely unchallenged.

Theatre of interviews
With impressions of these experiences still lingering, the day came for my annual voluntary stint as a fake interviewer of our school’s year 11 students, to help prepare them for a future of ascension by inquisition.

As ever I was impressed by my young interviewees’ energy, determination and enthusiasm; but, as ever, the experience felt like an exercise in make-believe. The unstated assumption is that the conveyor belts are all working fine, and a cheerfully unquestioning outlook of hard work and compliance will bring fulfilling working lives for all.

In all the discussions about ambitions, interests and passions I heard no reference to the existence of the natural world, let alone its faltering health, upon which our own is contingent, nor the work that must be done to prevent what’s left of it vaporising into desert or drowning in toxic sea-water. Not a single young person out of the dozen I spoke with had an interest in ecology, forests, conservation or the environment nor any aspiration towards work in anything green or socially aware.Image Removed

But is it that surprising really? They have been railroaded by a national curriculum for the last 12 years into thinking in terms of subjects, tests and results. In preparation for the next stage they have seen leaflets and websites about pre-existing job slots, targets for which they must take steady aim if success is to be assured.

The technically inclined, for example, of which my older son is one, are pointed towards categories right within the machinery of the capitalist curriculum: industrial product design; consumer electronics; manufacturing optimisation; military systems.

And of course, the young people knew what they would be asked in their interviews and are well versed in the responses that gain the approval of authority. The state of the world was never on the agenda. They played their part. I admit it: I played mine too.

Of course this is not the whole enchilada. Some of them will be sitting on a latent energy, a well-head of curiosity, a rebellious streak, or a spark for justice that would never be revealed in that constrained setting and that could see them careering wildly and unpredictably off the edge of all the tick-box charts in the book.

Many may consider, at some future point, the impact of their work, and try to use their talents for good. For the curious, there are avenues to explore: alternative careers fairs; an Ethical Careers Guide, which I was proud to help edit some years ago for Scientists for Global Responsibility; or environmental job listings like this one.

Could do better
They are good starting places for some, but others might be led by them into incapacitating keep-nets that absorb their energy for change and deflect their rightful anger. Being grateful for having one of the least bad jobs in a system of accelerating destruction and inequity is neither individually nor societally empowering.

These options are not good enough.

It is time all young people knew this: the work of our time is the work of reconnection, regeneration, restoration and reconciliation. Their talents and open minds, their unselfconscious creativity and determination are all desperately required.

Their ideas, stories, music, art, calculations and innovations and general lack of preconceptions are urgently needed for the creation of the alternative cultural, economic, social and governance systems that will support this restorative work of our time.

The young people of today who wish to transcend the machines of destruction have a greater calling than merely competing for the handful of internships in ethical NGOs. They must demand a groundswell of restorative opportunities, and go on to build the systems and networks that will create more of these, for the sake of their own future. They must organise and — in some way not delimited by my own dated vocabulary — get political — and fast.

This exhortation is the culmination of the concerns that obsessed me in an earlier post here — concerns about the nature of work, about the future for young people, and about the sharp contrast between the worst case conflation of these two factors and the very best.

Image RemovedFor a while I nursed an urge to help create the desirable opportunities myself, but realised that the process would be long and demanding and would require skills that did not overlap much with my areas of strength.

My working title for the project was Life’s Work, a cheesy pun on the work of the young people and life working through them. I realised late in the day it would in fact be describing my own life’s work — a worthwhile use of a life, for sure, but others can do this faster, together, and it makes sense that those others should be the young people themselves.

On the case already
I applaud those already on the case. They include events to “build youth and student power for a new economy“; the UK Youth Climate Coalition; an initiative to train the next generation’s leaders in systemic change; the Generation Waking Up campaign; the Global Youth Forum and Generation Alpha.

They are promising seeds that deserve to thrive and spread their DNA far and wide. If they can form an ecosystem of fresh initiatives, which cooperates and evolves to bring about a system reset, there’s a chance at least that the better aspects of humanity and some proportion of Earth’s living communities make it through the storm.

That vision keeps me looking ahead; without it I struggle. I see little hope that the older generations in power now will change how things work. There is too much vested interest, too much pre-programming, too much psychological damage and too much fear.

Those with the least to lose, the disaffected and disenfranchised younger generations, will be the ones who turn things around. It is crucial that enough of them have the knowledge, vision and confidence to do this constructively from the outset.

I want them to know, before they get strapped into debt and career ladders and blinded by business bullshit, that the world out there is theirs and that they must grasp it. I want their mentors and parents and sponsors to know that the critical mission these young people are about to undertake will be made considerably easier if they could have a more appropriate education than the one they are getting.

If I were a teacher, I’d want to correct for their years of training in how to take things apart by teaching them how to put them together again.

Image RemovedI’d want to discuss the forces between the particles, the energy shared within systems, the love between people, the dynamism and exchange of life cycles and ecosystems.

I’d want to expound on the synergies that come from connections within communities; and then on the connections between communities and the land that supports them. On belonging. On feeling.

On the bridges and reconciliations that counter the borders and wars, the healing that corrects for the damage, the ways in which we can participate instead of expropriate.

The way in which fulfilment is found when you collaborate with others to play a part in something bigger than you and longer than now — rather than in receiving awards for outstanding achievement that set you apart from your peers. I’d want them to absorb and believe that when things come together, beauty happens.

Transition engineering?
It is astonishing and cowardly that we still don’t properly educate our young people about the changes underway and the options for dealing with them. There is relevant expertise in a variety of areas just waiting to be passed on: low energy living, soil restoration, carbon-neutral agriculture, zero carbon building, alternative economics, global systems science, permaculture, earth law, rewilding, conflict resolution.

Where then are the apprenticeships in post-peak skills? The A levels in ecological restoration and ecological economics? The sociology focus on communities and co-operative economies? The literature and history studies on cultural transformations? The training in transition engineering?

Of course, those fields funnel neither money nor power up the hierarchies, and so are seen by establishment policy-makers, drenched in conservative values, as counter-productive or subversive. But to hell with them. With a different aspirational model and a different economic one, the system could change quickly.

“How ridiculous!” retort the pragmatists. “That would entail resetting the global economic system so that young people are largely employed in locally-focused, eco-restorative livelihoods!” Yes, it’s ridiculous. And yes it must happen. For the start-up investment, look no further than existing subsidies.

The world’s governments currently spend $500 billion a year subsidising the fossil fuel industry; more than $486 billion a year subsiding industrial agriculture; and $1.7 trillion a year on war. Diverting just 10% of the amounts currently subsidising the enterprises of death into life-restoring equivalents would enable a generation of change agents to be trained and employed in work with a genuine life purpose.

Time is short
Image RemovedI read somewhere, although cannot find the source, that Martin Luther King (perhaps it was Malcolm X) described the young people of today as the revolutionaries of tomorrow. Quite frankly, they need to be, or they will not survive.

This is not a romantic fantasy or over-dramatised scare story. We need an earth revolution. Time is short and the young must be at the forefront. I hope these words spread far enough that they might provide encouragement and fortitude to those who are ready.

I hope also to encourage mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, teachers, educational foundations, policy makers and even careers advisors to help spring-board these new change-makers into their own future, even if we don’t understand it or them; and to help them in their preparations by demanding and facilitating the education they require. After all, it is not our future to withhold.

I have no plan in mind here – not even a petition. But I sense the energy is there already; all I can hope to do is add to it, push it along a little. Despite the odds and the urgency I retain faith in the next generations’ capacity for what is needed.

My youngest son sat under the bush with his lunchbox that rainy morning because he knew what the alternative meant.

I didn’t need to tell him that school is a factory; he knows that. He knows how it feels to have to ask permission to move. He knows that much of the natural world is dying. He knows that his teachers can’t see what he sees. He understands that they are no longer aware of the bars behind which they go through the motions. He indulges them in their world.

His childhood is not their childhood. Unlike many kids, my son knows all this consciously and can articulate it. His adjustment to high school could well be slow and difficult. I pray that it is incomplete.

Vanessa Spedding

I am a journalist by training, sometime scientist, intermittent community activist and avid reader of all things that might explain how our treatment of the planet and ourselves reached such a low point — and what we must do to correct it.

Tags: Education, Reskilling