climate change student march
(Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

There are already groups of protesters gathering in Melbourne for the schoolkids strike as I write this on our morning deadline. On the steps of Parliament House, at Fed Square, outside the State Library, all the places of stone, glass and concrete, they’re flocking, in bright colours, with rainbow signs. They’re striking at unis, in secondary schools, in primary schools, in kindergartens.

According to a tweet by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old young woman who sparked the movement, there will be close to 1800 separate strikes in 112 countries today — with, one would imagine, tens of thousands of strike sites. What started as separate acts of absolute refusal — Thunberg’s 2018 one-person protest outside the Swedish parliament the most prominent — has become a global movement.

The right, of course, are losing their tiny minds over this spectacle — though the right are so broken these days that even gloating is of little amusement. But it’s worth examining the manner of their outraged objection to see what’s really going on. Most telling is their strangled cry that these kids are being manipulated by leftie teachers, filling their heads with trendy radical nonsense, that language being only a mild exaggeration of the endless screeds of the Donnellys, d’Abreras, Lathams, etc.

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Teachers manipulating students? Across the country, millions of teachers are sighing and thinking, if only. The idea that high school students are perfect little neocon subjects — future work and consumption units — being corrupted by longhairs is necessary to their fantasy of the conservative silent majority out there, waiting to be awoken.

It’s a bizarre example of the stuckness of generational thinking — boomers who were 20 at Woodstock are 70 now. But, more importantly, it’s an example of how clueless the right are about social and cultural change. For them, teenagers are still the mid-20th-century artefact of industrialism and mass culture, dutifully or otherwise absorbing their school lessons, hanging out at the malt shop, taking in a talkie, and waiting for the exciting opportunity to finally become actual people when they turn 18.

In this scenario, teenagers are wholly separated from the dull world of adulthood and public affairs — the boring newspaper, the stuffy TV news — by their youth, and the classroom is the sole conduit of information, hijacked by beatnik teachers intent on driving the kids wiiiiiild! This isn’t reality. This is a 1950s juvenile delinquent movie playing on Nine Gem, called something like Hey Daddio! What could be more indicative than the fact that they keep talking about kids “wagging” school — as if this were an Enid Blyton adventure, not a mass political action.

For all their focus on the wonders of progress and the importance of individual liberty, the small-town right haven’t noticed that every one of these kids over eight has a smartphone in their hand. The short explanation of what’s happening this morning is that kids ain’t kids anymore. The whole category of childhood has been upended, and political and social institutions have to adapt.

The simple way of saying this is that the category of childhood — after about the age of seven — developed with the rise of print, and the rise of the school in its modern form. Starting with the aristocracy, and spreading to all classes over subsequent centuries, the “child”, the “teenager”, the “adolescent” — from about 10 to about 17 — was one who lived in an intermediate world. They were expected to turn their attention to the wider world in a guided fashion, but to be bounded by intimate authority, of the family, the classroom, the church.

The rise of broadcast mass culture heightened the contradiction in the 20th century. Public life became the boring, dutiful thing, fantasy and release — music, films, drugs, sex — an assertion against such, a childish way of being adult.

With the internet, social media and the smartphone those divisions have broken down rapidly. Kids live in multiple worlds, plugged directly in to the global flow. Their exhausted, shambling teachers trying to spruik Emily Dickinson and the Treaty of Utrecht haven’t done it to ’em, you clowns — the truth has. Despite the right’s mutterings about declining standards, subjects like high school science and maths are as demanding as undergrad courses once were. So the attentive ones have the tools to understand what they’re seeing on the websites. This process is faster and more fluid than any of us over a certain age can really understand or imagine now. The kid/adult relationship to the world is being reversed by technology.

That’s what the right don’t get. Taking control of your life and destiny is the new punk rock. It is not an escape from reality, but its opposite, that attaches adolescent energy to it. In periods of crisis, adolescents have always emerged as leaders: numerous WWII resistance leaders, ANC commanders were 16 years old.

In our general crisis, that particular process has become general. They’ve all become leaders. Whether the schoolkids’ movement rises and falls, or rises and rises, over the next few years, as these things do, is unknowable — and also less important.

What matters now is that we don’t hide behind a fake generationalism — “argh, we selfish boomers killed the world; OK, kids, over to you. We’ll be watching Netflix.” — and leave them to it. Next year, the school students’ strike needs to be turned into workplace and other strikes, something even bigger: the general social strike against a system trying to kill life on Earth.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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