It was the contrast that did it.
On March 15th at 11:20 in the morning there were two groups of secondary school students standing outside the National Gallery on a trip. They looked as though they would do what they were told, accept what they were given; or – if given the chance – resist it in secret underhand ways, damaging to all concerned.
Bedecked in black (always black) Academy blazers, they were lined up, orderly, standing still with barely a twitch, silent, a bit resigned but tense and sullen looking; as though having had to be socialised by psychological defeat. They were collectively individualised; isolated from one another all together: sameness one at a time.
They were staring blankly, incuriously seemingly at nothing, eyes mostly unfocussed and inward, as though the centre of London were no more interesting than a dentist’s waiting room; passive enough to be ready for a future holding little promise of security, a home to live in or worthwhile, well paid work to do.
The established faith – an untruth universally acknowledged – that education is the way up and out – that if you work hard and get your grades you’ll get on, that each of us is pitted against each other in a battle for a big car and a big house, status, standing or celebrity and that social mobility “up” to a lifestyle that burns its way through the planet’s resources in a desperate search for something to fill the holes in our souls is a real or worthwhile enough dream for everyone to buy into – hanging over them like a preordained defeat; with the occasional Pygmalian escapee only serving to mock those left behind.
No doubt their school would get a “good” or “outstanding” from OFSTED for successful socialisation of the next generation; shaving off the edges of their square pegs the better to fit compliantly into the corporate round holes of a world in which their dulled, test drilled uniformity is the human equivalent of the crash of species – from rain forests and insects to amphibians, big cats and primates; and their replacement by mono-cultural plantations, 5 billion factory farmed cows and 20 billion chickens poisoning water courses in a mountain of manure.
Their teacher stood in front, half looking away, aware but glazed, with the slight smile of a man whose behavior management systems were beyond having to make exceptional personal efforts; but who was nevertheless avoiding eye contact.
A new hope
Five minutes later and a stone’s throw away, spread across the whole of Whitehall, moving fast and tumultuously, laying siege to Downing Street and bouncing up and down on the walls of ministries, thousands upon thousands of their contemporaries came pouring up the road in a torrent of banners, chants, singing, slogans and conversations; calling for their elders to wake up to the threat of runaway climate change.
The Horses on guard at Horse Guards Parade bucked and cantered in a sort of solidarity as their breast plated riders struggled to retain control and blank expressions.
The creative energy was palpable. The intention serious. The mood a mixture of exuberance at taking action, earnest seriousness and a sense of responsibility in getting their message across, defiance in breaking bounds, fueled by an exasperated rage and fear at the cloth eared mulishness of a society so wedded to its old ways of doing things that it is sleep walking into a disaster that is clearly seen yet downplayed to invisibility – in the school curriculum even more than the news.
“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept” read one of the banners – a welcome echo of the 68 slogan “Be realistic – demand the impossible” because if what seems impossible is what is necessary for us to survive as a civilisation, we have to face up to it.
In the 1960s some people were sufficiently scared of nuclear war to take direct action to try to shock wider society into opening its eyes to the threat. People sat in the road to block traffic. The students did the same. Sitting in the road and chanting “turn your engines OFF!” as a direct comment on how everyday habits of getting around are helping set us up for disaster. The difference now is that nuclear war is an event that could or could not happen whereas climate change is an event that is happening. Every year it gets more apparent and the urgency of dealing with it gets through to more and more people, despite the millions poured into poo pooing it by fossil fuel companies; exhibiting the same profit defending criminal irresponsibility shown by their counterparts in tobacco and asbestos but on an apocalyptic scale.
These students were unsupervised, running things themselves; improvising a route with lively elan and running rings round the police. They broke through the limits of official dialogue and behavior in a self disciplined orderly disorder. Adults with them were supportive participants with no need to exercise control because the students were dedicated to a higher purpose and were controlling themselves.
In finding the voice that their generation needs, they have overflowed the bounds of business as usual. Their understanding, initiative, creativity, formidable organising skills, capacity for coherent and constructive argument, wit, research skills, courage and humour; have developed a sense of agency, mission, solidarity and empowerment that makes them the leaders in society and education today.
Those Ministers and Head teachers who think it enough to mouth platitudes about missed education and threatening detentions – to try to derail this movement and dampen their students down into the same subordinated, depressed state as the poor souls outside the National Gallery – are failing to grasp the opportunity for social and educational change that their students are serving up to them on a plate; and of course a staggering lack of any sense of proportion. Many of these students have already stepped into a world beyond one in which the old ways have any meaning or resonance.
They have opened a breach in the old order. Time for the rest of us to pour in behind them.
*Quote from Antonio Gramsci.