The Protest March as Educational Field Trip


The maverick leftist Brendan O'Neill groans at the latest protests in the U.K.:

Probably the most striking thing about last week's student demo against the Lib-Con government's cuts and tuition fees agenda was not the protest itself – which, like all youth protests, was loud, bracing and had some good points as well as bad ones – but rather the sad-dad effect. It was the way in which university lecturers, teachers, journalists and middle-class parents – the respectable adult world – gave a vigorous nod of approval to the demonstration, fantasising that it was some kind of genetic or educational extension of their own inner youthful radicalism….I remember when it was considered embarrassing if your mum phoned a mate's house to check if you were okay during a sleepover. But to phone the cops to find out, in the words of one demo-approving dad, 'when our children will be home'? That's the death-knell of radicalism right there.

The institutions of adult society effectively gave children permission to be on the demo. Some headteachers made no effort to prevent their pupils from leaving school premises, with the head of Camden School for Girls even hinting that she admired her school's 200 bunking protesters. For some in the teaching and university worlds, it seems, this was less a 1968-style revolution than a kind of educational field trip, an extension of those citizenship classes in which children are taught about the importance of voting and community activism. As one adult observer said, 'many un-enfranchised schoolkids showed virtually no interest in politics', but this demo 'changed everything'. Maybe they'll get that A* now.

What this adult sanctioning and glee over Wednesday's demo really reveals is an adult world that now pushes its children to do its political work for it. Teachers, university workers and journalists, like many others, are concerned about the Lib-Cons' cuts agenda and the future of British society more broadly. But lacking any serious ideas, bereft of an effective language in which to articulate and pursue their concerns, they hide behind groups of children instead, hoping that the young ones' fresh-facedness, their energy, their implacable anger (at least as excitedly talked up by the adult observers), will land a political blow where their own ideas and ideals have failed.

So journalists describe the protest as a 'children's crusade', a combination of innocence and anger, in an attempt to present it, and the specific anti-Lib-Con ideas that they hope are driving it, as beyond question, as an utterly un-ignorable stand against Cameron and Co. After all, who would want to challenge, far less mistreat, 'the Harry Potter generation', with their cute placards saying 'Dumbledore wouldn't stand for this shit'? A group of academics and journalists wrote to a newspaper about the importance of protesting against the government's 'cuts to state support for higher education' – but they presented themselves as 'parents of sixth-form school students concerned at the tactics adopted by the police at the demonstration'. Here, grown-ups are trying to turn kids into ventriloquist's dummies for their own political agendas – and trying to warn off the state and the Lib-Con political machine by effectively saying: 'Don't touch the kids, their protest is pure and childlike!'