Friday, 03 July 2009

You'd hope they'd be angry A while ago I noted some concerns about the proportion of young people who betray a profound sense of detachment and seem never to have inhabited a democratic culture. This was just a reflection after a few workshops, firmed-up through discussions with teachers and others; it was certainly not the conclusion of systematic research. It felt as if a lot of the young people we talked to have difficulty with conflicting ideas, and they have little experience of organising, being organised, self-organisation, or organisations. More recently I picked up on some questions about racism among young people. Then this week, two more snippets to add to this particular pile. In a meeting on Monday evening a teacher spoke about students, particularly Ghanaian girls, practising clear self-segregation along ethnic lines within school, 'sometimes in a quite aggressive manner'. It's an interesting example because language has nothing to do with it: all Ghanaians speak English. We need to understand more about the sense of threat to community identity that causes these contractions. And yesterday I spoke to a Dutch researcher who has been interviewing more than thirty young people about their sense of citizenship as reflected in their everyday lives. She said that her work (with a lot of data being processed systematically) confirms my reflections on both these themes. Going to youth clubs and 'being organised' are not cool and levels of participation in other clubs and associations seem to be low. Racial tension in the Netherlands is worrying, often played out by young people struggling for some physical or cultural territory of their own. Sometimes what seem to be clashes of power may really be defiance against lack of it, or the removal of identity. I suspect there's a link between these themes, I just don't know quite what it is. I fear it's quite profound, having to do with the struggle for acceptable identity and a denial of access to a democratic culture - all at an age where self-respect is very much under construction. Is what we think we're seeing exceptional, among other contemporary cultures or historically? Are we fussing over nothing new? Thinking about people aged between say 13 and 19, sometimes I want to ask (it seems to me that they want to ask) 'what's the point of being young these days?' This period in their lives is a transition: to what? One of the teachers I interviewed recently spoke highly of her students but with some concern about the formlessness of the everyday culture they've been left with. She said: 'You'd think they'd be angry. You'd hope they'd be angry.'

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