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Children’s Civil Disobedience in the Minority World & its Potential for Re-imagining the Educational

School Strike for Climate, Berlin, 23.09.2019. Image by: Author

Children (i.e. people under 18) constitute majority of the education sector, regardless of where they are schooled. They will also be the main group dealing with future consequences of the current planetary crisis. Yet their political interests and standpoints do not receive the serious consideration they deserve. There are several possible answers to ‘why’ this is the case; I locate the problem in a form of structural and personal bias called ‘adultism’ (Flascher 1978; Liebel 2020; Bonnardel 2015). My endeavor is to grasp and contribute to the awareness of adultist biases that impede taking children’s political interests and standpoints seriously in climate justice, especially in areas that concern them the most e.g. the education sector. The matter intimately connects democratic participation beyond the right to vote and education beyond schooling. There is something educational about realising one’s political agency, by letting minors realise theirs.

The global education sector is part of a profit-oriented economic sector demanding formation of pupils into competitive future human capital. However, the current financial growth-oriented economic sector depletes the earth system and can lead to future civilizational collapse risking survival for future generations on our planet (IPCC 2018). The education sector also positions children as ignorant pupils and adults as knowledgeable teachers who prepare them for future life. Such an asymmetrical positioning underestimates that children can find and use relevant knowledge for self-organised political participation. Movements like Fridays for Future and activists like Greta Thunberg demonstrate that children can also become influential game changers and inspire transformative changes in lives of their adult counterparts. I argue that, especially since political minors have no voting rights, contemporary education must be reimagined to give more room for children’s political agency in the educational processes of adults too. This would be a practical implication of Article 12 of the international child’s rights convention i.e. the right to participation. For the philosophy of education, this means exploring what and how adults can learn from and because of children. An example can be found in the educational philosophy of Jacques Rancière (1991) wherein the teacher emphasizes his own ignorance and encourages his students to use their capacity to learn. Educational development, in such a philosophical approach, is something both pupils and teachers experience. In this mutually emancipatory philosophical understanding of education, one finds an inclination towards leveling out asymmetrical ‘top-down’ power relations between adults and children (as found in e.g. Kant 1904). Hoveid & Hoveid (2019) similarly call for a more reflexive approach to educational praxis. What does this have to do with contemporary children’s civil disobedience for intergenerational climate justice in the minority world i.e. global north?

The primary case I consider is contemporary children's civil disobedience in privileged countries e.g. Greta Thunberg's school strikes. Since 2018, I have been following scholarly and media articles of public discussions on the topic in German and English, browsing through climate litigation cases and watching videos on YouTube. I also participated in school strikes (before Covid 19) in Helsinki and Berlin as a researcher. While on the one hand meeting protestors and following the movement is an immensely inspiring experience, I’ve particularly been trying to grasp the adultist and childist dimensions of the public discussions on school strikes. By adultist dimensions I mean the ways in which e.g. Thunberg’s young age led to her dismissal and marginalisation. I also take intersectional aspects of gender, colour and nationality into account. However, her age has been in the foreground of my analysis because my work is primarily located in childism research. By childist dimensions I mean the ways in which Thunberg’s civil disobedience contributes to challenging and changing norms about children’s positions in society. I read the adultist dimensions as barriers to childist thinking. Argumentative adult resistance unveils that children actively raising their voices, does not imply that they will in fact be heard. I highlight these barriers through some non-exhaustive instances of adultist template responses to Thunberg’s activism (Biswas 2019):

1. Lacking Authenticity: It is not her own view. Or - She is being used by adults to push their agenda.

2. Naivety: She does not yet understand how the real world works.

3. Impermanent Emotionality: She is emotionally charged and therefore reacts now, but it will pass when objective reason comes forth.

4. Charm: It is very touching to see a child say such grown up things.

5. Popular Impression: Impressive, but this is just another movement gaining popularity and attention through mass media. It will pass.

6. Ethical Nodding: We must address this in the next meeting because children, especially girls should be taken seriously.

7. Depoliticized Pedagogical Defence: Children should stay in school and leave politics to adults! Adults are more experienced and have more knowledge. Therefore, they are entitled to teach children.

8. Self-victimization: We are trying, but what can we do - we are only human.

These ‘templates’ are not a report of who said what and when, rather they outline a tendency of various adultist responses Thunberg’s activism received. The regular action of school strikes for climate raised adult aggravation and fears about the place of school in the public sphere at the onset in 2018 (Meade 2020). Concerns were particularly raised about the ‘loss of educational opportunities’. Protestors were accused of ‘truancy’ (e.g. by the British government) and told that their country needs more learning and less activism at schools (e.g. by the Australian government). In Germany too punishments like detention were recommended in so far as the act of ‘striking’ was often described as ‘Schule schwänzen’ or ‘bunking school’. This is to say that the adultist dimension seemed to have been a barrier in even recognizing that there is a difference between politically motivated defiance of school attendance and ‘bunking school’. German leaders like chancellor Angela Merkel and the general secretary of the Christian Democratic Union Paul Ziemiak eventually acknowledged the demands that protestors voiced in political discourses. But, ultimately, the German coal phase-out plan 2038 (Deutsche Welle 2020) was defended with the reason that: according to democratic principles other interest groups must be given the same attention (Meade 2020: 108). The acknowledgment seems to have been brushed away with a relativization of children’s political interests in favour of commercial interests on democratic grounds. One finds here the limitations of present understanding of democracy itself which, as Moosa-Mitha (2005) has proposed, should be approached from a difference-centred perspective. Additionally, the concerns around ‘loss of educational opportunities’ of privileged children disregarded the educational dimensions of the protestors' activities for both adults and children involved. School strikes however radically and successfully challenge strict dichotomies between education and activism (Mattheis 2020). In fact, "[y]oung people calling for global action on climate change are not simply asserting their voices. They are, at the very same time, articulating or demonstrating their dependence on active responses from the powerful in the global community. They are pointing out humanity’s overall deep global interdependency. It is precisely adults’ failures to recognize their own and others’ global vulnerabilities to one another that stands in the way of real climate change justice (Josefsson & Wall 2020: 8)."

I argue that school strikes offer an opportunity for reaching new imaginations of education and the socio-political position of children as ‘pupils’. Consequently, they provide both children and adults an effective tool to create alternatives to adultist education systems; education beyond schooling. Especially in privileged countries where children have a relatively secure right to schooling, the use of their privileged positions to challenge intergenerational injustice is fascinating. While school strikes may not be appropriate for all political purposes, they can be valuable from an educational perspective. Together with my research colleague Nikolas Mattheis, I find at least three valuable dimensions for reimagining the educational. First, protestors take ownership of the privilege of formal education in challenging current financial profit-oriented frameworks and curricula. Unlike fellow children from lesser privileged countries, their right to go to school to prepare them for future employment is guaranteed by their respective welfare states. Going on strike implies that protestors actively choose not to use their right to schooling in order to challenge the profit-oriented priorities of their governments. Second, the strikes are educative in themselves because they serve as a counterweight to formal education. Protestors source and learn content from others, teach others (e.g. parents, teachers and public) and gain hands-on knowledge about democratic organisation, civic participation, and political action. Finally, there is the dimension of how educators and related adult stakeholders should/could respond to school strikes to enhance its educative aspects. The last dimension is particularly where adultist barriers need to be overcome to open a passage to childist imagination.

Childism is by no means limited to how I philosophically grasp and apply it (e.g. Biswas 2020; conf. Wall 2019 for a broader overview). Here, by childist imagination, I refer specifically to what adults can learn by recognizing and validating children’s political agency as observed in the school strikes for climate. Discussions related to protests for intergenerational climate justice have either dealt with adultist discourses (e.g. Meade 2020), adult responsibilities as educators (e.g. Straume 2018; Su & Su 2019) or theorizing global justice in light of children’s political agency (e.g. Josefsson & Wall 2020; Holmberg & Aida 2019). Alternative childist imaginations can not only empower children’s positions pertaining to educational concerns in times of climate crisis. They empower adults to progress towards a sensible sensitivity and sensitive sensibility. The imagination can breathe on the crossroads of political and educational philosophy since democratic social life is not born with one’s first vote; it comes to life much before that. Neither does educational life end once a certain diploma is conferred upon an individual; it lives on much beyond that. Privileged children in the minority world exercising their political agency on school strike have something pertinent to teach adults beyond making politically wise decisions considering intergenerational climate justice. School strikes for climate are educational not just for children, but adults in the minority world as well. A new educational imagination would be one that goes beyond adults teaching children. Instead, it would be open to letting children be a source of knowledge and inspiration for adults too. My argument is not against schooling in privileged contexts as such, but proposes that school strikes for climate offer a philosophical clearing for adults to broaden horizons of what intergenerational socio-political life could be.


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Tanu Biswas is an interdisciplinary philosopher of education hosted by the University of Bayreuth, Germany. She specialises in childism research at the intersections of humanities and social sciences. She is particularly fascinated by the philosophical richness that children have to offer adults. Her present post-doctoral research considers contemporary children's civil disobedience (School Strikes for Climate) as an opportunity to rethink inter-generational relationality in education.

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