Brexit, Counterculture, Education

The generational divide within the Brexit vote is stunning. As you probably already know, about 75% of people under 25 voted to remain in the EU. Those over 50, those whose lives will not be shaped by membership, tipped the scales in the other direction.

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The Guardian has set up a Tumblr page for young Britons who supported “Remain” to express their feelings about the vote. Those feelings?: “Distraught,” “furious,” “enraged,” “helpless,” “terrified.” Here is a typical post:

Our Generation

Frankly the whole situation is messy and complex, with so many different issues that could be focused on including xenophobia, fear-mongering and the media. For me, the most irritating part is that a generation of people who own their own houses, have comfortable pensions and studied their degrees for free have decided what is best for our generation – a generation that is unable to buy a house and is in masses of university loan debt. We are the generation that is being walked all over and no one else seems to care.

– Andrew, 21, Graduate.

I cannot help but think again of the students in Vantaa (here in Finland) who told me they felt the older generation was defaulting on its promise by beginning the destruction of the social welfare system that supports their high quality of life.

That means, among other things, cuts to education. Beginning next year, Finland will charge non-EU students tuition for the first time. At the University of Tampere, that may mean 12,000 Euro per year–not much by American standards but a lot more than nothing. When I asked teachers here about the new Core Curriculum, they often expressed frustration with the government’s demand they do more with less funding and that class sizes were set to increase.

For these young people, the social fabric is tearing. It might be more accurate to say, they feel the rug is being pulled out from under their feet, sending them reeling.

Ok, here is where I might seem to take an odd turn.

There is a move here in Finland for the increased digitalization of education. That sounds great but part of me wonders if there is no connection between cuts to education funding and the advent of digitalization. Could the advancement of technology be part of a neoliberal move by the education ministry? Certainly, the politics of silicon valley (disruption, insecurity, winner-take-all) seem to have little in common with social democracy.

I say this not as a luddite: after all, I have spent the past six months putting together an online education website. But part of me wonders if the digital natives who populate our schools might not perceive a neoliberal wolf in (forgive me) digital sheep’s clothing.

A lot of ink has been spilled about this already. The hippie libertarianism of the Internet is too easily co-opted by the market libertarianism of neoliberals. Some education reformers appear swayed by the rhetoric of the inevitability of a certain kind of future. At the same time, many of our students live much of their lives online and don’t see the Internet as an impediment to “real experience.” It’s a dangerous mixture.

I would like to make two quick points. First, I want to acknowledge that there is an uneasy intersection between the progressive ideal of “the student as the unit of consideration,” neoliberal atomization, and the atrophying of the social compact and the commons. For progressive educators, it’s a balancing act: the goal is to employ technology (and adapt education) to serve the interest of the individual without letting go of the common good. We need to use digital tools to increase empathy with those far away, to make new connections. But we also have to keep our students connected to the issues right at home.

Second, I think we have to consider the digitalization of education and the turn toward “21st-century skills” in light of the attack on the welfare state (whether that be in the US, Finland, or anywhere else in the global North). A quest for security–within the EU, under a social democracy, at a job with a pension–may well be the hallmark of the generation born during the Clinton-Blair-Jiang-Kohl years.

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If there ever is another tangible wave of youth rebellion, what will it be like? Will young people differentiate between “the man” who wants to privatize their pension or “the man” who wants them to work 60 hours a week, and “the man” at the Environmental Protection Agency, or at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, or at the Finnish Competition and Consumer Authority? Strange as it sounds, might we have a countercultural movement–or even a youth movement–that demands increased social security?

And I wonder where my students will see their schooling as they contemplate how they’ve been prepared for (or socialized for) the world they face as adults.

Might the Brexit alter the reputation of the bureaucrats among the youth of Britain? For more than a generation, in the Anglo-American world at least, there has been a disinformation campaign eliding the differences between Soviet-style socialism and social welfare systems which lengthened lives and fought poverty.

Some “Organization Men” may not be so bad after all–bureaucracy dedicated to the common good just may be the way to freedom. The young may yet boldly reject Thatcher’s claim that “there is no such thing as society.” Or maybe, when I look at the Brexit results, they already have.

As 25-year-old Alex Hoskins put it to the Guardian:

I feel lied to. Lied to by the people who taught me, through history lessons and politics, that we are better together, that isolation achieves nothing, and that kindness and working together is the best route.