Learning outside the classroom

The social struggles of our time are better witnessed in the streets.

Many of the greatest youth development theorists over the past half-century have described adolescence as an “era of commitment.” Evidence of this premise was apparent during the high school walkout and protest Nov. 2 on campus. While some media sources and anti-protesters chose to coarsely focus on how these young people “skipped class,” they failed to recognize a number of important aspects.

First, about 80 percent of student learning happens outside of the classroom, which is why there is such a stir about experiential learning and after-school programming today at universities across the country. Protests provides a remarkable space for learning. At a protest, young people have an opportunity to voice their experience with the world and make real their civic obligation. A democratic nation can exist only when citizens are able to debate, dissent and question government policy. The greatest privileges we reap in this country today have emerged via activism.

Second, we cannot talk about young people as if they are something separate from adults, consequently making them “less than” adults. If young people are ahead of the game, they are labeled “prodigies.” If they are a bit behind, they are labeled “at risk.” Shepherding by adults and the demand for youth to “act like adults” forces youths to resist their own condition. Often the meaning of “age” is distorted by societal constructs, giving us false permission to make power distinctions between adults and young people. When age is detached from its social significance, it becomes a mere count of times we traveled around the sun. As we know it, has become a social construct owing to the “life course,” meaning: There are certain things young people “must do” in a timely matter if they are to become “bona fide mature adults,” which is ridiculous.

Media that focus only on young people in a way that paints them as hormonal and delinquent lost souls is unfair and ignorant.

Third, young people have always been able to break with the past, fueled by the ideas of freedom, justice, progress and revolutionary change – from the Soweto uprising in apartheid South Africa by schoolchildren and student involvement in the July 26 Cuban revolution, to the recent protest on campus.

As I marched with the young people on campus, I was thrilled by their capacity to bridge the injustice of war with poverty, race and education. The students’ main demands were to end the United States occupation of Iraq and remove military recruiters from their high school lunchrooms, particularly schools in poor communities. As they marched through campus, a thousand young people stood outside Appleby Hall and deafeningly protested against the dismantling of General College. As General College faculty, staff and students leaned out the windows of Appleby Hall in awe, the high school students called out for government spending on education, not war. They also proclaimed that as long as the University was without General College, less-privileged young people would find a “way out” of their predicament via the military rather than college and face death like 2,000-plus American soldiers have already. University administration has more to worry about now that high school students are speaking to the equal access issue.

Our most critical duty is to create spaces for these youths to meaningfully explore the ideals of freedom, justice and true democracy. In short, we must march with them and willingly behind them.

Nathan Whittaker is a University student. Please send comments to [email protected]