Today, as students across the country participate in the National School Walk Out event organized by a Women’s March subgroup, Youth Empower, we should remember that the young give us a view of what’s possible unencumbered by the scars of experience. Whether you agree with them or not, you should recognize the vitality that youth activism brings to a democratic future.
Who is naïve?
The largest youth protest action in history occurred almost fifty years ago, in Paris, in May 1968. In coordination with workers strikes across the country, the protesters and workers created an entirely new ethos for French politics and society. The boundaries of social liberation widened. The older generation, horrified at the hints of anarchy, responded with harsh dismissal of the students. The old refused to consider the idea that their own experience could produce blind spots. They interpreted the student protests as the temper tantrums of spoiled children. The youth responded with caricatures, such as this poster of a silhouette of President De Gaulle saying, “Be young and shut up.”
Fifty years later, I can sympathize with the older generation, hardened by the trauma of World War II. They certainly had an idea of the stakes when it came to social unrest and political instability. The world must remember their warnings and take heed. To admit this does not mean concluding that they had all the answers to every problem. The older generation, having learned hard lessons at great cost, understandably hates the idea of a younger generation taking for granted all that they sacrificed.
Youth’s disdain is the seed of progress
Yet, if the younger generation did not take for granted the progress made by its predecessors, then the engine of improvement would shut down. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, one of the leaders of the Paris 1968 student movement, wrote in that year:
Modern youth is not so much envious of, as disgusted with, the dead, empty lives of their parents.
He wrote this to explain that the younger generation sought not to seize power from the older generation, but, rather, to change the entire mindset of society. The students, the younger generation, could clearly see something — a lack of soul — that the older generation could not.
In our time, the students in protest today can clearly see the failure that the older generation produced. The older generation, blinded by their own experience in the quaint decades of fire drills, must take this opportunity to carefully listen to the generation that grew up in the decades of school shootings. Their vantage point makes visible for them what the rest of us cannot see. We need them to illuminate the path of progress.