A beautiful quote from Noam Chomsky, as is so often the case, sums things up well: "Students who acquire large amounts of debt putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society. When you trap people in a system of debt, they cannot afford the time to think."
The problem was first really highlighted for me when I realised that, on average, my universities political societies had the same number of members as the Cheese Appreciation Society. It is supposed to be the job of the youth to 'challenge corruption' and yet the only political posting I've seen from any school friends on Facebook recently was a status complaining about people being too political (what it was he was seeing I don't know).
I've spoken elsewhere on how the problem rests with politics itself, rather than young people, that it is politics that needs to change itself to earn back the trust and interest of young voters, and that many politicians will be quite happy for students to stay disinterested. But there's more to the story than that.
No Time to Think
Student debt is just the most obvious sign of a more subtle, generally more right-wing political system, that makes utility king. Everything has to have its use now, everything has to be efficient, and economically viable. The National Curriculum is our first experience of this- from a very young age now we're brought up believing there are targets we have to meet, exams we have to pass, and anything that doesn't directly further these ends is superfluous.
I recently attended a weekend run by the Institute of Ideas, a weekend that the organisers describe as: "demonstrating the way a university should be". The weekend consisted of a series of lectures around the theme of morality (they change the theme every year). The lectures, for me at least, were only really the beginning- the starting point for the debates and discussions to be had over meal times and into the early hours of the morning (with much wine involved as well). I feel that to an extent this is a dying practice in universities (and virtually non-existent in schools)- the chance to really explore ideas and hone critical thinking.
The point is we are now seeing a generation consistently being made to jump through more and more elaborate hoops in order to achieve some sort of 'success' in life, being burdened with huge debts as soon as they leave university, with very few outlets for political and philosophical discussion. What will the result of all this be?
There are many dystopian future novels out there, from 1984 to Brave New World, all painting equally horrifying futures for the human race. There are elements of all of them that we can see becoming realised in our society today, but rarely have I ever read such a novel and genuinely feared that it would become true. The exception to this is a little book titled "Farenheit 451", this being the temperature that books burn at- which is exactly what happens throughout the novel. This fictional future is the perfect vision of an apathetic and uncaring world, with academia and learning branded a crime, and where pop culture is the only culture. This is the dystopia that I fear we are closest to sleep-walking into. Will it only be when we have more people voting in X-Factor than general elections that we realise?
The only chance we have is by reforming key areas. Our educational system again needs to become a system that imbues children with a thirst for knowledge and the ability to think critically (a bit of basic PPE wouldn't go amiss either). Our political system needs to be more accountable, accessible, and acceptable to the public. And media outlets need to stop trivialising 'student news'- so students don't keep getting sent the message that all they care about is drinking games and cheap holidays to Magaluf.
I don't blame young people for their disconnect with the system- the blame for that lies elsewhere. The point of this article is yes, to highlight some of the causes of apathy in the young, but also to serve as a rallying call. The first step to curing any ailment is locating the cause. Perhaps if young people have something to fight for that is relatable to them, and a hope of making things better, they'll actually engage?
They're not to blame for their disenfranchisement, but young people can be the cure. By recognising and challenging where the system is letting us down and how this has contributed to lack of engagement, we can make a difference. The points above are not an exhaustive list of what's causing disengagement, but they are certainly a good starting point for young people to start tackling. Let's change the culture of our student news outlets by writing for them. Let's demand better seminar structures at our universities, and let's fight for better political teaching in our schools.
Let's try and change the system from within. Let's raise our voices with a fury never witnessed, turning the dark, deep pit of apathy into a raging volcano of activism and pressure. Let's make our voices heard and force politics to be a vehicle for social justice- for all. Let's turn the dry and boring atmosphere of Westminster into lively and varied discourse.
This is the choice we face, and its importance cannot be overestimated. Do we dismiss politics and all associated, just hoping things don't affect us too much? Or do we fight for what we believe, and force politics to work for everyone? Do we choose apathy, or activism?