Students and Politics

Amongst the divisive headlines concerning Hong Kong’s escalating protests, the recurring theme of student activism has been highly contested. Student-led strikes have been prevalent across domestic universities and secondary schools, with a significant number of students also participating in the organized protests held in the streets. Their actions have been faced with strong criticism. On social media, the opposition have characterized such students as “unemployed hooligans”, “rioters who are only paid to appear on the streets”, and their attendance in protests being the result of “rash and glory-seeking decisions”. Yet, those championing for the students have argued that their views deserve to be represented, and particularly so in a society which systematically disallows their opinions due to mandatory ages for voting and a lack of platforms for them to express themselves. In face of these controversies, the question of how students should engage in politics has never been more relevant. Should student voices be heard, and their movements be credited? What roles do educational bodies have in education, and to what extent should they include the discussion of politics in the curriculum?

Historically, political student movements have been significant in instigating political change across nations. One prime example which sets this tradition is the French Revolution, in which students formed the intellectual basis of the movement to replace the dictatorial form of government with a democratic one. One may also recall the series of student-led social movements in 1968 against oppressive dictatorial regimes in Eastern Europe, in which students in states such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Poland conducted demonstrations against their autocratic leaders, thus accelerating the collapse of the Soviet Union. Looking closer into recent history, student activism has not only increased, but has gradually shifted to become more critical of norms and practices of previous generations. Following the Parkland Shootings, student victims of Marjory Stoneman Douglas initiated a campaign which advocated for stricter gun control, whilst youth climate change activists, such as Greta Thunberg, have taken it upon themselves to challenge the current indifference among countries towards the imminent climate crisis. Student activism, if anything, has been an important contributor to political change in the past century, and continues to be a driving force of change.

Three main concerns have been raised from the opposition regarding student activism, which are their lack of experience, goal-oriented methodologies and susceptibility to bias. Firstly, as students have been raised in greenhouses and protected environments within schools, they lack the exposure and life experiences that are required to relate to the conflicting needs of different interest groups. This may result in uncompromising and over-idealistic goals that fail to take into consideration the compromising nature of political processes. Secondly, student-driven movements tend to be goal oriented and short-term, in which they may use radical means that are seen as justifiable to support their cause. This may also culminate in a neglect for the larger picture, in which the aims they strive for are incremental and instantaneous rather than long term reforms. Last but not least, students in their formative years might not have had time to become adequately informed or develop critical thinking skills. Thus, they are immensely susceptible to believing in the opinions of authority, such as their parents and teachers. They are also in school environments where peer pressure is strong, which may unconsciously influence the individual’s beliefs and resulting decisions. Thus, their decisions might not be educated and independently made, but ones influenced by biases to figures of authority, and might be exploited to fulfill political agendas of others.

However, those who choose to put forward these claims must recognize that these flaws are not exclusive to students, but also adults as well. Adults are not necessarily exposed to all walks of life, and may hold uncompromising beliefs on social norms and morality themselves. Students are not entirely raised in greenhouse environments either – in activities such as volunteering and extra-curriculars, they are exposed to people with different upbringings, and can learn to understand their conflicting interests. Whilst compromises are important in politics, politicians are the ones responsible to make concessions in order to pass policies, not the people. Just because a certain demand is less compromising does not detract from the legitimacy of the demand, and it would be hugely unfair to claim that one should not be allowed to voice their views simply because they are less likely to accept a compromise. It is also unfair to claim that students are necessarily short-sighted – movements such as the Chile 2006 student educational protest included both short term and long term demands, such as the end to municipalization of state subsidized education. The Hong Kong protest demands in particular also includes long term reform demands such as the establishment of a fair and representative voting system, and a reform within the current police force, showing sight of the long term. Furthermore, adults are just as susceptible to cognitive biases, particularly the confirmation bias, which creates the tendency for individuals to actively seek out evidence that supports their view rather than to consider all sources holistically. Levels of education, information and critical thinking abilities also differ greatly among adults, some of which have less than that of an average school child – does that mean we strip them of their right to voice their own opinions? And even then, adults do not necessarily act in ways beneficial to the common good, especially when promoting self-interests. Thus, using age as a proxy to determine whether it is appropriate, or desirable for one to engage in politics is arbitrary at best, and may even be unfound in certain cases.

Even then, the right to be heard should be considered independently from an individual’s ability to make decisions. The power of the state comes from the rights sacrificed by its people, and thus is only legitimate when it fulfills its reciprocal obligation to each of its citizens by using its power for their welfare. When the state puts itself in a position to assert that certain demands are definitely less legitimate than others, it will alienate the needs of a certain demographic, thus failing its obligation to these individuals. Thus, in any case, the state is a vessel that channels the will of the people, rather than one who uses its own will to determine public policy. Otherwise, a state that does not act on its people’s will, and has no mechanisms of accountability to make it do so, is not legitimate, making it no different from large scale oppression.

Given such, there are reasons why student activism could be justified. As generally younger citizens, students are likely to be impacted by policy decisions for longer as they are likely to live further into the future. Due to the impact being disproportionate, they deserve a larger voice so that policy decisions could account for their interests. Another reason is that the system is structurally unfavourable to student opinion. With barriers such as the legal voting age, stereotypes which prevent their ideas from being taken seriously in legal channels, and lack of bargaining power with the policy-making process, there is a lack of incentive for politicians and governments to specifically cater to the interests of students. The government’s unresponsiveness to the peaceful protests in the early months of unrest has shown students that peaceful avenues don’t work – escalation is needed for their demands to be heard.

The other question that requires attention is the role of education in politics. It is intuitive that education should equip individuals with knowledge and skills to either develop their understanding of different subjects, or prepare them for future societal contribution. In that case, it is questionable why political literacy is not taught from an earlier age. If adults were not taught the importance of certain political functions, or have not previously evaluated policy directives, it is unlikely that they would be able to exhibit critical thinking skills. Even if there were arguments that teachers could potentially be biased, and skew students’ views, it is still comparatively better than putting them in a society where actors and information sources are likely to be influential and biased. At least in schools students are more likely to receive constructive support and opposition from both peers and teachers, creating an academic basis for their evaluation. Thus, schools should take on a more active role in promoting political literacy amongst its students.

Whilst the voices of students may seem easy to discredit due to their young age and defiant methods of protests, one must refrain from rushing to conclusions. Students face barriers that prevent their opinions from being sufficiently recognized through legal channels of expression. Rather than to resort to suppressing the voices of students and forcing them to radicalize, more positive efforts should be made to accommodate students within political discourse. This could be done by promoting political literacy at younger ages, and gradually lowering the voting age to coincide with schools’ political literacy education. Schools should promote a more critical environment that encourages the exchange of opinion, rather than to limit them. Many politicians and people of influence have claimed that the future lies within the hands of today’s youth. It’s prime time that the political system is changed to reflect that.