A historian of youth politics stands with the school climate strikers

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)

We are halfway through the week-long Global Climate Strike. Last Friday, millions of school students and workers around the world took to the streets demanding that governments act now to address the climate and ecological crisis. Back in March 2018, in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, I blogged about the history of children’s strikes for Doing History in Public. Since then, youth strikes have exploded onto the global political arena. In less than a year, Greta Thunberg has gone from protesting alone outside the Swedish parliament to being the figurehead of a global ‘School Strike for Climate’ movement.

As a historian of children’s politics, I am fascinated by the historical resonances of today’s youth strike movement. General strikes have marked the industrial age. The summer of 1839 saw fraught discussions within the Chartist movement about how to use the General Strike – or Grand National Holiday – to best effect. Mass strikes posed an increasing threat to the political status quo in the early twentieth century, most famously in Russia in 1905, Germany in 1919, and Britain in 1926. Today, young people are mobilising a well-established tactic that has long been used against industrial capitalism and the political disenfranchisement it brings to highlight the same system’s culpability for the climate and ecological crisis. It is precisely because young people lack formal political representation that their actions are so powerful.

The varied media and political responses to today’s school strikers throw up many of the same issues I grapple with when researching schoolgirls’ politics 150 years ago. The narrative oscillates between two extremes. Either the strikers have the moral authority that adults embedded in an exploitative system do not, and therefore represent a rare glimmer of hope for the future of the planet. Or they are dangerous and subversive, hypocritically condemning a system in which they are already complicit. They are rebelling against adults who know better and who say they should be in school. These conflicting perspectives map onto two dominant models of childhood that have a long history. In the nineteenth-century West, attitudes towards children were polarised between a Romantic ideal of innate childhood innocence, and an Evangelical paradigm that insisted instead that children’s natural tendency for disobedience needed to be overcome. This tension has proved remarkably enduring.

Adults’ assumptions about youth political apathy are also shaping responses to the climate strikes. In their study of teenage activists’ political training in North and South America, Hava Gordon and Jessica Taft argued that these same preconceptions created a discourse of exceptionalism that infantilised youth activists. In doing so, adults failed to recognise young people’s political power.[1] Speaking to the US Senate climate crisis task force last week, Greta Thunberg criticised this tendency to fall back on the idea that child activists are nothing but inspirational: “Don’t invite us here to just tell us how inspiring we are without actually doing anything about it because it doesn’t lead to anything.” Bound up in the idealisation of the child activist are age-based prejudices about what a child should look like, how a child should act, and where to draw the line between the child ‘citizen-in-waiting’ and the ‘real’ adult citizen.

However, the potential for youth politics to trigger meaningful action from adult politicians gives me hope. Michael McDevitt and Steven Chaffee have urged researchers to move away from concepts of ‘top down to trickle-up influence’. They argue that we ‘should not neglect the possibility that political growth in a child might stimulate the parent to think more deeply about political issues’.[2] The climate crisis is a prime example. An article published earlier this year based on a study in North Carolina showed that by discussing climate change with their parents, children raised adults’ concerns about the issue.[3]

In the well-known school strikes of 1889 and 1911, children were inspired by adult strikers to walk out of the classroom.[4] Less sympathetic commentators used the pathologized language of contagion to capture this ‘top-down’ effect. The headmaster of one co-ed elementary school in Burnley was pleased to note in September 1911 that ‘we have had no outbreak here of “Strike Fever” among the boys.’[5]

Now, instead, it is adults who are learning what it means to ally with young people in the global climate strike movement. But while politicians are only beginning to take young people’s politics seriously, young people have always had political influence – if not in the obvious ‘adult’ ways we might expect. As historians, we need to respond critically to how ideas about youth political apathy and immaturity have hidden young people’s politics from the historical record. We need to challenge our own assumptions to ensure children’s politics are no longer marginal to the histories we write. I am continuing to learn how to be an ally to youth politics both in my historical research and, far more importantly, in response to the climate crisis.


[1] H. R. Gordon and J. K. Taft, ‘Rethinking youth political socialization: teenage activists talk back’, Youth & Society, 43/4 (2011), pp. 1499-1527, at pp. 1505-6.

[2] Michael McDevitt and Steven Chaffee, ‘From top-down to trickle-up influence: revisiting assumptions about the family in political socialization’, Political Communication, 19/3 (2002), pp. 281-301, at p. 287.

[3] Read the study in full here: Danielle F. Lawson, Kathryn T. Stevenson, M. Nils Peterson, Sarah J. Carrier, Renee L. Strnad and Erin Seekamp, ‘Children can foster climate change concern among their parents’, Nature Climate Change, 9 (2019), pp. 458-62.

[4] Stephen Cunningham and Michael Lavalette, School’s Out: The Hidden History of Britain’s School Student Strikes (London: Bookmarks Publications, 2016).

[5] Lancashire Archives, Accrington Road Board School, Burnley log book, 1895-1912, p. 435, SMBY/49/1/1.

Image: School Strike for Climate, Zagreb, March 2019, photograph by GoranH (licensed for reuse)

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