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Claire Fox
director of the Institute of Ideas

One key challenge to ensure intellectual life thrives in the next 18 years is to give young people ideas and social projects worth aspiring to. Getting ‘the kids’ more actively engaged has become an obsession within public policy circles. However, many of these initiatives are problematic and make adults look infantile. The key challenge will be to make adults behave like grown ups to give the young role models worth aspiring to.

At the moment, too many institutions are angst ridden about being out of touch with the young. The desperation to connect has led to a range of naff attempts at ‘getting down with the kids’ using ‘street’ language. But when adults try to hi-jack youth culture to make themselves palatable to the younger generation, they betray their own lack of worth. Is it any wonder kids feel alienated from their elders when adults behave like insecure adolescents?

Another approach is to hang on youths’ coat-tails by constantly asking them what they think. It insults the intelligence of teenagers to pat them on the back without discrimination, just because they are young. Worse, it implies adults have so little to offer new generations and are so insecure in their own values and ideas that the best they can do is to ape the insights of the most immature section of society.

This approach, which purports to take young people seriously, too often patronises them, assuming the only way the young will be impressed by grown ups is if we flatter them. The opposite is the truth. The Institute of Ideas runs a schools’ debating competition (http://www.debatingmatters.com), in which Sixth Formers are challenged by adult judges to justify their arguments and to improve them.

This approach means confronting the ‘whatever’ generation with the value of reasoned argument and the necessity of employing more than the banal truisms and emotional clichés so beloved by teenagers. While this puts pupils under pressure, we have found many relish the prospect of having their ideas held to account and appreciate the intellectual pugilism of serious criticism from those not afraid to admit they know more than the average A-level student. Ironically real engagement occurs, as the sixth formers realise they have a lot to learn and that growing up means entering a world more complicated, more fascinating and even more interesting and stimulating than the world of MySpace.

Instead of consigning the young to the limits of their narrow experience and pandering to youth culture to endear us to them, the challenge is to hold our nerve and earn their respect as adults. Of course that requires that we ourselves have more interesting things to say than the latest issue of Nuts magazine. But as adults we might all raise our game if we set ourselves the challenge of having a project worth growing up to become involved in.



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