My Turn: Global student strike can be a teachable moment

For the Monitor
Published: 9/4/2019 8:00:17 AM

On Sept. 20, an extraordinary event is taking place: a global student strike demanding an end to the age of fossil fuels. Students around the world are planning to walk out of school to demand effective action to deal with the climate crisis.

How might teachers and parents respond? As an educator and parent myself, I hope our New Hampshire schools use the coming weeks to discuss with their classes whether to join the student strike or not. This is a unique opportunity for schools around our state: not necessarily to tell students what to do, but to engage students in the great emergency of our times.

Every student and adult needs to make up their own mind about participation, of course. Walking out of school is no light matter. Neither, however, is the future of our planet, particularly in light of the inaction of our leaders at the state and federal level.

Young people understandably perceive a world threatened and their sense of urgency needs to be matched by the adults in the room. Very hopeful possibilities now exist for turning our climate train wreck around.

We all know the bad news about the climate emergency, yet here’s the good news: The world is at a hopeful tipping point toward a healthier future. The age of coal is coming to an end. Appalachian coal miners are realizing that the Green New Deal means jobs and a hopeful future for them. Last year, U.S. coal plants with annual emissions of 83 million tons of carbon were shut down; Chubb insurance has stopped insuring coal plants. And some forms of solar power are now cheaper than carbon-based fuels.

Despite the efforts of climate deniers (including our Gov. Chris Sununu, who has declared himself “not sure” if fossil fuels are connected to global warming despite clear evidence of the link), the world is moving toward a hopeful future.

Yet this is still only a possibility. Our political leaders at the federal and state level need to know that voters want them to lead.

Which brings us to the Sept. 20 student strike. In an open letter, seven college professors have called this a “teachable moment,” and they are right.

High school civics classes can discuss what is happening on Sept. 20 to talk about citizen responsibility and participation in the political process. When is a strike justified? Nonviolent protest? Students are not employees so they are not striking in the same sense as union members. Is their action justified?

Science teachers can review the science of climate change (which many are already doing) and also pose this question to students: When does scientific consensus lead to political action? Science and politics are, after all, inextricably linked.

History teachers: How does this student strike compare to other actions by disenfranchised groups that have led to change? For example, the civil rights movement? Suffragettes? (And, are students disenfranchised? In New Hampshire, the restrictions on eligible students’ access to the ballot is outrageous.)

And there is a deeper issue here: Students look to teachers to provide moral authority beyond simply teaching the 3 Rs. Students want to know that their teachers are trustworthy guides to what it means to be an adult and that they have important lessons to teach them about how the world works. What is more important these days than the future of our planet, the world these students will inherit? For schools and teachers to skim over the urgency of these issues is to give their students a phony lesson about what it means to be an adult and to take responsibility for the world we live in.

This is a time for educators to engage with their students in the demand that our elected officials demonstrate the leadership we need for a healthy future for our children and grandchildren.

(Sam Osherson lives in Nelson.)




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