No, School Isn’t Making Kids ‘Woke’

They just hate neoliberalism.

by Aaron Bastani

8 December 2022

Schoolchildren take part in a climate protest, March 2019. David Cliff/Reuters

Complaints about younger generations are nothing new in social commentary. “Youth were never more sawcie,” opined Thomas Barnes in 1624. “The ancient are scorned, the honourable are condemned, the magistrate is not dreaded.” Indeed, the idea of cultural degeneration – with children at the vanguard – goes back as far back as Socrates and Horace.

Yet awareness of such longstanding whinging hasn’t insulated our own era from similar complaints. “School indoctrination is turning British youth woke – and Tories remain silent” was the title of a recent piece by Eric Kaufmann for the Daily Telegraph. In it, Kaufmann makes the hackneyed argument that the young are spurning sacred cultural values, and that such a shift is driven by the education system.

As a moral panic, this combination of vengeful young people with schools which indulge their destructive impulses is increasingly central to the conservative worldview. From criticisms of Black History Month to the Twitter account ‘Libs of Tik Tok’ (which ‘exposes’ teachers with which it disagrees), the right is trying to gestate a wider public outcry about indoctrination in schools.

None of the evidence supports such a claim, however. The fact is that in Anglophone countries, younger people are more leftwing on cultural as well as economic issues because of life circumstances, inequality and new media. But the desire to blame schools should be viewed as more than just wrong. It betokens how adrift conservatives feel when faced with multiple generations who profoundly disagree with them on a wide range of issues.

Kaufmann is an academic at Birkbeck University and a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. His conclusion came from a report he authored for the latter titled ‘The Political Culture of Young Britain’. At its heart is the claim that “cultural socialism” – namely, “the desire to engineer equal outcomes and protect minority identity groups from psychological harm” – is of greater importance to younger generations than “historic British values” such as free speech and feeling pride in the country’s history. 

Unsurprisingly, Kaufmann largely blames the school system for this. Yet despite his certainty, his own data reveals his assertion to be wrong. 

What he is right about – and this is confirmed in his survey responses – is that political and social attitudes are shifting among younger Brits. Among the survey’s 1,540 respondents, only 20% defined as being on the right, while 64% identified as being on the left. This shouldn’t be surprising: a recent report by the Institute for Economic Affairs found that 67% of those aged 18-34 would prefer to live in a socialist economy. Naturally, conservatives find such conclusions alarming and, as a result, are scrambling for explanations – the easiest of which is indoctrination by educational institutions. 

To measure their exposure to ‘woke’ ideas in a learning environment, Kaufmann asked his respondents if they had encountered a series of ‘critical social justice’ concepts in class or through an adult at school. For Kaufmann, critical social justice encompasses ideas like systemic racism, unconscious bias, white privilege and patriarchy – the hypothesis being that the hegemony of such ideas among the young is synonymous with their adoption of leftwing views more broadly. Elsewhere, Kaufmann seems happy to ignore young people’s feelings about inequality, poverty and climate change. 

The report states that not only are schools exposing children to such ideas, but that such exposure is intensifying. Among 18-year-old respondents, who have just finished school, 79% claimed to have encountered critical social justice in class. This fell to 74% among 19-year-olds, and 68% for 20-year-olds. This represents, according to Kaufmann, “precisely the pattern we would expect if these concepts are being increasingly introduced in British schools over time.” 

While the idea of someone going through school and not encountering ideas like ‘patriarchy’ or ‘unconscious bias’ (both of which exist – ask any anthropologist or social psychologist) would be rather strange, the categories Kaufmann employs aren’t the biggest problem with his conclusions. Despite excoriating schools for teaching such ideas, his own data shows that just 11% of children encounter them for the first time in a classroom. By contrast, 50% of respondents claim to have come across ideas like patriarchy and white privilege for the first time on social media. Meanwhile, 8% of respondents said the primary gateway for these apparently radical ideas were their own parents. 

If conservatives want to censor schools from explaining such ideas to children, then what do they propose for their mothers and fathers? The fact that parents are almost as likely to raise these issues with children as schools decisively undermines the idea that educational ‘indoctrination’ is somehow responsible for these shifts.

Indeed, elsewhere Kaufmann seemingly laments the lack of indoctrination in schools. When asked about their feelings towards Winston Churchill, a plurality of respondents replied that their views were mixed, and that the former prime minister had done both good and bad things. Yet rather than interpreting these nuanced positions as something to be welcomed, Kaufman concludes that the absence of uncritical adulation undermines “the very essence of British civilisation”. It would appear that Conservatives are perfectly happy to have ‘indoctrination’ in schools – but only when they agree with it.

And yet young people, as this report testifies, continue to move significantly left. Are they increasingly strident in their views? Perhaps. But again, this would hardly be a new phenomenon. As Aristotle wrote 2,500 years ago: “Young people are high-minded because they have not yet been humbled by life, nor have they experienced the force of circumstances.” While that doesn’t always apply, it certainly rings true. 

In any case, younger people holding different views to their elders is to be expected. That this is happening so intensely in Britain and the US should indeed provoke introspection among conservatives in both countries. The fact is young people are more leftwing because they’ve grown up during an era of profound economic and political failure in the English-speaking world – the era of neoliberalism. And, while that has happened, they have enjoyed access to new media, and voices, to make sense of the values they care about. 

Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.

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