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Pro-Palestinian protestors camp on the lawn outside Columbia University’s stately Butler Library this spring. Tents, sign and a Palestinian flag are all prominent in the photo.

Anadolu/Getty Images

Like many Jewish families, in recent weeks mine has been navigating tense disagreements about the student encampments in solidarity with Gaza. Amongst other things, these disagreements reflect deep intergenerational divides. For example, in a recent exchange with my father, he expressed his concern that the protests were “getting out of control” and doing more harm than good.

As an academic who studies colonialism in education and works daily with young people, I was frustrated by what I understood to be his narrow assessment of the situation and flattened analysis of the wider context. Yet beyond my frustration, I was also curious what our dissonant readings of the protests might reveal about intergenerational dynamics in education today.

While the students’ courage inspired my father, he was unable to remain focused on their primary concern: that their universities are profiting from weapons and apartheid and their government is funding the attempted decimation of an entire population. But he also failed to recognize the frustration, pain and powerlessness that many students are experiencing.

It’s not surprising that a majority of young people think the future is frightening and that people have failed to take care of the planet. This year alone, they have witnessed, in real time, the murder of thousands of children, the displacement of millions of people, looming famines, and record temperature highs. They have also watched heavily armed police officers descend on their campuses to arrest them or their peers for seeking an institutional response to horrific violence.

Incoming generations are urging us to confront unpalatable truths and acknowledge reality as it is, not as we wish it were, including the fact that our comforts and securities are subsidized by systemic violence. Rather than turning away, they are asking us to turn toward what their generation cannot ignore: Militarized conflicts, economic inequality, climate change, biodiversity collapse, food insecurity, and housing and mental health crises are not external threats, but rather a product of our current system. Responses to these crises have no simple solutions and will not be adequately addressed with existing problem-solving strategies; there is a genuine risk of social and ecological breakdown in their lifetimes, if not ours.

When we minimize these concerns, we neglect our responsibilities as educators, and as human beings. What are our intergenerational responsibilities in a moment when the brokenness of our relationships and the denial of our responsibilities are so glaringly exposed?

The education that most of us are currently offering is insufficient for young people inheriting a world in crisis, and they know it. While some educators try their best to adapt, others keep offering more of the same, hoping for a different outcome. But as the students protesting their universities’ silence and inaction around Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza and suing their universities over fossil fuel investments have made clear, this is not good enough.

Responses to these students by older generations have been varied. Many choose to look away, perhaps shamed by our own inaction or conditioned by our learned collective indifference to systemic violence. Others scold and dismiss the protesters for being impatient, naïve, over-sensitive, disruptive, unrealistic—or, as in the case of my dad, “damaging” the causes they are supporting. These responses are often couched in a dismissive paternalism that refuses to acknowledge the challenges young people are navigating and the normalized violences they are resisting.

Still other responses romanticize the students, suggesting young people have all the answers if only older generations would listen. This idealization places an unfair burden on incoming generations by expecting them to single-handedly solve the complex, multi-layered challenges that we have collectively created and are still learning how to fully grasp, let alone address.

While educators do not need to endorse everything our students say, at a minimum, we have a responsibility to listen to what they are saying and protect their right to say it without the threat of violence, arrest or suspension. This is what the faculty members who formed protective barriers around their protesting students have tried to do. However, beyond defending their free speech, we also have a responsibility to support incoming generations in finding ways to process the collective grief, dread and despair that many are holding. As the multiple cascading crises we face continue to escalate, educators must prepare for how students will make visible the inadequacies of our current education system and demand change.

A handful of scholars have called us to consider the meaning of education in “the age of collapse,” how we might reframe education for “a time between worlds,” and how we can “hospice” systems in decline with integrity. However, today’s educators are generally not equipped with the affective and relational capacities that are needed to honestly confront the harsh realities of the poly-, meta-, and perma-crises, to recognize our own complicity and the complicity of our institutions in systemic harm, or to metabolize heavy emotions in generative ways.

Thus, we are also unprepared to support students in doing the work of processing these things and moving beyond despair without promising easy answers or simplistic “feel-good” solutions. Combined with our (accurate) sense that the present is characterized by extreme complexity, uncertainty, volatility and ambiguity, many educators feel immobilized in the face of unfolding catastrophes—and in the face of our students’ grief over these catastrophes.

To make matters worse, instead of admitting to our students that we don’t know what to do or how to respond, and committing to figuring things out together, many of us simply deflect their concerns. Perhaps this is because, rather than allowing ourselves to feel the pain of our collective “dis-ease”, we have numbed ourselves to it instead. For our students, this numbness can feel like a betrayal, and our deflection can feel like gaslighting, which only adds to their pain.

Western society has taught us that, as we age, we are entitled to more respect and to have our accomplishments celebrated. As a result, when young people challenge us, sometimes older generations feel like we are not “getting our due.” But what if the thing young people need most from older generations is for us to own up to and learn from our failures so that we can share those learnings with them? How might we practice the honesty, humility, compassion, relational accountability and intellectual generosity needed to be taught by our mistakes? How can we support young people to “grow up” when we haven’t done so ourselves?

Our intergenerational responsibilities flow in both directions, to those who have come before us and those who will come after. Yet it is because of our responsibilities to future generations that we must try to correct the mistakes of previous generations. As we confront accelerating social and ecological breakdown, our most critical and challenging intergenerational task is to end the persistent cycles of violence we have inherited.

Sharon Stein is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia, a visiting professor at Nelson Mandela University, and the author of Unsettling the University: Confronting the Colonial Foundations of U.S. Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022). She is deeply grateful for the ongoing intergenerational support from Vanessa Andreotti, dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Victoria, the Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures Collective, and the Teia das 5 Curas Indigenous Network.

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