Angry In Europe

November 17, 2008

While large numbers of young Americans have gotten involved in the political process lately--both through exercise of the right to vote as well as through protests on issues such as California's recent Proposition 8 banning gay marraige--students in Europe have been busy making their own political statements in resounding fashion.

The video and pictures below are from protests in the streets of Italy (video) and Germany (photo), where students in the past weeks have taken bold action to show their anger with government proposals in each country cutting education spending and services:

(see video below)

It's impossible to analyze the events in Italy without reference to the flagging economic conditions affecting the entire globe. Italy is on the front-lines of the economic downturn, with the world's third largest debt (behind only the US and Japan), but only the 7th largest economy by GDP. In light of the economic situation, Italian Prime Minister Sylvio Berlusconi has sought to make dramatic spending cuts--as much as $7 billion Euros, or $9 billion US--in the education system. Proposed cuts would include eliminating as many as 70,000 teaching positions in elementary schools and reducing spending in Italian high schools and universities.

In Germany, student protests are just beginning (compared to the protests in Italy, which started towards the end of October). German students are upset with overcrowded classrooms, high-pressure school exit exams, and teacher quality in general.

While estimates vary, the number of youth protestors in Italy has been widely reported as in the hundreds of thousands--anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000. Given that Italy's population is five times smaller than the United States, one has to wonder what would happen if hundreds of thousands or even millions of American youth stood united to demand improvements in our schools.

To be sure, much remains to be determined as to whether Italian student protests will lead Prime Minister Berlusconi to recant on his promises to cut education spending, or whether there will be some electoral blowback (a Reuters report showed Mr. Berlusconi's approval rating falling a significant 4% in just the past month as the protests have gotten underway). But if the experience from student social movement building in Chile is any lesson, we almost certainly have yet to see the final impact of the protests.


Aaron Tang is the co-director of Our Education, a non-profit organization working to build a national youth movement for quality education. He also teaches 8th grade history in Saint Louis, MO.

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