Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Youth show that the world matters

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2005.03.15
EDITION: Final
SECTION: City
PNAME: City Editorial
PAGE: C4
COLUMN: Kate Heartfield
BYLINE: Kate Heartfield
SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen

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Youth show that the world matters

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The North Atlantic Treaty Organization delegates stood around the room, waiting for the session to start, asking each other how late they had each partied the night before. Their suit jackets sat uneasily beneath shaggy haircuts.

It was pretty clear these were university students at a model NATO conference. But as soon as the final session began -- a little behind schedule -- the tone became very serious. Should NATO rule out participating in the Middle East conflict? What if one party in the conflict asked for help? Should NATO at least define "Middle East conflict"?

Carleton University's fourth annual NATO conference began Wednesday and ended Saturday. Model Parliaments and model United Nations are common. Model NATOs are a newer idea, but the concept is similar: Put eager, smart students in a room with name cards and binders, and let them act out in an informed fashion.

There is a common misperception that young people don't care about anything that happens in the world beyond the local mall. International history and politics are rarely taught in any depth before university.

But even if they have to learn about it on their own, young people are interested in international affairs. Keenly interested. This stuff is exciting, and they know it. Once they do get to university, they try to fill in the gaps left in their education to that point.

In fact, many young people probably have more interest in the war in Iraq than in who forms the next Ontario government. Opinions about the world are formed early in an age of omnipresent mass media.

The student-delegates spoke with uncanny confidence about such matters as the make-up of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Delegates acted in the interests of their countries. They spoke not as students from various Canadian universities, but as representatives of nations. Turkey objected to other member countries' stated uneasiness about NATO's "eastern borders." France and the United States traded veiled insults and accused each other of arrogance. It was, in fact, a little eerie in its realism.

Universities sent one or more teams of four or five students, and each team represented a member country. The delegates had to get through an agenda and deal with international crises and personality conflicts. The real NATO is aware of its imitators, and even mentions model NATOs, including Carleton's, on its website.

Not every moment on Saturday morning was serious. There was a vote at one point on a motion "that the United States delegate remove his sunglasses." (It failed.) Then the Czech Republic "proposed" to Slovakia, and the delegates ran toward each other and reunited in a melodramatic embrace.

The students who participate in political simulations are, of course, the students who are into this sort of thing in general. It's hard to say how accurately they represent their generation. A few years ago, these were the kids who said something knowledgeable about politics at the dinner table and left their parents shaking their heads, wondering where on earth they learned that in between the television and video games.

But every generation has those students. Every generation of adults worries that the generation after them will just shrug their shoulders and tune out. And politically engaged students prove every generation of parents wrong. These are the young people who buy into the notion that the world's problems can be solved, and the way to solve them is to sit down at a table and talk. Not all young people buy into that idea, but as long as some do, the world has a chance.

The students who choose political simulations as their extracurricular activity aren't all extroverts. Model conferences and debating clubs are also useful for shy young people, who may be given to forming opinions but not comfortable expressing them.

Some of the students playing at NATO on Saturday morning were still learning to be comfortable. They fumbled through formal speech conventions; several seemed stymied by the fact that the past tense of "strike" is "struck." But they were all at the table, speaking their minds clearly and sometimes forcefully. They were speaking about the most important things in the world, and they knew it.

Political simulations aren't just ways for smart students to run off steam. They're antidotes to the usual harmful assumption that young people don't care about politics, especially international politics. Tell young people that long enough and they'll start to believe it.

Politically aware students are not just playing at running the world. They're in training for it.

Kate Heartfield is a member of the Citizen's editorial board.

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