If there’s one group we like to blame society’s problems on, it’s young people. These binge drinking hoody wearers are disaffected, uncaring and couldn’t spell “politics” if their entire Spelling Bee credibility depended on it, right?
Wrong. While some of us continue to bury years of repressed memories of endless evenings spent crying over boys and loudly hating our parents, there is one place guaranteed to restore a long lost faith in teenagers: a Model United Nations conference.
This weekend’s MUN at George Watson’s College is the largest school-based conference of its kind in Scotland. Attracting over 600 secondary school pupils from across Britain, Europe and even North Africa, ages range from as young as 12 right up to 18 – and all of them with a keen interest in international relations.
The three-day conference is spent debating a wide variety of issues, ranging from designer babies and women’s pay, to the justification of torture and overcoming poverty. Sometimes the discussions wander into satire (take, for example, Germany’s proposal that a hotline between a selection of UN member states have Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” as its holding tune), but usually they’re serious, well researched and impressively thorough.
There’s a wide range of abilities here, from the seasoned MUN veteran to the nervous first timer, but for all of them it’s cool to be clever. This is helped by the overwhelming feature at George Watson’s being the feeling of inclusion; nobody can be found sitting awkwardly on their own or left red faced in the aftermath of a “stupid” suggestion.
“We pride ourselves on being a friendly conference,” explains chair of one of the political committees, Lily Taylor. “So if it’s anyone’s first conference we really encourage them to speak.”
Being young, these kids take everything in their stride. Full of modesty and sheltered from the harsh realities of a competitive job market, they don’t seem to grasp quite how astonishing what they’re doing is. One boy cringes at his mum’s public yet withheld expressions of pride, while another talks down his achievements, instead joking about accepting bribes in the form of bags of Haribo, a selection of lollipops and even a cabbage.
As well as having the confidence to stand up and present their argument in front of an entire hall full of their peers, they all clearly know their stuff – and if they don’t, they’re quickly pulled up by someone else who does. The enthusiasm is infectious; they might be role playing, but each speech is passionate without exception, with the debates becoming more and more colourful as the weekend progresses.
If there’s one criticism of the MUN scene, it’s that it’s still dominated by private schools. As an extra curricular activity, it’s perhaps little wonder that only a handful of state schools have the resources to establish and nurture any kind of MUN club. That said, a good number of the Scottish schools at George Watson’s conference are state schools, including James Gillespie’s High School which held its first one-day conference at the end of last year.
But the most profound outcome of an MUN has got to be the effect it has on the minds and attitudes of young people. Not only do participants have to understand and defend the policies and beliefs of a nation often very different to their own, but the conference physically allows them to meet and socialise with people from all walks of life from cultures and countries across the world. Even within the first break, rooms full of people who had never set eyes on each other an hour earlier are a buzz of chatter and laughter in a true demonstration of the unprejudiced openness of youth.
So take heed, ye of little faith: if there’s ever a way to promote cultural understanding and tolerance, a Model United Nations is surely it – and it’s our young people at the helm. We should be proud.