At this year’s Art and Design Degree Show at the University of Karachi, I was taken aback by the darkness that lies within the sweet-looking cheerful young men/women’s artworks graduating this year. There is always a degree of emotional turmoil that is expressed through art. However, this year’s work shook me to the core and I asked myself, what have we done to our youth?

Despair, depression, suicidal thoughts, a childhood of abuse, night terrors, stray dogs, gender labels were transformed into beautiful artworks, but reflected a deep anxiety. Art is a natural vehicle for personal expression. How many of those hundred million or so young Pakistanis have similar anxieties that are never heard? Have we disempowered our youth?

Youth all over the world is struggling to be heard. For instance, Malala Yousafzai for education, Greta Thunberg and the ‘school strike for the climate’, and March for Our Lives for gun control.

At the ages of 17 and 20, Muhammad Bin Qasim and Alexander the Great, were leading huge armies of men old enough to be their fathers, who placed their trust in their young generals. Today, the only profession where young people are given leadership roles is in the world of computers.

While child prodigies — those one in five million gifted young people in art, music and mathematics — are dotted through history, there was a time when all children were considered young adults. They were taught skills needed in adult life from an early age — how to wield a sword, ride horses, hunt, make fires, work the fields, learn statesmanship or simple household chores. Many communities continue to include their children in the adult world. Children tag along with adults, learn by example, many are apprenticed to experts. This is seen not just a necessity, but a system to empower children for their smoothly transition to adulthood. Ancient wisdom states, “If you do not clean up your floor, how can you clean up the world?”

The change in the social role of children came with the start of industrialisation in England in 1760, gradually spreading to the rest of the modernising world. Families left villages to labour in factories, living in overcrowded cities, or mining communities, much as they do in Pakistan today. Children became part of this labour force, losing the benefits of growing up in traditional communities. To bring an end to the exploitation of children, factory acts and child protection bills were created. Philosophers Locke and Rousseau, the Romantic poets and Puritan ideals presented childhood as a time of innocence to be protected and preserved. Children’s literature was developed with stories and nursery rhymes of gentle humour and fantasy. Modern schools were established, with uniform curricula. Children’s toys, doll houses and organised sports became essential. This definition of childhood continues today.

While no one would argue with the noble intentions of these changes, it established childhood as a separate entity from the adult world. A distinct age was established to declare a child’s transformation into adulthood, varying between 14 and 18 years. Philippe Ariès, in his 1960 book Centuries of Childhood, suggests that ‘childhood’, as we conceive of it today, was not a natural phenomenon, but a creation of society.

One consequence has been that young people today are suddenly thrown, unprepared, into the responsibilities of adulthood. Unfortunately, in the contemporary world, poverty and war are the two factors that force children to deal with adult responsibilities or be exposed to experiences we usually protect our children from. Adults constantly remind young people that the future belongs to them — a future everyone agrees is uncertain. They must also ensure young people feel empowered and supported to envision and shape that future.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 5th, 2020