Back in the classroom today for the first time in about six months, and it was something I was really looking forward to. I really like adolescents; for all of their struggles and issues and pressures, I find them usually to be the most interesting people I meet in any given day. All that uncertainty and angst…
But I have to tell you, if the state of the world rests with our youth, we might be in trouble. Not that these kids aren’t basically good humans whose hearts are in the right place…the vast majority of students at my school are pretty solid, typical upper-middle class suburban kids. But I always get a bit scared when I ask what I think are some basic questions that citizens in a participatory democracy like ours should know, like naming two Supreme Court justices, for example. Twenty kids, three of them raised their hands. Or like naming two of the Democratic candidates for president…one hand. Only a few of them know who Jessica Lynch was (I asked ’cause this is her big week in the news.) And this at a school that ranks very highly in SAT and state test scores (which ought to tell you how much they’re worth…) I doubt any of them could have named a story on the cover of the New York Times. From someone who thrives on information, who believes that it’s our duty to be active in the democratic process, it’s pretty disheartening. I know they’re young, but 14 of ’em are going to be old enough to vote next year. We’ll have enough voting age kids at our school next year to have turned the election in Florida last time around. Just our school.
And who is to blame? Is it the school? Probably to some extent. We don’t do a great job, I don’t think, of making sure kids leave here with the minimum basic skills to participate. I forget who I heard it from, but someone labeled ours an “Attention Deficit Democracy.” It’s true, and I think we cater to it in many ways by not requiring media and information literacy skills (Canada does it,) basic environmental living (you should see what ends up in our trash cans,) and community service. I know, I know. I’m dreaming. But we’re so beholden to test scores and college acceptances that there’s no focus on what’s truly important. Especially in this complex, scary world, our kids need more awareness of their responsibilities as citizens of the planet. (If you don’t believe me, read Dave Pollard from time to time.)
Is it the parents? Well, most of them could use some of those same skills, I think. Here’s a typical response to the first homework assignment where I asked them to describe the news gathering process in their homes…
No, keeping up with news going on in the world isn’t that important to my family. We try to keep up on news but our household is so busy that its tough to keep up on news. Our family normally gets our news from the t.v.(msnbc) and the newspaper(Star Ledger). Our family normally watches the news 3 to 4 times a week and reads the saturday and sunday paper. My dad is the most news literate in my family. He is on the computer during work checking the news and he always listens to the radio to see what is going on. I am not that news literate. It just really isn’t that important to me. Yes i do watch the news sometimes but i don’t show a great interest in it.
My own kids would be embarrassed to answer that question. They’d say their parents are nuts, that they have C-Span on for background noise, that they read books and magazines and newspapers constantly, and that most of the conversations they have (aside from whose turn it is to do the laundry) are about politics or news or the state of the world. (And that their father is an Internet addict who spends far too much time “aggregating” the news…)
So here I come, riding in on my Web log horse, starry-eyed and dreaming that they’ll get it, that they’ll understand why writing readers will save the world, and that they’ll feel empowered to be a part of the process. And 15 minutes later I’m staring into the abyss, chuckling, determined to give it my best shot, but really depressed that these kids aren’t more engaged, more passionate about what’s happening around them. When all you do is read impassioned, inspired reader writers, it’s easy to lose perspective, I guess. I gotta remember small victories are just as important as sea change.