Two stories of late have caused me to reflect deeply on the condition of young people in this country. The first was the wanton killing of a 22-year-old college student in Oklahoma by three teen-aged boys who were motivated by nothing more than boredom. The second was the brutal bludgeoning of 88-year-old WWII veteran Delbert Belton in Spokane, again by teen-aged boys with no apparent motivation other than meanness. Has human nature always been this bad, I wonder, or has our culture changed for the worse? I’m thinking it’s the latter.
Today’s culture of young people is rife with distractions and bereft of profundity. The social media fads all seem to cater to navel-gazing and narcissism. Even 16 year-old Hanna Anderson, the kidnap victim from California who was recently rescued, couldn’t wait to discuss her experience with other teens on a social web site, this despite only just learning of the violent murders of her mother and brother. It simply doesn’t seem like the right reaction. Kids are different now, and I’m thinking it’s not in a good way either.
I know I was different from this. My parents were depression people and I myself grew up during and just after World War II, and the American Dream then, as now, had as one of it’s bedrock notions that each generation ought to be “better off” than the last. That has tapered off in the last decade or two, if you measure it financially that is. Because of the income disparity, middle class net worth has stagnated and might even be declining. But that doesn’t mean kids are starving, or needy. In fact, never before in my memory have parents been more indulgent and children been more pampered. They are so sheltered from reality they can’t seem to adjust to it. One indication that this is a long-term trend is that because of college debt and the Great Recession, a huge portion of them have moved back in with their parents. Back in the day “sink or swim” often would have been the alternative.
One of the problems I see is how we do basic schooling. One would think that here in the 21st century, in the most prosperous country in the world, we would have figured out how to educate kids, and yet high-school graduation rates have stagnated around the 80% mark. That means that 20% of them haven’t completed even the basics that enable people to be good voters, good consumers, and good workers. They likely can’t communicate well and surely won’t continue to learn for the rest of their lives. And from what I read, about half who do go on to college fail to complete a degree and of those who do, only a few do so in STEM disciplines that command good jobs. Meanwhile and despite the continuing high unemployment rate there aren’t enough people sufficiently motivated or skilled to fill serious trades like mechanics, technicians and building. Something is fundamentally wrong.
I would like to see schools try a different tack, make a fundamental shift. NCLB with its emphasis on testing, was a dismal failure. Teachers “taught to the test” and left the joy of learning in the dust. Why not reverse that? What would happen I wonder if elementary and high schools eliminated grades and just taught for mastery of a subject? Let teachers judge that mastery and then let the teachers’ reputations rest on their students’ long-term success or failure. People aren’t numbers, so why define our children by them?
Thus, there could be different curricula tailored to several different paths, depending on the bent of a child’s talents, within which they would work until they mastered a discipline appropriate for their age group, and that would include math, communication arts, science and civics. Such a plan would, I hope, eliminate the trap of failure when some kids fail to keep up, something that’s surely inevitable given the variability of human beings. We all have different talents and grow at different rates, so putting them in a lock-step curriculum just makes failure inevitable for many. There’s nothing inherently wrong, I say, with having children of different ages in the same class, and if that were to become common, then there’s no disgrace. (I remember in my own high school a young black veteran came back and completed his degree with us – it was admirable.)
How then would such kids compete for college slots? Through the same SAT’s or ACT’s they take now. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see this tried and have such schools compete with conventional schools? Let’s try. We’ve got nowhere to go but up, and maybe we could even quell some boredom in the process. Maybe even save some lives.
- WWII vet Delbert Belton, 88, beaten to death by teens in Spokane, Washington – CNN (edition.cnn.com)
- What happened to our kids? (americanforchange.com)
- Police say 3 US teens killed Australian baseball player because they were bored (globalnews.ca)