Sunday, August 17, 2008

“Kids, I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today . . . “

In recent weeks, USA Today reported on a study by the Foundation for Child Development (FCD) that found that kids today are not all that different from kids of yesterday  (or at least the yesterday of their parents’ childhood).   Reading levels and appetites are similar, math skills are somewhat better, high school graduation rates are up very slightly, and suicide rates are unchanged. 

I was taken with this report because I had just finished two one-week workshops focused on children’s and adolescents’ moral development, working closely with several dozen K-12 educators ranging in age from 23 to 58.   A clear majority of the participants signaled a perception that “thing have gotten worse” since they were in school.  We spent a good bit of our workshop time trying to figure out the origin and accuracy of that perception.    What was worse and what was better, especially with respect to the moral development of the young?

If the FCD study is to be believed, not much has changed in what kids know and are able to do.   But let’s consider these findings as well:  Kids today are “at much lower risk of death from accidents, violence and disease, are slightly more likely to live below the poverty line, are substantially more likely to be overweight or obese, and are less likely to attend church but more likely to believe religion is important.”  “Family mobility is down, teen birth rates are down, and rates of smoking, drinking and drug use are on the decline.”

This suggests that some conditions of kids’ lives have improved (physical safety and community continuity) while others have not (poverty, overweight).  Kids have responded to all this by acting in apparently smarter ways with respect to sex and drugs. Other data suggests greater interesting community service as I mentioned the other day. In other words, the empirical picture is mixed but definitely not all bad news.  

So why the general moral malaise among educators?

I suppose some of it is just the tendency of the older generation to blindness when it comes to the maturity of the younger generation.  Officer Krupke sings the anthem of the elder captured in the title of this entry in “West Side Story.” Nearly twenty-five hundred years ago Socrates commented on the folly of youth and of the inability of one generation to live up to the memory of the previous one.   But I’d say there’s more than this generation gap at work in educators’ current perceptions.

Cultural diversity may be one factor.  I don’t want to maintain that today’s educators operate in conditions of greater cultural diversity than was the case a century or even a generation ago.   In fact, in this land built by the hands of immigrants, cultural diversity has often been a fact of and factor in teachers’ work.  But today we demand more of teachers than a recognition of difference; we expect the ability to negotiate dialogue across difference.   Teachers can no longer simply demand that students put on the dominant culture; they and their students are expected to navigate multiple cultures.  This is a good thing, but it’s a drain on educators’ energy.   And any drain on energy can result in less generosity when it comes to perceptions of potential.

For my money, there’s one more factor contributing to the perception that kids are less well off, more troubled, less well-behaved.   It is the failure of parents to be parents.   This is a phenomenon I’ve observed in my 40s and 50s aged peers.   It’s a function of mostly positive factors – greater self-awareness,  more openness between parents and children --  but it’s a failure of parenting nonetheless.    Parenting is one role in a game that must be played if kids are to grow and grow up.  The game is “kids test the limits;  parents hold the line.”   Kids must test the limits.  And we parents must hold the line even if the kids are only doing things we did as adolescents  (drinking, smoking pot, sneaking out, dating the “wrong” person,  disrespecting a teacher or coach or neighbor, sluffing off our homework or . . . .).   We don’t have to ground them or scream or resort to physical violence.  In fact, we don’t have to punish them at all.  But we do have to call them on the things they are doing that step over the line.  And we must hold them to the natural consequences of their actions.  (Underage drinking means they cannot be trusted with a driver’s license, for example).  Often this means backing up teachers and coaches even when we’re not sure they are right.  It means allowing our sons and daughters to lose their privileges – or their driver’s license – without rescuing them constantly.  When parents aren’t parents, teachers perceive that kids are running wild.

So I guess this a call to educators to check their perceptions.   Be wary of a premature judgment that kids don’t want and need our firm – if gentle -- guidance and direction.   But it’s also a call to parents to be parents and to all of us to recognize the sometimes weighty expectations we have placed on teachers to navigate the roiled waters of cultural diversity.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Millennials in service

Cross-posted on Social Issues

The Millennials are coming!   Or are they rising?  Actually, they have arrived, says Neil Howe, co-author of the 2000 book Millennials Rising, a volume that has found its way to the shelf of every college admissions and student affairs professionals.     And with them has come a penchant for community service.   Today’s young people spend more hours in community volunteer work and service projects than any generation before them – and with this service comes an oft-underutilized opportunity for the kind of trying, undergoing, and connecting by reflecting that Dewey described as the organic circuit of learning.

But that’s not my point today.  Instead I want to point out that“the service agenda” has become a political message as well.   Both presidential candidates are touting the glories of citizens serving others.   Time Magazine. The Carnegie Corporation, the AARP, Target  and others are together helping to make “The Case for National Service”  (see

I bring this up for two reasons.   First, I am an avid advocate for national service.   I think it would be swell if every American (or American wanna-be) between the ages of 18 and 22 spent at least one year in some form of service (educational, environmental, military, infrastructure-building, security, emergency-responding, or whatever else we can imagine) in exchange for a subsistence wage, further education credits (to complete GED, obtain job training or attend college), and the right to vote.   They would live with other young people under conditions of minimal supervision and have responsibility for paying their own bills (without the benefit of credit cards).    (By they way, I’d also be happy to tie receipt of social security benefits by older citizens to part-time service in domains appropriate to their interest and expertise.)

Second, I think it’s important to give credit where credit is due.   As far as I’m concerned, the millennials’ interest in community service is not an accident.  It’s a function of a push by educators (individuals, schools, districts, state departments of education, and even university professors J) to incorporate service learning, character development and citizenship awareness into curricula and requirements.

I am not saying that these efforts were as widespread nor as well-done as they might have been.  Much of the push to service learning followed the minimalist Maryland dictum that students must amass a certain number of service hours to graduate from high school.  And I’m well aware – based on the experience of my own children – that service hours do not always prompt constructive reflection and are often fudged.  Still, kids listen when we talk even when it seems like they are paying no attention.   And the truth is that service is its own reward.  Not all kids attend to the people they are serving and the situations that require their assistance – but many do.  Once they see that their work makes a difference, they are hooked.  Making a difference is one of those natural reinforcers that young people find hard to resist.

So let’s give the schools some credit here.  (We rarely do, you know.   Consider the blame placed on schools during the Reagan years when our nation was at risk economically because schools were failing.   Then think about the relative Clinton “boom times” a decade later.   Did you hear anybody acknowledging the difference schools were making????  I thought not.)   Schools may not be the only tool for social reform, but schooling does have a significant impact on the quality of community life.  The current focus on service is not purely accidental.   Kids may not recognize that service supports the development of a meaningful sense of self at the same time that it enables a deeper understanding of the structure and function of the communities of knowledge and action in which we live.  It’s up to educators to see and express this lofty goal.   But kids know it’s worth doing, and they want to keep doing it.   Let’s continue to encourage them.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

"I am the one who is talking."

There’s a parochial school in Philadelphia located in the shadow of Temple University Medical Center and in the center of a neighborhood that most would classify as “troubled.”   It is Saint Malachy’s, a school supported by a contingent of Philadelphia Irish Catholics (some of whom are my much loved relatives) but populated mostly by children of color living in that North Philadelphia neighborhood.  As a result of a few contributions of my own,  I have made it to Saint Malachy’s mailing list and, as a result, have been the recipient of various moving missives and powerful poetic communications from the retiring pastor, Father John McNamee.

My most recent communication was the school newsletter and it included The Students’ Creed.  I share it here.

 The Students’ Creed


            I have faith in myself.

            I have faith in my teachers.

            I can learn if I study hard.

            I respect others and seek their respect.

            I have self-respect.

            I have self-control.

            I love myself.

            And loving myself I will be myself.

            And know myself.

            I am the one who is talking.

I found this creed, recited at the start of each school day, quite moving and I’m still trying to figure out why.   It may be the focus on faith, not specifically religious faith but faith as a facet of living well.   I cannot live fearlessly without faith.  Faith in myself and my teachers seems to be a fine place to start.

It may be the focus on students’ efficacy.  I can learn, I respect, I control, I love.

But it’s probably that last line – “I am the one who is talking.”   The self who is coming to moral and intellectual and yes, spiritual, maturity is no abstraction but the concrete speaker.  It is a concept even the youngest school student can grasp.   And I talk not to myself only.  I proclaim to my community that I am present and will be accounted for.  I talk and will account for myself.

There’s no magic in this creed, but I think there’s power that supports kids’ quest to be smart and good.