Sunday, May 4, 2008

Young People, Idealism, and Learning

Like almost everyone who writes frequently for a living, Tom Friedman's written persona comes across as a little fragmented, but he's been popping up on my radar a lot the last year or so saying some stuff that gets my head nodding. From today's NYT (and a "hat tip" to Lizardbox on Dailykos):
It is especially not trivial now, because millions of Americans are dying to be enlisted — enlisted to fix education, enlisted to research renewable energy, enlisted to repair our infrastructure, enlisted to help others. Look at the kids lining up to join Teach for America. They want our country to matter again. They want it to be about building wealth and dignity — big profits and big purposes. When we just do one, we are less than the sum of our parts. When we do both, said Shriver, “no one can touch us.
Hell. Yes. There's this cynical attitude that young people's idealism is simply inexperience, and that once we've learned a little bit about how challenging it is to [fill in the blank] we'll settle down. But that misses the whole point. Yes, idealism often shares space with inexperience, hell, idealism is practically sleeping on inexperience's couch and chipping in for the rent. But inexperience means that you're ready to learn. When young people are idealistic, learning may not be at the forefront of our minds, in my experience we usually place a higher value on action. But our inexperience means that if given the opportunity to act, we're going to learn. It's the nature of doing something unfamiliar, and that's the critical point. What our country needs, who our country needs, are people with a practical, pragmatic understanding of both how to get things accomplished and the necessity of accomplishing them.

There's no silver bullet for our problems with education, energy, or money, just to name a few. Yes, we need great Federal policy that sets a top-down agenda for addressing clearly defined issues, but that's not going to determine how best to teach science to kids who've grown up without ever seeing a tree. To do that you need to get a person, and it doesn't have to be a young person, who has learned some science, and loves science, into a classroom so they can try, fail, hang out, learn from better teachers, and eventually find the voice that will speak as well as they're able to the experiences of their students. You could fill in a hundred thousand other examples, from trying to organize a community to effect political change to starting a business installing solar panels. The critical point is that idealism isn't just about the action, it's about the effect of taking action on the individual, and the lessons that they learn. In order to grow the leaders who will have the skills that we need, skills of technical expertise, collaboration, and communication, we need to provide them the opportunities to learn. The idealism that Friedman is talking about is a signal that people, especially young people, are hungry for those opportunities.


Chloe said...

Hell yes. I agree with every word. How do we go about making sure those that are in the positions to engage the 'idealist-eager-to-learn-crowd" know that the crowd exists and provide them with the opportunities? How do those who want to make change, be part of the change, experiment with the change, put themselves in the places to do so?
It seems like things are going to be moving even faster in the future. The skills that one learns installing solar panels will be able to be transfered to teaching science in grade school and starting a start-up company. The skills will be tacit, but they will be great, since, as this post says, idealism means high educational returns and that knowledge will be transferred.
Great post!

Sefrankel said...

Thanks Chloe, and I really like how you put it "...idealism means high educational returns and that knowledge will be transferred." As someone doing education stuff right now, we always talk about how if someone is motivated to learn or intrinsically interested, they'll pick up very difficult material. It actually hadn't really occurred to me until reading your comment that idealism functions as motivation, allowing someone to pick up that knowledge which they can later apply elsewhere.

Zara said...

Good words.