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Teens have more questions than ideas after Great Ideas seminar

Eben Harrell
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Sweetness and light pervaded The Aspen Institute campus this week as 23 local high school students grappled with the great works of the Western canon.

High school juniors from the valley’s four schools ” Aspen, Basalt, Roaring Fork, and Glenwood ” participated in the High School Great Ideas Seminar, which ran from Sunday to Thursday of this week.

This year’s topic was “The Good Life and the Good Society.” The goal was to encourage the students to examine what it means to live a happy and civically responsible life ” an important question for students soon to be inaugurated into society.



The students were given a large packet of readings in advance, with authors ranging from Plato to Virginia Woolf.

The seminar attempted to instill a deep respect for language, to show how literature can give voice and shape to protest and despair. Lee Bycel, the moderator for the seminar, centered the weeklong discussions around Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” perhaps the most searing plea for the individual voice in modern nonfiction.




Without language, the only expression available is physical ” destruction, violence, alienation, the curse of those who have no words to express identity or through which to find belonging. Dr. King knew this and, by the end of the week, so, too, did the students.

“It was really up to us how much we wanted to take away from the readings,” Ian Henig of Roaring Fork High said. “We were looking at our own lives in relation to the society we live in. In my personal life, and in my outlook on the world, I was moved, as corny as that sounds.”

The students received the same treatment as participants in the Institute’s famous “Executive Seminar,” an event that attracts high-power business executives from all over the world. Catering and drinks were provided, as were official name placards at the seat of each student. To add a less-corporate touch, bowls of Jolly Rancher candy were scattered around the desks.

The students paid a seminar fee of $90, a fraction of the seminar cost; the remainder was covered by the Aspen Education Foundation and other local grant-givers.

In discussion, an openness to discourse was encouraged, even regarding the most contentious issues. One topic that inspired heated debate was the hypothetical election of a new principal for an unruly inner-city school. The candidates were Plato, Niccolo Machiavelli, Martin Luther King and Vaclav Havel. Dr. King narrowly defeated Machiavelli.

Moderator Lee Bycel, who served for 15 years as dean of the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, was thrilled with the students’ participation. A quiet, rabbinical man who started moderating Institute seminars after attending one a few years ago, Bycel said that the seminar is meant to mark the beginning of a lifelong engagement.

“The students left with many questions,” he said. “To me, that’s a success. They left this room empty. If their questions had stayed behind here, it wouldn’t mean anything. I think they’ve been inspired.”

[Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com]

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