Guest commentary: Compelling voices: the teenagers of the Roaring Fork Valley
October 27, 2015
"When they're at school, the kids are decidedly not all right. New survey findings suggest that when asked how they feel during the school day, USA high school students consistently invoke three key feelings: 'tired,' 'stressed' and 'bored.'" Thus began a recent article summarizing a major study about high school students in America. This news should not surprise anyone who is paying attention to teenagers. Indeed, their lives are filled with meeting expectations, feeling parent and peer pressures and needing to succeed now so that they can get into the "right" college and then live a "good" life.
Each fall, the Aspen Institute convenes the Hurst Seminar for High School Students in the Roaring Fork Valley. This year in the two seminars, I met more than 40 teenagers who came together for four days to explore the great ideas that have shaped human history. As always, I find these students in the Roaring Fork Valley to be intelligent, thoughtful and sensitive. For the most part, they know they are privileged to be living here and appreciate the good education that their schools are offering.
They expressed feelings of being stressed, that their voices and opinions often are not heard by adults and they are worried about the many tensions that exist in the world. I found them to have a lot to say about life that is insightful, mature and really worth listening to. A key part of the seminar was their writing.
Their voices are the anchor of this article.
"If I could say what it is like to be a teenager for me today, I would describe it as challenging. The stress from all the adults in my life and myself is too much to bear at times. I know that I am not the only one to suffer from depression and anxiety. Every day adults tell me how to live my life. How am I supposed to learn to be an adult if I am not allowed to start practicing now? Many of us can vote in the next general election, yet today, no one is letting us practice to be out in the real world where no one is holding my hand and guiding me."
The seminar focuses on the great ideas about life and society that have been expressed over the centuries. We read excerpts from the classics — Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Virginia Woolf and Martin Luther King Jr. — as well as contemporary literature. The seminar is set in the safe and supportive environment of the Aspen Institute, where there is no grading or evaluation, and students are encouraged to truly converse, engage in an open way and explore and express their own ideas. They quickly see that philosophy not only is about abstract ideas but is how mortal human beings have grappled with many questions, including: human nature — are we inherently good or evil; what is a just society; why is there injustice; what is the good life — a life well-lived; what is our responsibility to ourselves and to others; and what is a well-balanced life?
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The Hurst Seminar offers them the time and space to engage in real conversation, to think critically and examine the core values that shape their lives and to explore the emotions that make them who they are. I find teenagers yearning for hope, role models and inspiration. We listen and reflect on inspiring speeches: excerpts from Malala Yousafzai's 2014 Nobel Peace Prize speech; a most compelling video about the dreams of a boy from Kibera, the largest slum in Africa; and the most inspiring commencement speech given at Harvard by J.K. Rowling about failure and imagination.
"I wish adults would remember how hard it is to be a teenager. I find it mildly annoying how they act as though they don't know what it's like to struggle with school, young love, friendships and hormones. But more than that, I wish they could see past the fact that we are foolish and inexperienced and supposedly irresponsible. We have a lot to deal with, so I think we deserve a little bit of respect. The adults I appreciate most are the ones who don't speak to me like a child. I know I might not be incredibly wise, but it's refreshing when my ideas, thoughts and feelings are valued for more than the ranting at someone who doesn't know what it is to live — I'd like to tell adults that I have been through more than they might think. Adults can be just as irresponsible as we are, and I've met many wise young people."
The Hurst Seminar provides a wonderful gift to high school students to reflect and assess their lives, their aspirations and the social reality of the contemporary world. Students in the Roaring Fork Valley for the most part do not know their peers in other high schools. It allows them to break down stereotypes about the various communities and to see all that they have in common. Once they do this, they are then open to engaging in the much more serious stereotypes about race, economics and opportunity that concern them.
"This seminar made me ask myself time and time again, 'What would I do?' I think that this experience has been valuable because it made me question and push myself in all the best ways. I want to start practicing having a simple awareness all the time. I want to be aware of the effects of my actions, thoughts and words. At times, this seminar made me question human behavior, and I didn't always like what I saw, but being around everyone here, and having the chance to talk to everyone convinced me that there is hope. Our greatest strength as humans is our ability to have compassion and be aware. I believe that I am a better person than I was, coming away from this opportunity."
In this often chaotic and turbulent world, the seminar offered a respite from the daily pressures that these students face. They had time to look both inward and outward. They had time to examine and explore their ideals and values. They had time to learn from peers and from their own lives.
"Through this seminar, I have learned how to be a responsible citizen of the world. I have learned the art of a good conversation and how we as a society have lost the art of listening. In our fast-paced world, there is never time to just be. To sit and watch the grass grow, or flowers bloom as the clouds drift by overhead. Our schedules are so full that we sacrifice our health and well-being for apparent success. How do we pursue happiness in life? Living in the moment helps. Pursue a career that you are passionate about because it will take up more time than anything else in your life. Do things because they bring you joy, not because everyone else does them. Some of the other things we covered were: poverty, how to help poverty as a privileged person, depression and anxiety, racial issues, morality, ethics, human rights and many others."
I was very moved by what I learned from some of the teenagers of the Roaring Fork Valley. They will soon be adults helping to shape a just and good society and a meaningful life. They will soon be our partners in every way. Listening carefully to their voices left me feeling inspired and hopeful. Their voices really do matter. Their idealism and honesty can help remind us as adults of our values and dreams, the lives we wish to live and the world we wish to live in.
Lee Bycel is a senior moderator at the Aspen Institute, adjunct professor of religious studies and social justice at the University of San Francisco and rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa, California.