Guest commentary: Now is the time to listen to our teens’ values
Imagine this: A program that brings together 30 eighth-grade students from Aspen to Glenwood Springs to spend 20 hours discussing their values through the lens of ancient philosophers, framers of the Constitution and modern-day thought leaders. As the moderator for this recent Hurst Middle School Seminar at the Aspen Institute, I can tell you these four days gave me a true gift: A chance to gain insights into the values of our young people.
Those currently raising teens, teaching or coaching them know these middle-school students are facing daunting challenges in the turbulent world of 2018. The multitude of societal and cultural pressures, the increase in teen vaping, the dominance of social media, the trickle-down effect of the deeply partisan divide in D.C. and addictive games like “Fortnite,” all have weight. There is also tremendous pressure to succeed academically, peer pressure, parental expectations, social anxiety and the process of figuring out their place in the world.
Young people growing up in the Roaring Fork Valley have many opportunities and also face cultural and economic divides. Amid these challenges, students see very few role models engaging in serious and thoughtful conversation with people who have differing opinions.
Each year, the Aspen Institute hosts its leadership and values seminars for teens in the Roaring Fork Valley thanks to an endowment from the Hurst Family Foundation. The students arrive at the Aspen Institute for the Hurst Student Seminars feeling a bit nervous about the journey to explore the Great Ideas and to engage in the Great Conversation. The anxiety quickly dissipates as they realize that the environment at the Institute is safe and supportive and that they will be treated like adults. They are well-prepared, having done all the reading; respectful, thoughtful and truly open to engaging with the insights of the writings and listening and learning from their peers.
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Aristotle laid the foundation for them to explore the meaning of a life well-lived. Plato pushed them to think about the nature of a just society. Chimamanda Adichie (a prominent Nigerian novelist) allowed them to consider the many ways that we stereotype, what she calls the “danger of a single story.” Out of this came a most thought-provoking discussion about how every human being is a multiplicity of stories and when we reduce people to single stories, we diminish their identity.
One of the key impressions of these teens for me is their yearning to be heard. After all, in a few short years, they will leave the relatively sheltered lives of school and home and will be voting and perhaps serving in our military. They will be furthering their education or joining the workforce. Teens (or anyone) should never be reduced to a single story of immaturity, social anxiety or addiction to social media. Indeed, they are young and inexperienced, and they are also eager to learn, curious about the world and have a lot of energy to do good in the world.
On the last day of the session, based on all that had transpired, they described the values that anchor their lives. They started with a list of 40 and had to narrow it down to the six most important at this time in their lives. They took this project very seriously with the knowledge that values are more than ideals but inform our actions and how we relate to the world.
Integrity, taking risks, compassion, family, patience, respect, love, listening, taking responsibility, trust and two that were stated by nearly everyone — curiosity and having a sense of humor (keeping things in perspective). These are exceptional values, and it is incumbent upon us as adults to support the nurturing of these values, and to help our teens live by these values.
At the end of the seminar, the students brought the Greek tragedy “Antigone” to life. With their parents watching their performance and listening to the subsequent discussion, one could only be struck by how relevant the themes of this ancient play are today: stubbornness, lack of listening, unwillingness to compromise, inability to see a larger picture and the role of ego. They are grappling to find their identities in the social reality of 2018 that includes many of these issues dominating our social, political and personal landscapes.
I left feeling hopeful about our future. I return home with my spirit buoyed by their idealism, honesty and insight. My commitment to this kind of conversation with teens has only deepened. My feeling is that our teens as well as many of us are yearning for safe and respectful places for conversation to explore the values that underpin our society, often values that might be somewhat different than our own. Like our teens we want to be heard, but that can only happen when we really take the time to listen.
Lee Bycel is a senior moderator at the Aspen Institute and the Sinton Visiting Professor at the University of San Francisco. His book, “Refugees in America: Stories of Courage, Resilience and Hope in Their Own Words,” will be published by Rutgers University Press in 2019.
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