Ideas for youth
The Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival has become a “Woodstock of the Mind.” If it had occurred in the ’60s, there would have been deep-thinking hippies jumping naked into the ponds at the Bayer earth sculptures.The Woodstock buzz fizzled out as baby boomers traded idealism for diversified portfolios. The biggest question after “Ideas” is what it means to a world eager for new ways of thinking. Does “Ideas” have the legs to promote better understanding, positive human relations, and lasting change?Woodstock created a tectonic shift because it infected the youth. The target audience for “Ideas” is a far older crowd whose reception to new thinking is often inhibited by the static of conventional culture. That’s why the most hopeful aspect of the Ideas Fest came from its youngest participants – the Bezos Scholars – a group of hand-picked high school seniors from around the country. The Bezos Family Foundation, run by Jackie and Mike Bezos (son, Jeff Bezos, founded Amazon), invites twelve of these scholars, plus a primary teacher or principal from their schools, to Aspen for a week of Ideas Fest.Mirte Mallory, who ministered to these students like a mother hen, hired me to introduce them to Aspen history and wild nature with a guided hike along the ridge of Aspen Mountain. I wanted the scholars to see nature beyond the scenic landscapes on real estate brochures, to grasp how the “Aspen Idea” was conceived with a nature component, to understand nature as an interwoven part of who they are as human beings.The air is thin at 11,200 feet, and several in our group were panting hard on the slightest hill. We settled on an outcrop of rock that sprouted Colorado columbines, where the views across the deep gorge of Castle Creek Valley are spectacular.”You’re looking at Wilderness with a capital W,” I explained. “That wild landscape is protected by an act of Congress for you and your children and theirs after that. Wilderness is a luxury that we afford in this country because of the vision of conservationists who saw value in it over a hundred years ago. We preserve wilderness because that vision still lives today.”We discussed how Thoreau’s statement – “in wildness is the preservation of the world” – describes the value of wildness as a repository of biodiversity and as a source of the wildness that imbues man with vitality, courage, strength, leadership and creativity. “As a species, we lived in the wilds a thousand times longer than we have lived in civilization,” I explained. “It has only been in the last few hundred years that man has traveled faster than a walking pace. Today, our senses are bombarded to the overwhelming point with electronic media and high-speed travel. Wilderness represents an antidote to the pace of contemporary life.”They listened intently, many feeling for the first time the wild essence in which they now found themselves. I suggested that they all take 15 minutes to go off by themselves and quietly observe nature. They spread out on the ridge, each person finding a quiet place to contemplate the grand scenes before him. Several told me later that this was the single most important experience they had during their Aspen visit.Five days later, at the closing dinner at the Bezos’ home, it was obvious that these bright, engaged kids truly got the essence of the Ideas Fest. They came with open minds and open hearts and they left with inspiration to make change. More obvious still was the conclusion that an Ideas Festival targeting youth is a vital need today.This year, there were twelve Bezos Scholars. That number should increase tenfold, with an eventual Aspen Youth Ideas Festival for hundreds. The energy from such a gathering would blow the roof off the Institute and awaken hope like never before. It may even inspire this new generation to leap naked into the pools at the Bayer earth sculpture, a baptismal rite that’s long overdue.Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays.
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