Local teens take on tough issues with gusto
September 18, 2006
(Editor’s note: Lee Bycel is a rabbi and professor of religion from Los Angeles who helped to moderate local teenagers during the fifth annual “High School Great Ideas Seminar” at the Aspen Institute earlier this month.)I learned a great deal this past week from 23 of your high school students in the Roaring Fork Valley. These juniors and sophomores participated in the Aspen Institute’s seminar for high school students. They are insightful, aware, concerned and passionate about many issues. They are wrestling to find their identities in the turbulent world of the early part of the 21st century. They are idealistic and realistic. They often feel that most of the adult world does not really listen to them and their ideas. I think they are right. We tend not to listen to our youth, but at 18, we send them off to fight our wars for us. They have a lot to say. They want us to listen.Together, we spent 16 hours reading some of the great philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, Confucius and Rousseau; more contemporary activists and writers like Virginia Woolf, Martin Luther King Jr., Vaclav Havel and Ursula Le Guin. We discussed some of the timeless and classic questions: What is human nature about? What is a community? What is a just society? What is happiness? We touched upon many contemporary challenges: the environment, human rights, and ethnic tensions here in the Roaring Fork Valley, to name but just a few. We talked about the world of being a teenager and the pressures they face as they look ahead to college and career. They engaged in these discussions in a thoughtful and sensitive manner.Like the Aspen Institute’s Executive Seminar, the process of learning is extremely important, which is primarily based on the Socratic method. The rules of engagement for the civil discourse are essential for the experience: mutual respect, listening (not just hearing), making comments and asking questions in a constructive manner, working hard to understand other people’s views and trying to understand what makes for civil discourse in contrast to the heated arguing and yelling we often see on our television sets. The students responded well to these standards and wondered why there is so often a lack of civility in the world around them.Here are some of their reflections on the experience written by students from the following high schools: Basalt, Colorado Rocky Mountain School, Glenwood Springs, Aspen and Roaring Fork. I think they are thoughts that are worthwhile and deserve our attention. These teenagers will soon be shaping our country and our communities. I left the week feeling inspired and hopeful about our future.- “This seminar has shown me that complete strangers can come together and discuss sensitive issues in a civilized way. In a perfect world, all of the adults in charge making the decisions for society would be able to do what we have done here. I would like to tell the adults in the valley to listen to what the next generation has to say … To the teens in the valley and the world: Stand up for what you believe. You have a voice, make it heard.”- “The biggest issue as an adolescent in this Valley is the fact that racism is so apparent but never confronted. I have always had a problem with the lack of interaction between Latinos and whites in this Valley. When you avoid conversation and dialogue with the other race it is easier for assumptions to be made, often negative ones. I would like to see adults break down the barriers and let go of previous judgments and truly enter into dialogue to confront these issues.”- “The world in which I wish to live is one in which there is unlimited respect and understanding for all people of every race, religion, gender, age, etc. … I truly believe that by intolerance we merely shame ourselves, but through acceptance we can be happy with ourselves, our actions, our country and our world. If we can only open ourselves up and empower ourselves and others to make changes, I think we could bring a sense of unity to many people in this world.”- “I must admit, I had given up on my peers, and even many adults. I felt that conversation was a dying art. Small talk was taking over, and the great concepts were no longer of any concern. This has renewed my faith in our generation, and I would hope that those who shared my outlook can learn that it is entirely possible for a group of teenagers [adults] to discuss a major issue in a thoughtful, articulate and sensitive manner.”- “I know that everyone of us has dreams to which they aspire. Dreams that we want to realize. Perhaps the adult community does not often see us as people with real dreams and the ability to actualize them. We need the adult community to take our dreams seriously, to be proud of us, and believe in us.”Lee Bycel is Senior Advisor, Global Strategy for International Medical Corps and a Moderator of leadership seminars at The Aspen Institute.
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