Every few days my son mentions it. He isn't very fond of his computer class, even though he is very fond of computers.
"I have no faith in our future, knowing your generation will one day run this country," his computer science teacher frequently reminds the class. "Things are going to get worse, much worse, and you're not up to the task. I might go live in the wilderness."
Along with these revelations, he frequently loads them up with misinformation. He says Spanish is the most spoken language in the world. (It's not.) He preaches that the Chinese had iPhones twenty years before Apple. (They didn't.) And he claims that most countries are better than this one, despite lamenting that the U.S. ought to provide for them. (A contradictory hyperbole.)
My son is in the sixth grade.
There is a fine line between critical awareness and learned helplessness.
His teacher isn't alone. There are plenty of people who claim everything is broken beyond repair.
Sure, the existing social-economic-political climate could exacerbate the challenges ahead for this country and the world. At its best, people probably expect the continued erosion of the middle class. At its worst, well, it's just the worst.
Then again, in 1970, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient predicted a similar fate, with overpopulation set for 1990 (Lawrence Journal-World). In 1952, Allied commanders were concerned that Japan had already exceeded its carrying capacity by 25 percent (United Press). In 1920, newspapers published articles about overpopulation in Europe and estimated America could only sustain 250 million people (New York Times).
Overpopulation isn't alone. You can easily trace all of our current hot topics back for decades and centuries. Education failings to the 1600s. Class warfare to the 1700s. Catastrophic pollution to the 1800s. The end of the world to the 1900s. Climate change to the 1930s. The key word here is "easily." The truth is that these conversations are as old as civilization. The only difference is that some people seem not only inclined to accept it but think we somehow deserve it.
And it is this, more than any measure, that concerns me because the burden is heavy to place on the heads of children. Based on test scores and graduation rates, it might even be that they are starting to believe it.
While my son shrugs it off, mentioning that every day he doesn't have that class is a good day despite having an A, some of his friends do not. Some already exhibit the symptoms of learned helplessness. Not only do they believe the world is getting worse and they aren't up to the task to fix it, but a few of them believe that even if they could afford to go college they won't be able to make ends meet (not in those words, of course).
They're in the sixth grade.
There are critical components to a better life, none of which include cash or status.
When some teachers feel a need to commiserate with sixth graders, I kindly remind my son that while some people would like to see it differently, he is still the master of his destiny. So far, he is the only person that can enslave himself to circumstance.
• Education. Most people know that for all the good Leave No Child Behind might have done, it is being misapplied at the local level. Teachers and schools invest too much time attempting to pad tests scores and not enough time making sure that the students can apply what they learn. The socio-economic gap might be tightening, but it is tightening in the wrong direction.
What works better than memorizing math formulas cold is cross-curriculum education that applies math to future occupations like business, engineering, mechanics, and rocket science. What works better than memorizing parts of speech off poorly written study sheets are lessons dialed in to history, world events, and literature. What works better than reward-based programs, "spirit" periods, and teaching kids how to "guesstimate" answers are critical thinking skills and a lifelong love for learning.
• Empowerment. No matter how teachers, parents, or role models might perceive the future of this country or the world, the pursuit of happiness only requires people with a passion to be exceptional. It doesn't matter how they define it.
Exceptional comes in many different forms. I would count several youth-managed recording studios among them. Two of the newer studios struck me because one of them was started in New Jersey by a 17-year-old student. The other was started by two teenagers, ages 14 and 15, in Baltimore. The latter reports many participants go on to pursue business degrees.
The challenges some of them will face have little to do with the business climate. There comes a point when even the best intended business regulations simply become barriers that makes it impossible to start one, especially with capital reduced by taxes and labor laws that make every employee cost two-and-a-half times their pay scale.
• Self-Worth. I recently read an article that proposed the individual doesn't matter. Martin Luther King Jr. might disagree. Every individual deserves an opportunity to be treated as an equal without any preconception that they might have limitations.
For the people who preach that, I might ask that they walk in and work at any homeless rehabilitation program. What they will find is that the first steps toward rehabilitation are to let go of guilt, recognize they deserve a better life, and then be given the opportunity to regain their confidence to try.
Beyond that, they learn there is no dishonor in being an educated janitor. (My father-in-law is a retired educated janitor; my grandfather was an educated painter.) The world needs janitors to be the best janitors they can be, even if they study quantum physics in their spare time. Or, as some authors eventually prove (with Charles Bukowski in mind), there might be more to a person than sorting mail.
This might seem one off from the topic, but it really isn't. The first step is still communication. People, like my son's computer science teacher, aren't very mindful about the impact they might have. So I might offer a few facts for him to consider.
North America is still home to the most millionaires, even though some rapidly-developing countries are starting to produce more than this country does per year (although we still produce some). The United States still logs more international patent filings every year (almost twice as many as the next closest nation). And the United States is responsible for more medical breakthroughs, even though the cost of care drags down global quality ratings.
That's not to say we're perfect. But with the exception of education, we still manage to add value and help fuel economic growth in other countries too. I'm even optimistic to think that some of our greatest accomplishments will be ahead. All we need are more problems and fewer problem protestors.
Thank goodness we have some in the sixth grade. And younger.