Reimagining What Young People Need

This week, I’m reminded of how essential it is for any democratic citizens, especially those in the 21st century, to view everything they’re told critically and to think imaginatively. Not only must they have these habits of mind necessary for modern democracy, but they must have the skills necessary to solve the technological challenges of our rapidly-changing societies. A technologically literate workforce and populace is becoming evermore important, as this week’s news should remind us. Healthcare reform now faces a renewed threat as it’s website faces technical difficulties and it’s design flaws have resulted in confused citizens receiving cancellations notices on their healthcare policy. The task of bolstering the weakened security of the internet is left to Silicon Valley nerds, after the NSA systematically undermined it.

Yet beyond the crises of the present that require critical thinking and imaginative problem-solving, there are immense challenges in the future that will require this thinking more than ever. Unfortunately, as Ian Welsh argues in a post titled “How Our Everyday Life Creates Our Character and Our Destiny,” our modern education system is not up to the task of instilling that type of thinking:

The defining characteristic of growing up in the modern world is school.  In school we are taught to sit still, speak only when we are allowed to by an authority figure, and do meaningless work that is not suited to us. 

While it has long bemoaned that schools are authoritarian and teach only the unedifying skills of the industrial era, this post struck me by how it linked this stultifying climate of schools with the morass of our political system and the despondency of our workplaces. How can we be expected to imagine a better society and turn our passions into meaningful work, when most of us have been taught to obey authority figures and answer only the questions posed to us since we first started hauling backpacks around? School is supposed to prepare children for the lives they will lead after school. It’s supposed to shape the next generation of leaders, thinkers, workers, and citizens. Does anyone think that a typical school day at an American public school includes the type of activities and instruction that will accomplish these goals? I certainly don’t. Yet I also understand that it’s unfair to expect schools to do this all on their own.

That is why I’m excited to be working with the Minnesota Afterschool Network, an organization that coordinates between stakeholders in youth development programs and education to help make afterschool programs a better-funded and more prevalent part of children’s lives. While I was initially skeptical that afterschool programs could have much impact on children’s development and our economy’s future, I grew to realize how essential it was as I thought about it. For instance, think back to the times in school when you really felt engaged in what you were doing – when it was challenging but fun, and you felt compelled to continue of your own accord. Now, think of which moments in your education seemed meaningful, and started you thinking about what possibilities could lie ahead for you. I’m willing to bet while some of them may have been in the traditional classroom, a majority of those times were during afterschool programs.

Maybe it was during your dress rehearsal for your theater production, or the weekly meeting of your robotics club, or a tennis program during the summer. Whatever it was, it enabled you to pursuit the passion that you chose for yourself, and set the wheels of your creativity spinning. Not all programs do these things, of course, but that is precisely why the Afterschool Network is important: it helps to identify the high-quality programs, and promote best practices that really engage children. As I continue forward with my work to make afterschool programs better and more accessible for all children, I will keep in mind how badly our society needs to redefine success and the purpose of school; how much we really need afterschool programs that allow young people to decide for themselves what to pursue, and how to pursue it. 



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