by Jean Rhodes
I was presenting findings from my research on Hurricane Katrina to a group of college students when something very interesting happened. Many of the students were first generation Haitian immigrants, others the privileged sons and daughters of Boston’s elite. Still other were first generation college students from Southie and Dorchester, mixed income neighborhoods near UMass Boston. In fact, the range of circumstances and viewpoints was breathtaking. From a fairly straightforward discussion of the storm’s effects on low-income communities, a surprisingly profound discussion about poverty, race, and the role of government arose. Explanations for why those left behind were poor led to discussions about why so many of the poor in this country have, historically, been African American. We touched on how wealth can corrupt the political process, why class differences have become so pronounced, and what contributed to the miserable failure of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Although a rarity in our overscheduled lives, conversations such as these can play a vital role in honing and improving young people’s cognitive abilities. The Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky described a “zone of proximal development” in which learning takes place for young people. Think of this zone as a psychological stretch: it’s beyond what a young person can do when thinking about an issue on his or her own but within the range of what he or she can do while under adult guidance. When stretched into this zone, youth’s own mental and emotional capacities can improve and grow. And, what is today a stretch can, in the future, become part of a young person’s own capability. Thus, it is when we, as mentors, parents, teachers, and other caring adults, grapple with young people around complex issues, that they can begin to think more clearly and critically about the world around them.
Unfortunately, Americans allot scant time for such free flowing conversations with youth. We are rapidly finding ways to substitute more time-intensive, face-to-face mentoring relationships with more perfunctory texts. Indeed, a recent New York Times piece described the lengths some take to avoid investing time in relationships. And, although having regular family meals is, according to a recent study, a strong predictor of better achievement scores, fewer than half of American families with children between the ages of 12 and 17 eat dinner together on a regular basis. Similarly, high-stakes testing and college admissions requirements at our nation’s school has given rise to dense curricular and extracurricular demands, leaving teachers and students with diminishing opportunities for the sorts of conversations and activities that would advance critical thinking. In general, adult and youth live in separate worlds that rarely converge. It’s not that adults don’t recognize the importance of connecting with today’s youth; the problem they face is a lack of time and opportunity. According to a recent Gallup poll, 75 percent of adults reported that it is “very important” to have meaningful conversations with children and youth outside their immediate families, yet fewer than 35 percent reported actually having any such conversations in the past year.
As long as we remain respectful of diverse opinions, and mindful of the power accorded mentors and other adults, we can and should view controversies in the news, elections, and other world events as opportunities to begin a lifelong habit of engaging in authentic conversation with young people. Critical thinking that challenges them to question and improve the status quo is the essence of the American spirit.