As we grow older we often romanticize our youth. This doesn’t just happen with those of us who are sixty something, even adults as young as thirty or forty are often guilty of viewing the newest generation as being far less industrious than ours was in “the old days.” We all know the kind of thinking to which I am referring, “When I was a kid we had it hard! We got up at the crack of dawn and walked a mile to school in the snow, uphill, both ways! Kids today are spoiled!”
The truth is that the world is constantly changing and children learn to adapt to things as they are. During my long tenure as an educator I often heard my fellow teachers complain that the quality of students was declining with each passing year. In fact during my first few years in the classroom a very sweet older woman mentored me and her mantra was that I might consider another profession because the students that we had were the absolute worst in her memory. Since I had no basis of comparison I saw them differently. In my mind they appeared to be mostly polite, hard working, and eager to learn. Even until the very end of my career I saw that the young men and women with whom I interacted were teenagers not so different from me and my friends when we were in high school. They simply faced a completely different set of challenges from the ones that were ours.
Each generation has a little bit different worldview as determined by current events. My mother and her peers grew up in the Great Depression and watched their friends and family members going off to the theaters of battle in World War II. My own school day memories are of combating polio, living in a Cold War, growing weary of segregation and wondering about the worth of the war in Vietnam. As with previous generations we were criticized by our elders. In fact, there is much evidence that the process of growing up has been marked throughout history by often unfounded concern about the youth from the senior set.
Today we hear assessments of modern day youth that imply that they are quite spoiled and lazy. There is much talk about their flaws and very little about their positive traits. Only now and again do we see a fluff piece about an individual or group of youngsters who do something grand. Then we tend to complain that they are an anomaly and we return to our griping about the certain demise of society as shown in our young. Frankly I grow weary of such discussions because I have witnessed the overall greatness of our youth time and time again. I think that if we are to truly understand the anatomy of the modern day student we must walk a bit in their shoes. I submit that their journey is just as difficult as our snowy uphill climbs and perhaps even a bit more treacherous.
Up until the most recent decades most children spent their youngest years at home with their mothers enjoying a relatively free and easy time. They played outside and their lives were rarely very organized. Around the age of five or six they finally made the transition to school and the world of formal learning. Today’s kids often begin their educations as early as a few weeks old when they end up in the more orderly structural systems of daycares, pre-schools, and Mother’s Day Out programs. Others start their educational journeys at the age of three or four. They learn to sit still in class, walk in lines, follow rules, write the letters of the alphabet, perform tasks with numbers, and so forth. While old school kids mostly showed up to kindergarten somewhat ignorant of how the rituals of education work, today’s children have already been inside the system for years by the time they enter kindergarten.
The average high school graduate in the present era has covered far more concepts and topics in the core curriculum than any of us ever did. In fact, one of my critiques of today’s system is not about the students but about the ridiculous pace at which they must move in order to meet all of the standards. There is little time to really master the material unless the students are in the hands of an exceptional teacher who understands the need for a spiraled curriculum and constant review and remediation. In all too many cases the school year becomes a race against time with more projects and assignments than we ever imagined.
Parents are often at a loss as to how to help their kids because textbooks have almost become a thing of the past. Children show up at home with copies of worksheets that make little sense to their moms and dads and there is no way to determine what to do with them because there are no examples. Night time becomes a frustrating battle ground as overly tired children work until well past their bedtimes just to keep up with the seemingly endless demands being made of them. The truly good teachers have sample work posted online. Some even make themselves available to answer questions by phone or email. Mostly though, the students are on their own.
Since my retirement I have enjoyed listening to the sounds of neighborhood children as they board buses each morning and eagerly run to their homes each afternoon. I have noted with a bit of consternation that they quite often leave before the sun has arisen because their ride is almost an hour long. They return well after four in the afternoon. I have to believe that they are very tired and yet I know that their workday is far from over. They will have assignments to complete that allow them little time to enjoy relaxing with their families. In well designed schools the teachers meet with one another to determine what everyone else is doing. They actively balance the requirements and assignments that they are giving the students. Without such informed planning kids may find themselves overwhelmed by tests and projects that are all due at the same time.
Then there is the problem of high stakes testing that is so overdone. The students know that it is too much. The teachers know that it is too much. The parents know that it is too much and yet it continues to grow and even direct what happens inside classrooms. We take living breathing human beings and judge them on a single moment in time even though we all innately understand that such forms of assessment are highly inaccurate. We grade and rank and pigeonhole kids to a point of obsession. We know all too well that the reality of this very artificial system tarnishes the love of learning but we find it necessary to prepare our youth for the realities and politics of education. They must know how to perform well on tests if they are to one day gain admittance to the best universities. Regardless of how outstanding we may know a student to be, the system will see him/her as worthy or unworthy based on class standing and score on the SAT or ACT.
Many of us were admitted to universities whose standards have risen so much that were we to apply today we would be denied. It has become increasingly more difficult for our children to gain a place in an outstanding college. In addition to grades and test scores they must somehow find time to complete community service and to demonstrate that they are well rounded. It is an exhausting process. Many kids are already burned out before they even reach a college campus.
Then of course there is the cost of education. The inflation rate is beyond belief. Back in the nineteen sixties I managed to attend a state university without room and board for under five hundred dollars a semester. That would not even cover the cost of books in the present. When my daughters were in college I watched the cost rise year after year. We initially paid seven thousand dollars a year for my eldest child to attend the University of Texas in Austin with room and board. By the time the youngest daughter was in her final year of college at Texas A&M our cost had doubled to fourteen thousand dollars a year.
Tuition rates have continued to climb to the point where the average college graduates leave with huge debts that take years to repay. The worst aspect is that they often find it difficult to even find jobs. I know so many former students who worked so hard at top notch universities who are still working at the kind of jobs that might have been available to them after graduating from high school. They are often forced to continue their educations in graduate school just to become more attractive candidates in the workforce.
Anxieties, suicides, and health problems are on the rise for our children and we all too often argue that it is that way only because they are not tough enough to handle reality. The truth is that we do not often accept the realities of their lives. There is a kind of madness happening in our educational systems and far too many of our future national treasures are being chewed up alive by them. We have to make our children the biggest issue of our time. We have to let politicians and testing companies and universities know that they need us and therefore they must listen to our concerns. Our youth are depending on us to do the right thing.