As millions of youth workers and teachers reconnect this fall with our nation’s young people, now is a good time to put the kibosh on old and counterproductive ways of thinking.
We’ve all grown tired of the view that “youth are problems to be fixed.” It’s taken 20 years of concerted effort to change that mantra to “youth are resources to be nourished.” That’s social progress. Perception matters.
Two other counterproductive views should also be put to rest. Remember that college course where you grappled with different views of human nature that have been debated for eons? One blast from the past is the concept of tabula rasa. In Latin, it means “blank slate.” Philosophically, it means we are born with no innate or built-in capacities or sensibilities. We are empty vessels to be filled. Environment rules. I think this has become a prevailing approach in youth and educational policy. Our jobs as youth workers, teachers and parents are to fill young people with information, facts, values, rules and ideas that will make them effective workers and citizens.
Tabula rasa is our default position on human nature, because we want to avoid the misunderstood and complex first word in the “nature-nurture” dichotomy. Nature is brutish and rather ugly. It’s uncontrollable. It even suggests biology and genes and hard-wiring. What’s a youth worker supposed to do with that?
Another approach seeping into our collective consciousness is that getting ready for the future is more important than anything we do right now. This message is embedded in the idea that we have to keep youth in school because they will earn more money later. It’s the idea, spouted by captains of industry, that we need to drill in math and science skills so that down the road, our youth will make for a globally competitive work force. Nowadays, youth development seems to mean getting ready for tomorrow.
I want to provide a corrective to these new and prevailing views. I’m not opposed to filling our children with life lessons or grooming them for the future. But we’re missing something important. Note that in both the tabula rasa and the you-are-the-future approaches, children are the objects of development. We know what they need and will organize the world to mold them. No, youth are the subjects in their development.
The scriptural passage for this sermon is: “Put me in, coach, I’m ready to play today.” This verse is from the Book of Creedence Clearwater Revival (“Centerfield,” 1985). It is what every 15-year-old is trying to tell us. “I want to play now, today. I’ve got something to offer, and I want to offer it now. Don’t make me wait, coach” (that is, dad, mom, mentor or teacher).
Reed Larson, a leading developmental psychologist at the University of Illinois, has a poignant way of describing what’s happening in our nation today: “Many youth do their schoolwork, comply with their parents, hang out with their friends and get through the day, but are not invested in paths into the future that excite them or feel like they originate from within.”
Originate from within. These are the operative words. We must find and discover that passion, that spark, that internal source of joy and energy that is embedded in every new life. William Damon, in his new book, The Path to Purpose, suggests that our nation too rarely sees the unique and compelling gifts that young people possess. Their light gets too easily extinguished. The path they then choose is to look outside of themselves for their grounding and their anchor.
Positive development is better understood as moving from the inside out rather than the outside in. Our nation is organized now around the latter: the outside in, filling the empty vessel.
On the inside is the real engine of healthy development. In every life you touch there is a spark that has the potential to animate and guide, to give one’s life forward-moving energy and focus. It goes by many names: drawing, writing, sketching, building, creating, singing, acting, helping, caring, leading. Call it a calling, a passion, a light, a gift. The worst thing we can do is miss it. The best we can do is to see it and give it room to breathe. For a youth worker, this means creating the spaces and opportunities for the spark to flourish.
And there’s one more step. That’s to actively affirm, celebrate and support the spark – whatever it is. Ultimately, this is about relationship, grounding it in the perception of strength and possibility.
In writing about the need to nurture and nourish a young person’s light before it’s too late, the French writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry said:
“Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and nothing in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.”
Whose shoulder will you grasp?