Teri Orr: Educating ourselves to hope
At a recent weeklong global conference in Vancouver, about 20 of us were selected to discuss, “Equipping future generations to thrive.” Those around the dinner table were from New Zealand and New England, the UK and Utah (OK that was me). A pediatrician/author who has appeared repeatedly on Good Morning America. An educator from deep in the Canadian wilderness. A Hollywood producer of one of this season’s hottest new television shows and a 20-year-old Stanford student, who for many, many years already has been a successful Ford model and human rights activist/speaker at the United Nations. It was heady company in the private dining room overlooking the twinkling harbor lights. Especially for someone who never finished college.
The format was a Jeffersonian-style dinner — a discussion where reasonable decorum was expected and moderated around a single topic. Regardless of age or geographic location or personal educational opportunities, everyone agreed quickly education is severely broken. We have embraced and emphasized mastery of technology but we have lost the ability to connect to the reasons why. The humanity of learning has disappeared and the result is a generation that has (largely) lost both curiosity and compassion.
Almost all those at the table had their children in a variety of private schools. One couple had started their own private school. The young Ford model admitted her high school experience — because she was working all those years — was online — from Stanford — and it had worked well. She now calls her current style of education “gap-year-ing” her life.
We agreed with educator Sir Ken Robinson’s mantra — we are still educating children in an industrial age model to create better factory workers — when what need are better humans.
We talked about the high rate of student depression, mental illness, gender fluidity, increased drug use and really smart students just dropping out. The way these students learn is completely out of sync with how they are being taught.
And we spoke of those remarkable kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High who, in the face of what was clearly unspeakable horror and tragedy, became national spokespeople who created a movement #NeverAgain and intuitively included the faces of BlackLivesMatter and understood how to speak bravely. They understood — in part — because they were drama students and reporters for the school paper. That public school in Florida has been doing a lot of things right and we should all be looking carefully at how the young humans there have been educated to be whole people. They were suddenly enrolled in a national dialogue and they had the tools to stand in the hottest of spotlights and shake up — and lead — the adults around them.
I am in awe of those kids. And I’m hardly alone. Just this week Time Magazine named them in the rarefied class of 100 Most Influential People. No less than former President Barrack Obama wrote their tribute. It concluded…
“Our history is defined by the youthful push to make America more just, more compassionate, more equal under the law. This generation — of Parkland, of Dreamers, of Black Lives Matter — embraces that duty. If they make their elders uncomfortable, that’s how it should be. Our kids now show us what we’ve told them America is all about, even if we haven’t always believed it ourselves: that our future isn’t written for us, but by us.”
My final statement as we circled the table was something like — while we are in the thrust of the greatest accelerant of new learning and discovery perhaps the world has ever experienced and all kinds of devices are available to teach young humans how to explore with existing machines and create new machines and Artificial Intelligence and space travel and the like — the intensity with which we were pushing and rushing young people into adulthood is alarming and without context. As the Old Broad in the room, I reminded them of the famous words of wisdom from the refrain of The Grateful Dead’s “Uncle’s John’s Band” … but are you kind? We can teach them so many wondrous things about how the world works and the mechanics of all of that will mean nothing if we haven’t taught young people compassion and empathy. How the arts — all of them — are the foundation for that unique kind of learning. So while teaching STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) sounds either very forward thinking or something that could have come from the Eisenhower Era, I suggested putting Arts into teaching and learning really does create STEAM that can move abstract ideas into action with compassion.
We didn’t leave there having solved anything, in nearly three hours of stimulating, spirited conversation but we did agree — across continents, countries and counties — to keep talking. We all want “future generations to thrive” but there is no road map to take us there. How we learn determines what we learn. When we are taught by big-hearted humans who are supported in creative problem solving, young minds ignite. Along with how to diagram sentences and how to understand nuances of story, crawling inside award-winning Broadway shows — from Spring Awakening, and Fun House to Hamilton — maybe the learning could be relevant enough to engage students and challenge them to challenge us.
Given the state of Our State — Dead Last in the nation in per pupil spending for education — we can only go up. Maybe sideways or into the rafters, around the world, into the wild … and into a kind of global classroom that really prepares the future generation to thrive. Here’s what stayed with me about the night — besides all the stimulating conversation — the first person to introduce herself to me — in a room of strangers — was the youngest — the over-six-foot tall, United Nations speaker/Ford model and 20-year-old Stanford student. That kind of hope in (red) heels — looks really beautiful. Any day you want to consider it — like Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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Teri Orr is navigating the first stages of life after the pandemic. “How do we be respectful and also celebrate our double vax position? Where do we land on say … a shared bowl of guacamole now — do you dip or spoon?”