Dear Students of 2022,
I am writing to try and express my empathy for you. I don’t envy your youth, to be quite honest. I’m a man who is quickly approaching my retirement from a career spent in education and I can’t say that I would covet the prospect of trading places with you. It feels like things have changed so much within your brief lifetimes, as if we are living in a swirling whirlwind of confusion, and you are being asked to learn in an environment that isn’t really suited to the kind of learning we offer you. I can feel it, so I know you do, whether you understand what you are feeling or not.
I’m not trying to say that any generation has had it easy. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s during the Cold War. When I was a kid, we were all pretty certain that at any given time, we were just minutes away from a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. That prospect was always present, like an element of the atmosphere we couldn’t see, but were constantly inhaling and exhaling along with the oxygen and carbon dioxide. Most of us managed to find our own ways to deal with it, but it was definitely easier to deal with back then because we didn’t have the internet and we only had 3 networks on our televisions. There was no such thing as 24-hour news smacking us in the face all the time. The generation before mine had a lot of war and division to grow up in. The 1960s was a very volatile time in the United States. There was the Cold War at its zenith, there was the very controversial Vietnam War which caused tremendous division within our country, and of course, there was the Civil Rights Movement which also stirred up anger, hatred, and violence here at home. Chances are, dear students, that your parents or grandparents grew up in either that era or during my era. They may talk about growing up in “simpler times” and, in some ways they were simpler, but they were not easy times—and they were not the “good old days.”
So, with that said—with it established that the world has always been a pretty scary place to grow up—let me say this; it was way easier for my generation to get through school than for yours. All we had to do was keep our grades up and get the required number of credits to graduate high school. We had some occasional standardized tests that we took, but they were used more as benchmarks in our educational progress. Just data to compare our progress with the expected progress of other kids in our age group. There was nothing about those tests that was tied to our graduation. There was nothing about those tests that ranked our schools against each other. There was nothing about those tests that determined in any way how much funding our schools got or whether or not our teachers were qualified to get a raise in pay. Only within the last couple decades did standardized testing become a multi-billion dollar competition.
That probably sounds weird to you, students of 2022. You’ve lived through some things already that no students have experienced in a very long time, if ever. During your tenure as students, you’ve been the guinea pigs for 1:1 technology. No other students before you ever did their assignments through electronic devices. I know that some of you are grateful for this development, but I also know that some of you aren’t happy about it. I know that many of you would prefer to use books and pencil and paper. No other students before you have grown up in an education system so heavily influenced by standardized tests. No other students before you have been taught by teachers held hostage by such an inequitable accountability system. As I already pointed out, students in the not-so-distant past never had to pass a standardized test in order to graduate from high school. Teachers are expected to differentiate our lessons to make sure that the many unique learning styles of students are met, while at the same time being held accountable to a one-size-fits-all accountability system that judges and ranks students, teachers, and schools as if they were all the same. No students before you were ever seen more as dollar signs than people. Because of the system we now have, which funds schools based upon their rankings in this terribly unjust manner, schools are now forced to compete for students because each one of you means thousands of dollars that schools could potentially lose.
You are the first students in a century who’ve had to go to school during such a devastating world-wide pandemic. For more than two years, some of you never even saw the full face of your masked teachers. You are the first students in history to ever have to attend school virtually for extended periods of time.
Last, but maybe foremost, you are the first students in history to ever grow up in a world of smart phones and social media. It still seems hard to believe, but the first smart phone came out only 14 years ago. Now we are all constantly walking through a cloud of invisible zeroes and ones swirling around our wifi environments. No students in history have ever had so much competing for their attention and time. Sadly, you are trying to be students in a world being manipulated by social media “influencers” who produce almost nothing of substance in this world but are held up as people to emulate and aspire to be. You have virtual reality video games that allow you to sequester yourselves away in another universe, while my generation had Pong and Asteroids if we had anything at all. If there is anything in the whole wide world that you wish to view or listen to, you can do so instantly with the touch of a couple buttons on your phone. And some of you can never escape the bullying that used to only happen in the school yard because it comes at you through your own phones remotely while you desperately cry in your bedroom.
And now, on top of all that, we are reverting back to the very same stressful and scary scenario that I dealt with at your age as Vladimir Putin wages an unprovoked war in Ukraine and threatens to drag us into the unthinkable prospect of nuclear bombs and World War III.
Dear students of 2022, you’ve had so much thrown at you. It’s not fair but life isn’t always fair. You’ve no doubt learned that lesson by now. So, the question becomes, what are you supposed to do about it? I don’t know how to answer that, but I do have some advice. You can’t waste away your life by fretting about things that are out of your control, but you also can’t just turn inward and close yourself off from the world. I would suggest that you learn as much as you can about the world. Learn history—really learn it and learn it from every possible perspective, not just the viewpoints some politicians and parents want you to learn. When you do this, you’ll see the patterns that are always present. You’ll be able to think your way through all the conflicting messages you hear from different sides of debates. You’ll be able to sift through all the crazy to find what’s real and what matters. Then and only then, you can build a coalition of well-informed critical thinkers who can fight to change a broken system of partisan politics. You can chip away at the biases that are built into our two-party political system and work toward building a new system that can finally move past the nonsense we’ve made of our current one. You can make America the “shining light on the hill” that we’ve always claimed to be. You can make this a place that the rest of the world can look to as a model to aspire to be.
You can be real and substantive influencers.
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