Hope for the Future

Dr. Jennifer L. Zaccara, Head of School
Imagine that you are fourteen years old. You are at a family gathering with your grandparents. A discussion of the world’s problems starts and your grandparents wave it off. “The problems are so big compared to what we experienced,” they say. “They won’t be solved in our lifetime, so what’s the point of talking about them?” How would that feel?
All too often, our young people feel overwhelmed, silenced, or alienated from the discourse about the future. As educators, it is incumbent upon us to shift the conversation so that students see possibilities, solutions to problems, innovation, new thinking, and hope. 

Recently, I had two great conversations on the same day that resonated with one another. One conversation was with Ari Betof, co-host with Hans Mundahl of the Enrollment Management Association’s Idea Factory, and the other was with Jeff Bradley, The Director for School Improvement and International Education at the NEASC. I shared my concern about students and the apparent lack of hope for the future that pervades adult discourse. In both conversations, we agreed that we are at an educational inflection point, and that it is incumbent on us as educators to work on the skills and content that help us to prepare students for a future vastly different from the past. 

We need to make sure that we embrace that future, train ourselves by gaining all the new skills that will be the operative currency of that world -- not only technology, data analytics, and engineering, but also the skills of collaboration, flexibility, resiliency, problem solving, and conflict resolution. If we keep trying to convince others to think like us, we will never solve problems or find that middle ground that could be a better position.  

Essentially, as Jeff Bradley and I discussed, we have lost our understanding of what the Common Good is all about.  We both had read Michael Sandel’s “The Tyranny of Merit: Can We Find the Common Good?” and realized that the rush to success might have left behind the ties that bind us and the notion of “the Commons,” or the meeting place that brings people together around neighborliness, shared understandings, and purposes. We may have abandoned the sense that we are in these life struggles together -- all with the hope of living and striving for happiness, for a life well lived, and for a sense of purpose rooted in shared ideals (note: not shared ideologies).  It might be useful for us to contemplate why the concept of “the Common Good” is necessary for citizenship. We may need to “lean in” more to find that common purpose that allows for different opinions but enables us to make decisions and solve problems. To do this, we need a concept that is greater than each of us individually and a renewed sense of what it means to be a citizen. Perhaps we have a moral obligation to care.

In Vermont, a state that often transcends political boundaries more than people realize, we have a Republican Governor, a Democratic Lieutenant Governor, and a U.S. Senator who is the longest standing Independent in the United States Congress and who refers to himself as a Democratic Socialist. That’s diversity!  These three explore what the needs of Vermont are and get after goals. They don’t agree, but they gather, and they rally around the Commons.  

At Vermont Academy, we give students opportunities every day to address problems and needs in our community and the world, ranging from climate study, sustainability, and diversity to poverty and rural development. We look far ahead to prepare them for the workforce needs of the future, whether it’s robotics and artificial intelligence, healthcare, or an entrepreneurial mindset that allows them to think of the products and services that will be needed when they graduate from college. It is this kind of thinking that offers students more hope for the future and for a world that continues to have visible representations of citizenship, ethics, and the Common Good.

Jeff Bradley told me that Sinan Aral’s book “The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health -- and How We Must Adapt” was worth reading as it identified how social media has divided us, how we can “re-engineer” our response to it, and how we should engage with it. He believes that if in fact we have lost the Common Good, we did so by allowing social media to taint our discourse. The book also identifies how neuroscientists have explored the impacts social media has on the brain, and thus on our perceptions and world views, our anxieties, and our increasing alienation.

Let’s engage in this discourse, if not for ourselves, for our students, for our young people. We need to re-design how we engage with each other on world issues, planetary crises, and so many other topics, and I would argue that we can begin by understanding how we got where we are and what the cost has been. Instead, we should reconnect with a set of ideals held “in common” that keep us aiming for something that is greater than ourselves or our individualism: the Common Good for the sake of others.

Education for Life - One Student at a Time

Vermont Academy is a coed college preparatory boarding and day school in southern Vermont, serving grades 9-12 plus a postgraduate year.