What Can We Do When Children Cannot Imagine a Better World?
I recently spoke to the middle school students at an alternative, independent, progressive school. I talked first to the 5th and 6th graders and next to the 7th and 8th graders. As I often do when I give presentations, I opened my talk by asking the kids what they thought were the biggest problems in the world. Like every group, their lists included such topics as global warming, poverty and war, along with many other issues.
Then I asked a question I hadn’t ever posed before. I asked if they could imagine a world without these problems. Only three children out of 40 raised their hands. I was stunned. These are children. Children are blessed with active imaginations, yet these kids couldn’t imagine a world without a laundry list of terrible problems and crises.
And so I asked them to close their eyes and imagine that they were very old, approaching the end of their lives. I told them that in their future the air and our rivers and lakes were clean; that while people still had conflicts, we no longer reacted with violence; that species were beginning to recover from the rapid extinctions that occurred earlier in their lives; that no one went to bed hungry because they lacked food to eat. I painted a bigger picture than this, but you get the point. Then I asked them to keep their eyes closed and raise their hands if they could imagine this world; all but a few raised their hands. I was relieved.
I did the same thing with the 7th and 8th graders. More raised their hands when asked if they could initially imagine a world without the list of problems they’d articulated, but this was still a minority of the group; and after the guided imagery, there were more hands left unraised than among the younger students.
It is extremely worrisome when young people cannot even imagine a world in which we solve our challenges. Without a belief in the possibility of a sustainable, just and peaceful future, it’s much harder to muster the effort to take part in change. I’ve written before about a creeping apathy among younger and younger kids, and I find this trend terribly unnerving. It’s so critical that we keep the fire of hope alive in our children; that we nourish their imaginations with a vision of a better world; that we remind them that we are living in less discriminatory, less violent and less cruel times than ever before in human history, and that what they do matters.
How can we do this? Here are some ways:
- Parents: To the best of your ability choose films and books for your young children that are hopeful, with heroic characters, and in which good prevails. Let your children know that they can and will make a positive difference in the world.
- Teachers: Make sure that your students know that what Martin Luther King, Jr. said is true: that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Teach them about the instances that illustrate the truth of King’s statement.
- Changemakers and Activists: Spread your good news! You are fighting injustice, destruction, and cruelty at every turn, and it would be easy to be endlessly angry and despondent. Make sure that your good work feeds your soul and that you share every success with joy and enthusiasm.
- People in the media: Share the good news as often as the bad. We need to know that change is possible, but most of the time what you share is the bad news, reinforcing a sense of cynicism, apathy, fear and hopelessness. We need you — our children need you — to keep their hope alive.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education, as well as online courses, workshops, and free resources. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education; and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists. She has given several acclaimed TEDx talks, including “The World Becomes What You Teach” and “Solutionaries” and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @ZoeWeil.
Image courtesy of Tom Hickmore via Creative Commons.