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Both as individuals and as members of our society, adults thrive when we feel we are in control of our destinies.  The belief that we control our future wellbeing is a basic prerequisite for happiness and human achievement.  Conversely, when adults feel captive to circumstances beyond our control, we are the most miserable and unproductive.

The same rules apply in children and adolescents—only more so.  Anyone who has spent time around young people knows just how exquisitely sensitive they are to the smallest changes in the world around them.  Children and adolescents crave routine and rules because they make the world seem both more secure and more manageable.  Moreover, structure provides a sense of control and safety that allows a child to flourish.

Therefore, it seems all too likely that when the larger world seems chaotic it is going to have a negative impact on a child’s happiness and wellbeing.  The onslaught of awful news and information—wars, catastrophic climate change, political chicanery, fiscal meltdowns, and thousand other problems both big and small—naturally both frightens and disheartens our young.  I sometimes wonder if one of the major attractions of video games for children and adolescents—aside from the obvious stimulation they provide—is the opportunity to temporarily control the scary and confusing world we now occupy.  Those hours spent destroying monsters with the flick of a finger may be the healthiest therapy of all for coping with the big bad world created by adults.

It might be a good idea for educators to wonder whether a sense of fear and hopelessness might be the biggest challenge we face in promoting academic achievement in our public schools.  Is it logical for a young person to work hard and sacrifice for the future in a world where disease may devastate, our degraded environment may kill, and the stupidity of their elders may destroy?  Why not toss the investment that education represents aside and grab hold of more transitory and immediate thrills?  If you may die tomorrow, perhaps it makes perfect sense to party today.

Aside from simply seeking to impart knowledge, perhaps we need to also offer a compelling reason for bothering to take the time to learn.  If we can begin a dialogue with our young about how to approach an uncertain and frightening future, perhaps we can also help them to discover rational and useful reasons to make education a part of their lives.  We need to stop underestimating or ignoring the impact that the troubles of the world have upon the lives and educational motivation of our children.  By addressing these issues in order to put our students into a frame of mind to make learning possible, we may be in a position to revolutionize the place of public education—and the role of public educators—in our society.

It is simpler, I am certain, to pass more rules and mandate more cookbook curriculum that further narrows a student’s education to the point of absurdity, but perhaps now is the time for more empathy and understanding.  If we are going to truly improve both our children’s educational outcomes and their futures, it may be time to initiate a dialogue that puts public education into a larger and more vibrant context.  Nothing in life has any meaning if you do not understand the reason you are doing it.  Why should education be any different?

Of course, the real catch to all this is that the less you know the more terrifying the world becomes—a sickening and inevitable circularity that we must guard against.  In his essay The American Scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson noted this simple fact: “Fear always springs from ignorance.”  If fear creates the breeding ground for ignorance and that ignorance produces yet more fear, we are doubly damned if we do not find the will to listen to our children, address their fears, and help them to find a reason to learn, to grow, and to develop the tools to change the world around them for the better.