Learning From Youth

Learning From Youth

In 1970, the anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap. In it, she traced the evolutionary impacts of media on the ways in which knowledge and culture were passed from generation to generation.

For most of human history, elders were the ones who understood the world best, and the knowledge they had accumulated from their ancestors and their own experience was handed down to their children as a map to help them navigate their own lives. But with the advent of media through which knowledge could be more widely shared and spread, there came a time when youth could gain some understanding of the world on their own, even though the teachings of elders were still sought and embraced.

But Mead predicted a time when youth might know more about how the world operates because the adults had never experienced the type of world in which those kids were growing up. She called that a “prefigurative culture,” and arguably, is where we find ourselves today. A quote from the back cover of her book reads

“Until recently, our elders could say ‘I have been young and you have never been old, so shut up and listen to me.’ Today the young can reply: ‘You listen: You were never young in the world I am young in.’”
No question, the “wisdom” of adults is still valuable and important (though, arguably, wise adults seem harder and harder to find.) Parents have much to teach their kids about the ways of the world in terms of relationships, attitudes, dispositions, and values.

And yet, today, kids are wise to the workings of the world in ways that many adults are not. They are increasingly networked. They are learning and creating with technologies in ways that are foreign to many grown-ups. They don’t flinch at sharing their pronouns or scramble the letters of LGBTQ+ in conversation. They are tapped into the larger struggles in the world that are breeding a new sense of youth activism that many adults don’t understand.

Which is why we (especially Homa) have become fond of suggesting to educators in particular to find an under-30 mentor to learn with and from. We’re always advocating for diverse perspectives, and the lenses of those who actually have been young in this very challenging world are especially important right now.

Find one, and ask them questions like:

  • How do you learn?
  • What are the biggest differences between your youth and my youth?
  • What do I need to understand about your life?
  • How do you see the future?
  • What is most important to you?
  • If you hear me say something you take issue with, will you stop me (preferably in private) to help me course correct, so that I don’t repeat or perpetuate my bias?

We’ve advocated before the idea that at every conversation educators have about the experience of school we’re creating for students, students should have a major voice in that conversation. For any of us who look at the world and feel confused or uncertain, finding someone younger to help us understand what’s actually happening is equally important.