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This column was originally published on December 9, 2017. Maryanne Roller is an internationally published journalist, former bestselling author and the author of the Emmy-nominated screen-to-book adaptation of the memoir Deadly Choices, In Justice or in Exile. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, TIME, and the New York Times.
Before YouTube or Netflix or SchoolTube, the adolescent was the golden goose of educational instruction. As PBS blogger Aidan Sollinger writes, “In the country’s wealthiest communities, the educated classes, teenagers had access to the highest-quality instruction available. Not only did teens have classes but professional instructors were also present. They taught the most complex and difficult subjects.”
Today, over 98 percent of American youth attend a high school or community college. But young people are no longer in the privileged circle of higher education. For many, this presents a new status quo: more viewing options, a smaller and smaller percentage of high school graduates who earn a college degree, and a reality that the preparation for college, in many ways, has no coordination with the preparation for working life. So, how can we make school relevant for teens in an era when it’s more about building skills in the digital age and developing the online personality and social network that will help them stand out online?
Well, you know how I’m a fiction writer and an avid audiobook listener. The idea for this piece emerged while listening to my own audiobook, Faster. I read the introduction to Faster more than any other audiobook I’ve ever written — 60 hours spread over five months. I’m reminded of some of the lessons I learned while writing Fast : None of us can make our way in this world without how to keep others focused on our best qualities — virtues that are not defined by our brilliance. I find this liberating. I believe that humans are much too wired and social to attain perfect self-esteem. We must distinguish our strengths and weaknesses, and we must work on limiting the larger flaws. What the holidays?
In Mary Bee, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved tale about the Kansas wild lands after the Revolutionary War, the heroine does this. She makes a reservation for the queen of the Red River empire, she finds time to attend an Illinois picnic at the lodge in Eaton Rapids where the northernmost inhabitants of a not-quite-free land have gathered, and she shows up late to an art exhibit. Like me, she moves her life from book to book. Indeed, every time I see a full version of a book I have not yet read, I wonder if I should be reading it. Why didn’t I know about this? Maybe I should read it! No matter how or why I eventually open it, one thing is certain: it enhances my knowledge and literacy.
As writers, we spend a lot of time and energy writing descriptions and timelines, describing how people act. I remember clearly my own mother telling me stories about visiting Iowa in the 1920s and the talk I heard during my grandparents’ weekly visits. (My grandfather was struck by a car and killed. His body was so mangled, it was actually difficult to identify the victim.) I was 10 at the time, and I recall my mother’s description of Iowa to me. She explained that the Methodist girls’ school my grandparents attended was smaller than the public schools in town, and a time when “they preferred children to attend private school, because they felt that they were taught to meet the demands of large schools better.” As I mention in Faster, my grandparents went on to spend the rest of their lives in a world that spanned three generations.
My parents encouraged me and my siblings to read as much as we could. They taught us to use our brains and our voices, to speak when we could and listen when we had to. When my father was granted his PhD in neuroscience and my mother went on to earn her PhD in physics, we would gather in a parking lot on Thursday nights to escape the heat of the summer for pajama-clad adventures. Sometimes we’d hit a bowling alley, other times we’d explore the local museum. They taught us to hear and imagine, to travel, to use our minds. Today, I try to do what they did for us, using my own story to make sure I retain the lessons they taught us.
It seems to me that through the years, we’ve reverted to a model of school and higher education that honors all of these assets. Instead of aspiring to a model that underscores their grand things, schools and institutions simply insist upon excellence. An average IQ and a positive attitude can get a child into a very select few selective colleges. To thrive on that path, though, you need more than that.