Some of our colleagues have stopped accessing the news because they say it is far too stressful and depressing. On the one hand, this kind of reaction is understandable when considering educators are generally optimists. On the other hand, covering our eyes and ears does not alter the reality of the world for which we have accepted responsibility for preparing students. We cannot afford to avoid the negatives. Our job is to help students face fears and work together, using what they are learning to solve problems constructively.
There are always problems to solve. Sometimes they are more complex than at other times. Sometimes they are catastrophic. Few of us have the prescience that Jon Meacham had when he wrote an article in Newsweek in 1997 entitled, “Where Have All the Causes Gone?” I was led to read the article when it first came out because I had been hearing from students that they resented being labeled as apathetic. They just didn’t think that they had any causes for which they could have passion and work toward solving. When 9/11 occurred four years later, I recalled the Meacham article. Listening to the news and reading the papers these days brings that Meacham article to mind again. Here is the excerpt that keeps coming back to me:
Something will ultimately test us. Entitlements could collapse, a derivative deal may bring down the markets, some rogue nation might fire a missile at Manhattan. Americans are never comfortable for long without a crusade; one is sure to be thrust upon us. Then it will be our turn, and how we do will be the first big story of the Millennium.
During these critical moments in our nation and on many of our campuses, whether we see ourselves in this position or not, we are the at nexus of helping students integrate their expectations of college within the broader framework of sustaining our democracy. Historically, students have been at the forefront of cultural change, and now is no exception.
Andrew Grove, former chairman of Intel, is credited with coining the term strategic inflection point to describe a time when a business has to make major changes in the way they do what they do. At a strategic inflection point, the very fundamentals have to be altered. At the point of strategic inflection, it is not possible to remain the same. The trajectory defies the status quo. While we like to talk about crossroads in education, there is no urgency about taking one direction or another at a crossroads. However, during a crisis or at a strategic inflection point, there is a sense of urgency because action is going to occur whether or not it is of our own volition. We can see the crisis as opportunity and act with urgency to make the situation better than it was before or we can wait for the gravity of the situation to spiral all we do downward.
Following are two areas, among many, to consider for immediate fearless and forceful action:
- changing student expectations of the collegiate experience
- declining confidence in our democracy
Helping students take the perspective of problem solvers regarding the intersections of these issues is an excellent way to reinforce students’ academic learning and increase their adaptive skills, such as interpersonal communications and leadership. Setting the stage for problem-solving conversations taps into what student say they want: to be heard and for their values to be considered. Help students understand who they are, who others are, and what they mean when they say what they want and value.
Whether we are in a crisis or at a strategic inflection point, we know that our students will continue to reflect current society. Therefore, we must sync the methods and modes of our teaching and interventions with the way students prefer to learn. In other words, meet them where they are and walk with them as they discover their best selves in sustaining and creating a world that meets the values they have developed through their learning.