In this month’s In Residence column, Keith White raises the question about the way we prepare children and young people for the problems of the modern world, and he focuses on the ecological problems facing humankind. Learning to be a good steward of the planet’s resources and taking real responsibility for the welfare of other species would not have been high on most people’s priority lists a generation back, but they have to be now.
Throughout most of history, children have tended to follow in the footsteps of their parents in terms of employment, social status and where they live. Their parents and grandparents have therefore had valuable information and advice to offer them; elders were to be respected for their experience and wisdom.
Elders should still be respected, both because everyone deserves respect but also because of their accumulated insights into the human condition. But in many other respects, they may have much less to offer to the next generation in the twenty-first century.
Elders are not the repositories of much of the knowledge needed by children to succeed. The latest electronic gadgetry may be as foreign to them as the latest fashions of language and clothing. Ways of communicating have changed, perhaps changing the nature of social relationships in the process. There is much greater migration for economic reasons, and elders may not be able to advise the next generations on ways to achieve success in other countries. Things of this sort can sideline the advice of elders.
So how should the older generations help to prepare today’s children?
To start with the least important first, children need to be well informed, have detailed knowledge in some areas and a grasp of how the various fields of knowledge fit together. To achieve this will be a step beyond some of the schooling provided, where each subject is a separate silo of information and the connections are not explored.
But while there are masses of information to pick up, it is at least as important to know how to find things out as to know them. There are new skills to be picked up about ways of finding information, about judging the quality of data and its reliability, about absorbing information, analysing it and turning it into workable ideas which can be usefully applied.
Most important is the absorption of values and the adoption of attitudes. Although such concepts can be transmitted through books and other media, it is essentially human relationships which communicate to children deep down, form their views of the world and shape the ways in which they will live their lives. It is through relationships that they become motivated to dedicate their lives to specific areas of activity. It is through relationships that they come to hate or co-operate with other racial and cultural groups. It is through the adults whom children see as role models that they develop a sense of duty or commitment to care for others, or become destructive, or see the world as a place of fear and chaos.
Today’s children will need to be able to make new relationships around the world, to learn to respect other people’s cultures and beliefs, or to find ways of co-existing on the planet with those with whom they disagree.
It is – as it always was – human qualities which shape the fundamentals of education, and adults all have a responsibility to help children to achieve their potential, whether as parent, grandparent, teacher, youth worker, neighbour, tax payer or citizen of the world. Modern systems of communication and travel patterns mean that we are all neighbours now.
There is the native American saying that bringing up a child is too important to be left to the parents; it is a matter for the tribe. If the world is to live at peace, bringing up children is a matter for the citizenry of the whole world.