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What Young People Need To Thrive

The United States was founded by people seeking relief from an oppressive political and economic system. Three stunningly prescient documents — the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights — made it clear that newly minted Americans valued the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of wealth, should that be desired. Ownership was no longer relegated to the state or landed class.

The Founding Fathers had a vision of country that valued personal liberty and free enterprise, but they would be gobsmacked by the pace of today’s change, the scope of geopolitics and the scale of trade. What would the Continental Congress make of the spiraling market disruptions caused by a basketball executive’s tweet about Hong Kong’s political protests? How would they reconcile freedom of speech, a foreign fight for democracy, and a massive economic opportunity overseas?

Young Americans will spend their lives steeped in this complexity. What do they need to fully participate in our capitalist democracy? What will prepare them to lead prosperous, self-determined lives in our fast-moving American capitalist democracy?

¯ Discernment: Navigating a rapid-fire world of news and analysis breaking across multiple platforms challenges everyone. Young people need strong reading and comprehension skills to develop discernment and solid judgment. What is a primary source? What is secondary analysis? What makes someone an expert? What is the difference between reporting and opinion? What does this action cost — and what is the benefit? What is the risk of a decision?

According to the 2019 NAEP scores, only 34 percent of eighth graders in our country are on track in reading. Are we preparing young Americans to seek information and think carefully for themselves? Or will they be more likely to retweet bot farms and follow shiny objects?

¯ Contribution: American capitalism moves quickly. Industries, jobs, companies, organizations emerge and fade with regularity. Successfully navigating this kind of dynamic opportunism means preparing for change and being clear-eyed about value. No one is owed a job or a salary; it is earned by adding value to an organization. There is value in being a cashier in a small business. There is value in being a sheriff. There is value in being an entrepreneur. There is value in working in a corporate headquarters.

Whether young people aspire to sign the front of payroll checks or the back of them, it is critical to help them consider how he or she adds value to an organization. The value of humans is not solely aligned to economic productivity, but our economic system depends upon collective productivity. Anyone who needs or wants to earn a salary to support themselves and their family must expect to contribute to earn.

¯ Curiosity (and its kissing cousin, Humility): A dynamic system like capitalism requires all of us to continually learn, get better, expand our knowledge and adapt. All of that is impossible without curiosity and humility. Your job may disappear — what will you do instead? Your point of view will be challenged — how will you strengthen or adapt your position? The antidote to polarization is increased curiosity and humility. You don’t have to agree with everything others say, but you should be curious to understand why they say it.

Young people are well served to learn this early and often. One of the primary outcomes of school is to help young people become outstanding learners — not to create fully finished experts who can leave knowledge building behind.

Outstanding learners become outstanding adapters. Outstanding learners assume that there may be more to a story that is worth knowing. Outstanding learners will have the ability to lead our country through complexity.

¯ Engagement: America’s democratic capitalism only works when its citizens show up and engage. That includes running for office and voting, but it also includes serving on a town’s zoning committee or as commissioner of the municipal youth sports league. It means showing up for work. Showing up to volunteer. Enlisting in the military. Serving as a first responder. Paying parking tickets and taxes. Showing up for others in ways both big and small. Young people learn to value engagement by watching the adults around them do it.

The educators who staff and lead our schools can help young people build these muscles. What is our collective responsibility? To support schools that embrace rigor, accountability and leadership. To insist on schools that ensure that students can read, write and do math. To commit to schools that ensure rigorous content for all students so that they can make meaning of democracy, capitalism, and our complex world.

As President George W. Bush once said: “Education provides the skills necessary to expand horizons and allow for economic success. Education also exposes young men and women to the great ideals of our heritage — liberty and responsibility, participation, and patriotism. And in doing so we secure our democratic way of life.”

Anne Wicks is the Ann Kimball Johnson director of the Education Reform Initiative, George W. Bush Institute. A longer version of their essay appears in “The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute.” This is distributed by InsideSources.com.

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