“Meatless Mondays” and the Rise of Social-Emotional Learning in Schools

One of our favorite family poems is Shel Silverstein’s “Point Of View.” It’s witty without being preachy yet prompts the listener to more thoughtfully consider the act of meat-eating: “Thanksgiving dinner’s sad and thankless/ Christmas dinner’s dark and blue. /When you stop and try to see it/ From the turkey’s point of view.”

Reading this poem reinforces the idea that eating meat or not eating meat is a personal choice, a lifestyle decision that may be rooted in one’s own sense of right and wrong. There are many social, cultural, and individual reasons why someone might be a carnivore or a vegetarian. It’s a private decision of the home and family.

Private Choice or Public Policy?

Except when it isn’t. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced earlier this month that all New York City public schools would enact “Meatless Mondays,” avoiding any meat offerings during Monday school breakfasts and lunches beginning this fall. “Cutting back on meat a little will improve New Yorkers’ health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” de Blasio said in a statement. “We’re expanding Meatless Mondays to all public schools to keep our lunch and planet green for generations to come.”

The mayor acknowledges that vegetarianism is a personal choice. At a press conference announcing his new vegetarian agenda, he stated: “So, for me, this is very personal, because – and I will say up front, I eat meat and I eat vegetarian dishes and I try and strike a balance between the two. But I have two vegetarians in my home and they feel very strongly about this.”

Mayor de Blasio’s family members apparently feel very strongly about their personal choice to be vegetarians. Good for them. The issue is when someone’s personal preferences become public policy. The mayor explains in his speech that sometimes we need those philosopher-kings to guide the masses: “Sometimes it’s our elected officials who are the trailblazers and the visionaries.”

How about letting individuals and families make their own choices about what to eat? Should government officials really have the power to decide what you put into your own body?

There are, thankfully, ways around the Meatless Monday mandate. New York City parents can pack their own child’s meals, with meat if they choose. As I’ve written previously, these homemade lunches are a much healthier option for children than the USDA-issued variety. Parents can also opt-out of public schooling altogether, something more parents are doing in New York City and elsewhere to regain control over their children’s education.

Government Mandating Subjective Decisions

The Meatless Monday plan is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to government dictates on right and wrong, often using compulsory government schools to influence young people. Comprehensive sex education curriculum mandates in public schools continue to spark controversy, challenging various belief systems and family preferences. And the push to introduce “character education” into schools as a way to boost students’ moral compasses begs the question of whose moral compass will be used.

In a pluralistic society, state mandates on morality are inevitably contentious. A new report by Boston’s Pioneer Institute examines the growing impact of SEL, or the widespread emphasis on “social-emotional learning” in schools over academic content. Through various curricula and teaching methods, SEL initiatives can mold students’ perceptions of themselves and their world in a potentially narrow way.

Jane Robbins co-authored the study, called “Social Emotional Learning: K-12 Education as New-Age Nanny State.” She explains,

It’s one thing to direct your own moral, ethical, and emotional development or that of your children, but having a government vendor or unqualified public school officials implement an SEL curriculum based on coffee-table psychology is quite another.

Individuals and families should be the ones to determine their own values and moral worldviews, not government agents—often working through public schools—dictating good and bad.

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What Parents Can Really Do to Help Prepare Their Teens for Success

While reading about the student-led climate protests last week, a statement jumped out at me from the 16-year-old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, who is credited with launching the walkouts that occurred in over 100 countries. In an interview with The New York Times, Thunberg, who says she was a shy but good student who was overcome for years with adolescent depression, claims that her climate work has added fulfillment to her life. She says: “I’m happier now…I have meaning. I have something I have to do.”

Teenagers Crave Purpose

Regardless of how you may feel about climate activism, the key message to parents is that school can be stifling and anxiety-inducing for many teenagers who crave and need meaningful work. Adolescents are meant to come of age within the adult world, surrounded by a diverse group of mentors and engaged in authentic, real-life pursuits. This gives them both experience and personal reward.

Instead, teenagers today are spending more of their time confined in school and school-like settings than ever before. Teenage employment has plummeted, with part-time jobs abandoned in the all-out quest for academics and college admissions. Summer jobs, once a signature activity for teens, are no longer valued. Schooling has become the priority—even in summer. In July 1985, only ten percent of US teens were enrolled in school; in July 2016, over 42 percent were.

Thunberg also isn’t alone in her teen depression. Mounting data show skyrocketing rates of adolescent anxiety, depression, and suicide over the last decade. Some researchers point to technology and social media as the culprit, but they ignore other, recent cultural trends—like more time in forced schooling and less time engaged in jobs and meaningful work—that could be contributing to adolescent strife.

Job Experience Could Be A Solution

In a recent Harvard EdCast podcast interview, Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University and author of the book, How to Raise an Adult, said that she has heard from several admissions officers that they, regrettably, rarely see work experience described in student essays or otherwise touted on college applications. Young people and their parents now believe that academics and extracurriculars are more important than good, old-fashioned teenage jobs.

Not only is this increased emphasis on school over work likely contributing to teenage angst and disenfranchisement, but it is also not serving them well for the adult world they will ultimately enter. A report by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation revealed that employers are disappointed that today’s highly-schooled graduates lack basic proficiency in simple tasks like drafting a quality email, prioritizing work, and collaborating with others. Other studies have found similar results, with employers frustrated by their new hires’ lack of communication skills, poor problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities, and low attention to detail.

While parents and teachers may think that piling on academics is the key to adult success, the lack of genuine work experience can be more hindrance than help for today’s young people. If parents really want their children to have a meaningful and successful adolescence and adulthood, they should consider trading a well-schooled life for a well-lived one. They can encourage their teens to get jobs and gain beneficial work experience—and make sure that their kids handle it all independently, learning through trial and error. As Lythcott-Haims warns in her book:

Helping by providing suggestions, advice, and feedback is useful, but we can only go so far. When parents do what a young employee must do for themselves, it can backfire.

In addition to encouraging part-time work, parents can also help their teenagers to develop an entrepreneurial mindset that focuses on customer satisfaction and value creation. By looking at her job (even if it’s in retail or food service) from an entrepreneurial perspective, a teen can learn a lot about business and value-creation and may be inspired to become an entrepreneur in adulthood. Unfortunately, entrepreneurship is woefully neglected in schools and standard extracurriculars.

As parents look ahead to summer vacation, they may want to pause and take a closer peek at their teenager’s plans. Will she spend those warm months getting ahead on her AP classes? Will he do a foreign language immersion program that will look good on the college transcripts? Maybe getting a job or learning how to think like an entrepreneur would be a more beneficial and rewarding way to enjoy a summer—and a life.

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Lawmakers Want to Give Voting Rights to Teens They Treat Like Toddlers

Newly-elected US Rep. Ayanna Pressley caused a stir this month when she filed an amendment to lower the legal federal voting age from 18 to 16. While Pressley’s amendment failed to pass, the action brought attention to the place of teenagers in society. Regardless of how we may feel about the role of the voter, many of us would argue that teenagers should have more autonomy and agency and be more active, productive members of their communities. The irony, however, is that at the same time legislators seek to empower teens by expanding voting rights, they are increasingly infantilizing them in other pernicious ways.

Confining Teens through Compulsory Schooling

For instance, the call to lower the voting age comes at a time when more states are tightening compulsory schooling statutes, requiring teenagers to stay in school longer under a legal threat of force. As of 2017, 24 states plus the District of Columbia had raised the minimum age at which a young person can legally leave school to 18. Lawmakers in Oregon announced legislation last month to lower the voting age to 16, but the state also raised its compulsory schooling age to 18. Sixteen-year-olds may get permission to vote, but in school, they still need permission to use the bathroom.

The alleged goal of expanding compulsory schooling laws is to lower drop-out rates and improve academic and social outcomes, yet research shows no clear benefit in raising the compulsory school attendance age. In Pressley’s home state of Massachusetts, a Boston city councilor recently proposed offering an optional 13th year of public schooling, prolonging the state stewardship of teens.

More time in compulsory school settings means less time adolescents spend working or otherwise constructively engaged with their larger communities. In fact, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a sharp decline in teenage labor force participation from a high of 57.9 percent in 1979 to just 34.1 percent in 2011. Much of this decline is due to the increased emphasis on time in school and academic performance while devaluing the critical life skills, mentoring, and real-life problem-solving that teens can experience through work and community involvement. Even summer jobs have been by replaced by school. According to the BLS, 42 percent of teens were enrolled in school in July 2016 compared to only 10 percent in July 1985.

Psychologist Robert Epstein points out how our society harms adolescents by stripping them of responsibility and authentic immersion into adult life. In his book, Teen 2.0, he writes that “high school is little more than a prison for many of our teens, and the time has come to explore bold new approaches to education that will allow our young to reconnect meaningfully with the adult world they are about to enter.” Dr. Epstein argues that the “artificial extension of childhood” past puberty is why so many US teenagers today are in turmoil.

The Power of Self-Education

The concept of adolescent empowerment and greater participation in the larger community is not new. For decades, social reformers have been advocating for more freedom and responsibility for teenagers. Paul Goodman brought these ideas to the forefront in his books, Growing Up Absurd (1960) and Compulsory Mis-education (1964). Goodman influenced John Holt, who took the ideas a step further. In his 1974 book Escape from Childhood, Holt promotes extending children’s rights, including allowing children the right to vote, as well as to direct their own education. The self-directed learning principle is critical for Holt. He writes in Escape from Childhood:

“A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.”

Holt went on to coin the term “unschooling” in 1977 as part of the nascent homeschooling movement, urging parents to remove their children from institutional schooling in favor of non-coercive, self-directed learning. Today, unschooling continues to gain popularity, particularly as more self-directed learning spaces provide alternatives to school for children and adolescents.

Lowering the voting age is a reasonable proposition. Indeed, it’s something worth considering as a mechanism for inviting adolescents into the larger discourse of our society. But lowering the voting age while forcing these same teens to spend additional years in mandatory schooling environments, cut-off from authentic, inter-generational community interactions, is nothing more than a political ploy.

Teenagers are capable of being valuable contributors to civil society. They should be granted greater freedom and responsibility. Lowering the voting age while trapping them in compulsory schooling gives teenagers neither freedom nor responsibility.

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The Peace of Mind in Probabilistic Thinking

I’m a big believer in agnosticism. (See what I did there?)

There are so many things that don’t require a strong opinion or position, and don’t warrant dying.

It’s very stressful to be confronted with questions and claims about culture, physics, politics, psychology, health, economics, history, ethics, aesthetics, and philosophy and feel the need to have a clear answer. Especially when answers immediately get interpreted as sides and you’ll get lumped in with some tribal collective blob and be associated with whatever bundle of biases they may have, real or imagined. It’s like behind every possibility lurks a mob shouting, “Are you with us or against us?!”

This is bad for curiosity, learning, and fun.

Besides having fewer opinions and focusing on individuals instead of collectives, another way I’ve found relief from relentless pressure to pick is to think in probabilities instead of binaries.

“Do you think eating gluten is bad for you?” is the kind of question that makes you feel a bit uneasy. You know about the weird tribes in this debate and don’t want to be in them. Still, maybe you’re interested in the topic for yourself or as a general curiosity. If you’re not content with, “I don’t know”, try assigning probability.

“I think there’s a high probability that too much gluten is one cause of my digestive problems” is way more relaxing. You don’t have to give up the examination. You don’t have to stay out of the conversation entirely. But you distance yourself from binary conclusions and tribes, individualize your opinion, and leave open the possibility that your sliding scale of probability can change with more information.

You can’t fake it though. If deep down you’re a hard-liner (which is not all bad in every situation, just very, very dangerous), pretending to be probabilistic to seem sophisticated will only make you more stressed. If you can begin to unwind the reactive need to pick a yes/no and assign probabilities, you will find a release of tension and an expansion of curiosity. You may even be able to read Twitter debates with a smile instead of rage!

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The First Rungs on the Success Ladder

We live in abundant times. This presents an interesting conundrum when it comes to succeeding.

Success is not the result of pure luck or genetics. Success is a discipline that can be learned. You can deliberately build your ability to succeed. Pick a challenge. One that’s hard but not too hard. Persist until you figure out how to overcome that challenge. It builds confidence that you take with you to the next, slightly bigger challenge. That’s how you learn success.

But what if you begin with a challenge that’s too big?

You can just as easily learn failure. I don’t mean learn from failure, which is what happens while you’re persisting at a challenge that’s big enough but not too big. I mean learn failure as a habit or mindset. If you take on a challenge outside your current capabilities, you will in all likelihood get disheartened, internalize your insufficiency, and extrapolate it broadly.

Thus the conundrum of an age of abundance.

If we accept some form of Maslow’s hierarchy, the most basic human challenges of food, shelter, and safety are taken care of. We’re born into the middle of the pyramid. This is not a bad thing. I don’t want my kids to have to scavenge for food and clothing. But because success compounds, those born into abundance can miss out on the first, most basic forms of success, and then find the rest out of reach.

The extreme example of the kid born into great wealth and status is familiar to us from books and movies. The first challenge that kid is faced with is self-actualization. All the smaller battles have been won on her behalf. That is a really massive challenge. No wonder there are so many dysfunctional trust fund babies.

But it’s not just the uber-elite. A lot of young people feel like failures and struggle to succeed at anything. In the world of careers, with which I am very familiar, you have people in their twenties taking on their first job and experiencing existential trauma because they feel the need to find work that speaks to their deepest calling. They’re starting with self-actualization, which is too big a challenge.

They never had to fight the small battle of just learning to finish a task without praise. They never had to fight the slightly bigger battle of earning their first five dollars. They never overcame the challenge of learning to show up on time and not get fired. They never learned to overcome escalating social challenges like being ignored or misunderstood.

Well-intentioned parents save their kids from all the small, early challenges and point the kid to big ones. The kid who never learned how to cope with not being chosen first in basketball is told “Get into an elite university”, or, “Become a doctor”, or, “Make me proud.”

So a lot of people are wandering around feeling lost because they don’t know how to “make a dent in the universe”. It’s not because they are failures. It’s because they skipped too many steps. Figure out how to walk before you try to run.

Imagine if we tried to help babies out by building mechanical legs and hooking them up to IVs. “Poor kid was crawling on the floor, barely mobile, and totally reliant upon his mother for food. We’ve solved that, now he can move around and tackle bigger, more creative problems!”

It would destroy the development process. The kid would never walk, never bond, and probably have digestive health and psychological issues forever.

When we remove grunt work, low pay jobs, skinned knees, hurt feelings on the playground, and all the small challenges that kids confront first, we remove the first rungs on the success ladder. When we place big epic battles for meaning as the first our kids ever face, we make failure easier to learn than success.

Fight smaller battles. Win them. Then fight slightly bigger battles.

Don’t worry about slaying dragons until you learn to swat flies.

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US Schools Are Leaving Students Ill-Equipped to Compete with Artificial Intelligence

We have long known that the robots were coming, but now that they are here, the mismatch between our modern education system and the technology-fueled workplace is glaringly apparent. As robots expertly perform routine tasks and increasingly assume broader workforce responsibilities, we must ask ourselves an important question: What is our key human differentiator?

The Power of Creativity

According to Boston University professor Iain Cockburn, who just published a new paper on the impact of artificial intelligence, the human competitive advantage lies in optimizing “what we can do better than machines, which is imagination, creativity, judgment.” In the paper, Cockburn and his colleagues suggest that it’s possible the robots will catch up to us soon in these realms, but they are not there yet. They write:

Instead, recent advances in both robotics and in deep learning are by and large innovations that require a significant level of human planning and that apply to a relatively narrow domain of problem-solving (e.g., face recognition, playing Go, picking up a particular object, etc.). While it is of course possible that further breakthroughs will lead to a technology that can meaningfully mimic the nature of human subjective intelligence and emotion, the recent advances that have attracted scientific and commercial attention are well removed from these domains.

If human imagination, creativity, and judgment are our primary tools for competing successfully with today’s robots, then it would make sense for current education models to focus on cultivating these qualities. The sad fact, however, is that most schooling is stuck in a 19th-century system of command and control, memorization, and regurgitation that may successfully train young people to be robotic workers but not innovative thinkers.

It’s Time to Adapt

Recognizing the inevitable effects of automation, artificial intelligence researchers have been calling for dramatic changes in the education of our youth since computers first appeared. One futurist was Seymour Papert, a renowned mathematician who became co-director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the 1960s.

Papert was a critic of education models based on top-down instruction and passive learning. He believed that “the model of successful learning is the way a child learns to talk, a process that takes place without deliberate and organized teaching.” So firm was his vision of the ways technology could facilitate authentic learning, Papert foreshadowed the end of conventional schooling. In his 1980 book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Papert writes that “schools as we know them today will have no place in the future.”

Of course, Papert’s vision hasn’t emerged. Other than the ubiquity of computers, most present schooling looks remarkably similar to schooling in the 1980s, and passive learning and a teach-and-test approach to education endures. American public school students now take more than one hundred required standardized tests from preschool through high school graduation—a number that has skyrocketed in recent years. At the same time, their creativity scores are plummeting. College of William & Mary professor Kyung Hee Kim discovered that American creativity scores have been falling precipitously since the early 1990s, with elementary school-age children experiencing the sharpest drop in creativity.

We should all be alarmed. If human creativity is our key competitive advantage against robots, and that creativity is declining, the forthcoming workplace disruption and job losses that will accompany increased automation will be more severe than they otherwise should be. Some educators suggest doubling down on efforts to foster creativity. John Maeda, the former president of Rhode Island School of Design, said in an interview:

I wouldn’t say [creativity] can be taught in the normal sense of adding knowledge and wisdom to someone. I would say instead it can be re-kindled in people—all children are creative. They just lose their capability to be creative by growing up.

But it’s not a consequence of growing up that causes creativity to decline: It’s our antiquated system of forced schooling that was designed to crush creativity in the name of conformity. As I spotlight in my upcoming book, Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom, young people who learn without school, or in other non-coercive learning environments, retain their natural creativity and curiosity. We don’t need to rekindle creativity; we need to stop destroying it.

To compete with robots, we need an education model that nurtures human imagination and ingenuity. Forced schooling is ill-equipped to do this, but models of learning without conventional schooling are ideally positioned to take on the pending robot challenge.

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