If we’re to make any progress in the transformation of education and the realization of actual potential, it’ll be in large part because we alter the way we speak to young people and the way we receive what they contribute.

Yesterday I heard a cool story on the radio featuring 16 year-old Alexa Dantzler who decided to study the dry-cleaning residue on clothing.  She worked on it herself for a bit and then contacted chemists at local universities until she found someone who would collaborate with her on the project.  Paul Roepe, the chemist who responded (the one chemist who responded) was interested in the idea and surprised that no one had explored the topic already.  According to the segment, their investigation showed that the carcinogenic chemical does seem to linger on clothing after dry cleaning and that different clothing fibers retain the chemical in varying degrees.

What got my attention was the way this young person was addressed in the interview.  The spirit of this kind of story is too often, in my opinion, along the lines of “Holy cow!  Look at how this child was able to come up with an idea that no one else has come up with and actually do something with the idea!  Amazing!”

And it is amazing, but not because it’s unusual for young people to come up with good ideas deserving of pursuit.  It’s amazing because we make it very difficult for young people to do anything with serious important ideas because our attention is on preparing them to such things later (maybe).  Only one of the professors Dantzler contacted even responded.  Dr. Roepe did, and that was the reason that Dantzler’s idea got the attention it deserved. Young people have good ideas, ideas that express their concern for the environment. They have all sorts of inclinations toward service and contribution.  Children think more flexibly than adults do, so they’re actually probably more likely to come up with new ideas than adults are.  But we’ve grown accustomed to treating them as though they are only potential thinkers, thinkers-in-training, so this kind of thing must be the result of an extraordinary mind. Closer observation reveals that young people are idea machines, they’re just not supported in the pursuit of ideas.

The other thing that’s interesting about this story is that the sentiment of “Holy cow look what a kid did” is nearly imperceptible in the transcript but quite clear in the audio recording.  Our stance toward children is often less evident in actual words than in the tone we use to deliver them.  The host of the segment is delighted by what this young person has accomplished, and it shows; it’s probably the main reason the story was newsworthy (without Dantzler’s youth it would have been just another scientific study of carcinogens).  The host asks serious questions, but several of them he asks with a tone of surprise and (culturally sanctioned) condescension, not the respect we could hope would be afforded a person who has proven herself a mature thoughtful scientist, determined enough in her pursuit of information and truth that she was willing to withstand the prejudice of her elders. Try reading the transcript and then listening to the segment.  Young people’s lives are full of this discrepancy between the seriousness of words and tone, and it’s perpetuating the waste of potential and progress.