With so many concerns affecting our nation, world and planet, it can be tempting to lose hope. An overload of vitriol, vendettas and violence threatens to establish volatility as the status quo. In times like this, it takes a deeply concerted effort to stem the tide of negativity.
So often, we turn to education and the arts in search of solutions to the stresses. We begin by looking for a window into what ails us, through investigation, perspective and reflection. We welcome a reason to breathe deeply, think different, and find a way forward.
Many Americans have turned to podcasts in recent years as trusted sources of information. The 60 Minutes of podcasts remains This American Life, which for more than 20 years has been producing weekly stories based around a single theme. Many of the show’s episodes in recent months have focused on how our government operates today, and many others have looked deeply into immigration. Tomorrow, the show will release a new episode on border walls around the world. I know that I will be listening and learning.
Documentaries are in a golden age right now, as so many filmmakers are experimenting with different ways of crafting nonfiction movies, and streaming services such as Netflix offer new ways for viewers to access these films. Last week, my brother Eric, who writes about documentaries for many publications and also serves as film curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, introduced me to a 10-part documentary series that appeared on Starz last year. It’s called America to Me, and it chronicles a year in the life of an Illinois high school. The series, which was created by Steve James (best known for Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters), is a stunning look into the ways in which teens and teachers learn about one another, society at large, and themselves in the world of American public education.
Young adult books have never been more popular, and agents and publishers have worked diligently to find authors who specialize in connecting with younger readers. Jacqueline Woodson is about as good as it gets in young-adult fiction these days, and her recent book Harbor Me follows a half-dozen students whose teacher gives them a chance to meet, once a week, by themselves in a classroom to talk. They call it the ARTT room (“A Room to Talk”) and in that space, these six students make connections that allow them to gain some amazing degrees of understanding, empathy and compassion. I’m not a young adult anymore, but I couldn’t put the book down.
History books line the bestseller lists today, many of them trying to help us make sense of the chaos in our country and world. Perhaps the most-praised history book in recent months is These Truths by Jill Lepore, an ambitious, 800-page text that chronicles the entire history of the United States. In doing so, the book asks if “these truths” that the Declaration declared to be “self-evident” – political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people – have indeed been met in these past two and a half centuries. I just started the book, and I know it will take awhile for me to get through it. But I’m committed to reading, reflecting and reconsidering my own assumptions and biases.
Teenagers are always pointing a way forward for those of us paying attention. This weekend, I’m helping to chaperone a Model United Nations conference, in which 200 of my school’s students and hundreds more are gathering in a Pennsylvania hotel to present papers, resolutions and amendments in a mini-UN filled with delegations, chairpersons and a down-to-the-minute itinerary. It’s the kind of stuff that takes your breath away and leads you to believe that, if we don’t scar them first, these young people can help us all find a path toward understanding, collaboration and fellowship. I just watched two delegations debating education and refugee issues, and while there was no universal agreement, there was a ton of listening, learning, and respecting.
Most of the educational programs and arts initiatives in this world are beyond my knowledge, so these few examples are just the tip of the iceberg. But they are a reminder, to me, of where I want to spend my energies when considering a way out of the darkness in today’s world. When I learn from these students, artists and journalists, I have one job: To think about the ways in which the stories I’m seeing and hearing can be channeled into my own interactions with the world around me. One person, one step, one day at a time: That’s the most we can ask, but it’s our responsibility to pay attention and look toward the light.