Two incidents this week brought my attention to the youth of today. One was a television segment where the interviewer went to a U.S. college campus and asked random students how they felt about the idea of “making America great again.” The response: “America was never great” stunned me for a moment. I took a breath and tried to look at the assertive young woman, perhaps 20 years of age at the most, with a bit of perspective. For the past eight years she had heard President Obama send out the message that America is an unfair and prejudiced nation. Who was she to contradict him? She was only 11 or 12 years of age when that became the politically correct mantra. The public-school text books currently approved to teach U.S. history have been modified to show the U.S.A. in a far less favorable light than those which I encountered years before. Hence it is not unreasonable that she absorbed this negative view. This message was likely reinforced by her public-school teachers depending on their own ages and experiences- or lack of them. There is an entire generation of young men and women in exactly the same mindset.
In Israel there is a similar disconnect among the youth in their teens and twenties. They too take their nation for granted. They were born after the creation of the State and hence for them “It was always there.” They do not fully appreciate the miracle of creating a flourishing democracy in a hostile neighborhood and cannot avoid comparing it to the United States which is the yardstick for all issues touching the Israeli youth. It is irrelevant to them that their knowledge of America is limited to what they see on television and in film. They think they know. All young people “think they know.” Over the substantial length of our marriage, my older husband often repeated to me: “One cannot put an old head on young shoulders.” I instinctively knew that he was right…and that there was so much that I had not experienced, both in life and in business.
The main difference between Israeli and American young adults is the way their formative years are spent. Because Israelis are conscripted to the Israel Defense Forces from the age of about 17, they quite quickly enter the world of adulthood. It is incredibly special to meet young Israelis in their late teens and early twenties who have been trained in “ military intelligence” and to whom really critical responsibilities have been assigned . Of course, the Israel Defense Force has an intricate system of testing for maturity, leadership, and I.Q. before it selects which young people will be honored with these important assignments. Some positions are often so critical that matters of life and death can be in their hands. Participating in the defense of one’s nation and fighting on the frontlines against multiple enemies matures one very quickly. For these young adults, daydreaming about the latest I-phone. music , fashion – even focusing on a computer game or “texting” at the wrong moment, can have devastating ramifications. The cumulative societal result of this military service – (or its alternative national service in other areas of need), is a mature population of young people in their early twenties. It is hardly surprising that at the end of their service, most Israelis travel far and wide to get a taste of the world at large. Most return home after six months or a year with a clearer idea of the direction in which they would like to focus their lives. When they finally do go to University, it is not to “party” and to “find themselves”. It is to move toward a career choice which they have had much time to consider.
It seems fair to conclude that one of the biggest voids among Western youth, is “experience.” Perhaps if they had lived for a while in Africa, India or China – had seen populations dealing with famine, drought, earthquake, hurricanes , or the after-effects of war, they would have an appreciation of that which they may now take for granted. The average North American never experiences anything outside of their local community. They live in a tiny bubble and yet are expected to understand and care about the ramifications of International issues such as the Iran “deal,” the dangers of: North Korea, ISIS, the conflicts in Africa and Syria or the implosion of the Middle East. They have no clue about any of these realities. They only know their own. And still, they are expected to elect leaders who can make the right decisions on critical International issues, which these youths perceive as not holding even an iota of relevance in their insular lives.
At the ripe old age of 15, I wrote a letter to then President John F. Kennedy suggesting that every American young person should be obligated for national service. The International Peace Corps had been developed, but it was an opportunity – not a requirement. Then an Internal Peace Corps was developed- also volunteer. It was my feeling (perhaps because I lived in the Washington D.C. area and was infused with national pride,) that America was such a wonderful democracy, that its citizens owed their nation a bit of their time and sweat of brow, as a thank you for the opportunity to live under its freedom. Perhaps it was naïve, but even today decades later – I wonder if JFK ever considered the idea. Had he done so, America might have produced a wiser voting public. Its young adults would be more “grounded”, and more mature. I am willing to wager that there would be less drug use, alcoholism, gang activity and violence today – had President Kennedy implemented that vision. Perhaps he might have – had his life not been cut short by the assassin’s bullet.
A good friend today suggested to me that a law be passed which would require Universities and Colleges to create programs which would offer a year of undergraduate credit in exchange for a year of travel, work and volunteering abroad. It was her innovative idea which inspired this article. Financially, the costs of going to most Universities for a full year could easily pay for a year abroad on a student’s lifestyle. Projects and papers could be assigned, cultures analyzed, and grades could easily be issued based on the participation and life lessons learned in the process. The net result would be a citizen returning home with eyes opened to how difficult life is throughout the world, on many levels and on many issues. The youth who left their home and nation unable to take their eyes off their cellphone, would actually be forced to focus on “life” as a whole – look at the human beings around them in their travels and become resourceful in their day-to-day activities, In the process they would learn far more than they would have in that same year of sitting in a classroom regurgitating information which a Professor required in order to get a high grade in a course.
The idea that there is only one way to achieve and education has been challenged by the most successful of entrepreneurs. Many dropped out of college having found it boring and wanting to learn the skills of life and business, rather than academia. Those potentially successful magnates may account for only a minuscule percentage of the student population and hence may not be the “norm”. But Universities today are clearly not broadening the minds of their students sufficiently. The University “of life” has much to offer outside the classroom. This same student population will have an opportunity to change their world in the years ahead. They will be asked to become responsible citizens and to elect leaders who can implement their own visions. First. they must have a dream worth pursuing. A year or two of travel, work, and life experiences in cultures other than their own would enrich their understanding of the inter-connectivity of their world. Such experiences would undoubtedly create mature young adults who would return home, ready to re-enter University and the workplace appreciating all that freedom and democracy has brought with it.
Is there a University with the courage to offer a year of work and volunteerism abroad in exchange for University credit ? This opportunity could produce young adults who actually appreciate what is essentially “great” about the democracies into which they were fortunate to be born. It could indeed change the focus and quality of the lives of all involved.
Author’s Postscript: A special thank you to Israela Harkham whose creative idea of University credit for travel and work abroad inspired my thought processes.