A friend sent me an article published in the December issue of The Atlantic magazine (online) titled “The Silicon Valley Suicides”, by Hanna Rosin. The article digs into the cluster of suicides at Palo Alto High School, nicknamed Paly. It seems that teenagers there are killing themselves because they just can’t manage the pressures of life and school. These aren’t kids with diagnosed mental health issues, or who are confronted with trauma. They are regular kids pushed beyond breaking point by perceived parental and school pressures to succeed.
One survivor of suicide speaks of how it was only in her failed suicide attempt (is it weird that staying alive is called a failure?) that she found her voice and started to assert herself.
The article brought to mind my conversations with high school students, mostly from upper middle class backgrounds (none of whom to my knowledge have attempted suicide). Over the last ten years, I witnessed a noticeable uptick in both the depth and breadth of student anxiety, and a (perhaps corresponding) downturn in curiosity, questioning and pushback. Friends who are university professors report the same phenomenon. We are all puzzled.
Students talked with me about the fear of asking questions: the fear of looking stupid in the classroom, of not having the language to ask a ‘good’ question, of seeming socially ignorant, the fear that their concerns weren’t important, the fear of being wrong…..and on went the catalogue of fears. One group of students went so far as to create a Declaration of the Freedom to Question in the hope that this would give their peers the permission they need to express their curiosity.
These fears are real. And we have to pay attention. Fear cripples minds. Only in optimism (fear’s antithesis) can creativity thrive*, and the world needs more creativity. We also need voice, particularly the loud, challenging voices of the young, or we do not evolve as societies.
How do we address student fears? How do we enable voice, real voice? Addressing fear and enabling voice are essential prerequisites to developing agency. And, without agency, we cannot develop as human beings.#
Schools are experimenting with “zero” periods during which students can choose what to do (although Paly has removed this option, perhaps because theirs was at 0720). Schools are also implementing different types of assessment that emphasize growth and learning over marks. Some are creating innovation zones where students can pursue their own questions, thus validating and encouraging student creativity and voice. These efforts, to name just a few, give students more control over their lives, a critical ingredient of agency.
In addition, we, as adults, must project our optimism and sense of agency to model life as evolution, confidence, resilience and emotional health. If nothing else, we owe it to a generation whose voices we need.
*The relationship between optimism and creativity is a key subject of Bruce Mau’s body of work. Much of it is now on display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or subscribe to the Massive Change Network to follow this great design thinker.
# Amartya Sen, 1998 Nobel Laureate in Economics, is the seminal explorer of the relationship between agency and human development, particularly in Development as Freedom (1999) Oxford University Press.