Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #075. First published in the St. Cloud Times Oct. 22, 2013

Shining through the dark clouds of the demoralizing news out of Washington this month was a story that captivated the world, especially young people.

I refer, of course, to Malala Yousafzai, now 16, who a year ago was the target of a Pakistani Taliban assassination attempt and was this year a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. When Brian Williams, on “NBC Nightly News,” discussed with reporter Kate Snow the reaction to the prize’s going instead to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Snow said that her 8-year-old daughter had excitedly asked, on waking that morning, “Did she get it?”

I’m not throwing brickbats at the Nobel committee. It chose a worthy winner, an organization with a particularly sensitive job right now of monitoring the Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons. No, what is significant about this story is that Snow’s daughter asked about Malala Yousafzai, not Miley Cyrus.


As I was thinking about what the fascination with Malala might mean, I read a fresh and provocative column in the Star Tribune (Oct. 12), “Let’s give adolescents a chance to grow up,” by Ted Kolderie, who works on education policy redesign at the Center for Policy Studies in St. Paul.

Kolderie begins: “It’s hard to absorb a new idea. So it will take time for us all to see the problem that ‘adolescence’ has become.” Notice: not “the problem that adolescents have become,” but how we think about the teenage years.

Fifty years ago, French scholar Philippe Ariès, in “Centuries of Childhood,” demonstrated that “childhood,” unknown as a concept in the Middle Ages, was an invention of the upper classes in the 16th and 17th centuries and didn’t permeate thought until the 20th century.

The invention of “childhood” has been a blessing. Not so much “adolescence,” Kolderie suggests; he calls it “the artificial extension of childhood past puberty.”

Kolderie offers this catalog of unfortunate consequences of “adolescence”: We deny young people serious responsibilities, keep them out of real work, give them virtually no contact with adults and tell them they have no function except to be schooled (and marketed to). In the process, we diminish them and shortchange ourselves.

Brain imaging shows that the prefrontal cortex, where controlling impulses and planning ahead are concentrated, is still in development in adolescents. Nevertheless, there is no good reason to treat adolescence as an extension of childhood more than as a foreshadowing of adulthood.

And this is where Malala helps point the way.

She nearly lost her life because of her bold and public insistence that girls deserve to be educated every bit as much as boys. Now living in England, she continues to speak out, even to the U.N. General Assembly, despite continuing Taliban threats. It is enormously encouraging to see her emerging as a role model, supplanting a narcissistic media invention like Cyrus.

Local kids working hard for change

And this leads to right here and right now, to a section of St. Cloud Area Community Priority 2: “Empower youth in the community, identify and reduce barriers to recreation, learning, service, and leadership roles for youth.”

The young people are already out there ahead of us. About 400 students from Apollo, Technical, Cathedral, Sauk Rapids and Sartell high schools, North and South junior highs, Kennedy Community School and St. John’s Prep attended the We Day event Oct. 8 in St. Paul.

As reported in the Oct. 14 Times, Jennifer Day, a teacher and We Act coordinator at Tech, said the most surprising part about We Day was the students’ reactions when they returned. They weren’t talking about the performances by famous musicians; they were more excited about ways to get involved.

There are all sorts of practical things we older folks can do too, starting with the way we think. We needn’t be “surprised” when young people want to get involved; we should expect it. When you ponder adolescence and what it means and how it works, let Malala come to mind.