Education in the 21st Century

Reprinted from GREEN MONEY JOURNAL winter08/09

I don’t know about you, but I’ve met students whose eyes are lit and whose spirits are aflame with meaning and purpose. And I’ve met others who seemed mired in an almost pathological level of boredom and cynicism. What are the dynamics at work that lead some to thrive, and others barely to survive? What can be done to nurture the potential in the next generation?

Is it possible that, like a walnut carries within it the DNA it needs to grow into a magnificent tree, we all have within us a particular calling? If we were to contemplate the role of education as being to ―educe‖, or to bring forth, the wisdom, the courage, the creativity and the brilliance that are within each child, then how might that inform our way of thinking about it? Are there ways that conventional education sees kids as needing to be shaped and stuffed with cookie-cutter information so that someday they can be people? What if we could recognize children as little people, whole and complete in who they are, and needing the right soil, the right sunshine, the right loving attention, to help them manifest their particular gifts?

I grew up with pretty loving soil. My parents were committed to nurturing my gifts and helping me to believe in myself. Twice, our family moved specifically to be near to a particular school that my parents wanted me to be able to attend. Then, when I was ten, I became a home-schooler. Believing with Mark Twain that ―you can’t let school interfere with your education‖, I got off to an early start in taking responsibility for my own learning journey. My parents supported me every step of the way, as I became an entrepreneur with the launch of my own Bakery, ―Ocean’s Bakery,‖ selling natural organic baked goods to more than 100 neighborhood customers door-to-door. As I grew a little older, I went on to facilitate two international youth summits in Moscow at age 14, and at 16 had founded YES!, an international youth leadership organization that I continue to direct now, 18 years later.

I believe that we all have a desire, in fact a need, to contribute to the world around us. As young people grow up, they come to realize that we are facing some fairly daunting challenges in the world. Typical schooling may teach about history and current events, but it often does little to help young people feel like they can be active participants in the world around them. More often, they tend to wind up feeling like cynical and passive victims. In a world with nuclear weapons, with a resource consumption overshoot that has us on a collision course with systemic environmental collapse, and with increasing numbers of people living in desperate poverty, there is little space for the most powerful generation in the history of the world to be schooled in a culture of apathy. A change in our culture of education is not only important to the well-being of the next generation, it may be fundamental to our survival as a species.

What, then, do I suggest?

Service learning, parental engagement, cultural education, engaging older kids in helping teach younger kids (thus making their own learning come to life), expanded use of the arts and creative expression, cross-cultural exchanges (where kids from different communities visit each other and learn from each other), cultivating an environment of honesty and trust in the school culture (making use of circle sharing and other formats to encourage kids to talk about what matters to them and listen to each other with respect), on-site environmental stewardship (such as trash clean-ups, recycling programs, school gardens, etc.), conflict resolution trainings and programs, and space for kids to share about their dreams for the future. In general, kids need to spend les time listening, and more time talking. Less time absorbing, and more time creating.

As they get older, kids need space to explore issues like gender roles, race, class and power. We all inherit a legacy that includes the work and dreams, as well as the bigotry and fears, of those who have gone before us. Teens need a space to explore these dynamics for themselves, and to consider what kind of values they hold and what kind of people they want to be as they grow up. In time, cultural exchanges and even citizen diplomacy can be extraordinarily valuable.

If it takes a village to raise a child, then perhaps it takes more than schools to educate children. Perhaps it takes all of us. When we treat children with respect, they learn to respect themselves. When we set an example of living with consciousness and purpose, we help them to find their place in the world.

Article by Ocean Robbins, Youth Activist

Ocean Robbins is director of YES! – ―Helping Visionary Young Leaders Build a Better World‖, which he founded at age 16 in 1990. YES! has held 100+ week-long gatherings for young leaders from 65+ nations, and spoken in person to more than 650,000 people. Ocean is a 2008 recipient of the national Jefferson Award for Outstanding Public Service. He speaks
widely at conferences and events. For more information about YES!, go to, and for more information about Ocean and his life and work, go to