Teaching Government to Jaded Teens

This is my 15th year as a homeschooler, and, along with teaching my own kids, I also teach at a homeschool co-op for middle and high schoolers.

This year I am teaching Government to jaded teenagers who were born after 9-11, have never known a day in which America has not been at war, have watched the White House flip parties three times, and cut their teeth on 24-hour news and social media. They saw the first African American president and the first insurrection at the Capitol. Plus, this being Northern Virginia, most have lived in the shadow of Washington, DC, for their entire life.

Our foundational question this year is, “Why do we have government?” The three federal branches, state governments, and local jurisdictions are important to understand (and we will cover all of that), but without understanding the “why bother” of having a government, the logistical “how” doesn’t really matter much. So this week we jumped right in with Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke.

The 5-second synopsis is this: Hobbes thought we are all selfish and need a strong government to keep our baser nature in check, Rousseau believed that in a state of nature man is pure and democracy is best because we don’t really want to harm each other, and John Locke stated that we have unalienable rights and it is the role of the government to protect them.

As we reviewed these political philosophies, I asked the kids what they thought of each:

  • “Hobbes is the only one who gets it.”
  • “Rousseau is an idiot. It just takes one guy with a bigger stick and his whole kumbaya thing is over.”
  • “John Locke is wrong. We can’t be born as blank slates because we are born with sin from day one.”
  • “How can we trust people to act for the good of the group. Hobbes is right, we are all selfish at our core.”

Needless to say, my students have not been impressed by humanity and our ability to get much done.  They don’t hold out a lot of hope for improvement either, giving me a list of things that are broken in our country and adding that there doesn’t seem to be anyone interested in fixing it.

Granted, this is one class in one county on one day, but it begs the question: What is the next generation of leaders learning from growing up in a country saturated in negative discourse, political scapegoating, war, insurrection, and distrust of authority?

I was shocked when the one thing my students could agree upon was the need for a strong, unbending, authoritative government that forces people to do right. When I asked if they trusted democracy to keep us off the path of self-destruction, they universally said that they didn’t.  The problem, as they saw it, was that democracy relies on people as a group making the right choice, something they did not have much faith in people to do.

To be clear, this was not a partisan issue for these kids. Not once did any of them say that they didn’t trust a particular party, but rather that they didn’t trust people, any of the people. This was their take based on the world as they see it as a whole.

At their age, my attitude was very different; I grew up during the Reagan Revolution, saw the end of the Cold War and the dawn of a new millennium, so listening to these young people, our future leaders, talking about how they had very little faith in our innate ability to improve was disheartening.  However, it didn’t take much reflection to understand how they came to these conclusions.

We as adults can compare what it is with what was, but for these teenagers, what is is all they’ve known, anything different is a history lesson, removed, and slightly fictional feeling. This post 9-11 generation is jaded; it seems safe to say that we’ve curated their cynicism deftly by erroneously believing that they weren’t really paying attention.

It turns out that they were.

They carry a library in their pocket and watch history unfold in real-time on their phones. Not much feels personal or solitary since everything can be shared with the world. Politicians are more like stars of a reality show than distant, laudable leaders, and, as the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt.  The world is smaller, less secure, and more fractured.  Thus far at least, these kids are not impressed.

Do yourself a favor and talk to a teenager about how they see the world.  Odds are, they don’t see it the same way we do. Then ask yourself why that might be.

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