September, 2012 San Diego
I am standing in front of forty teenagers – old enough to have acne but not licenses – who bustle about with the sort of unbridled irresponsibility one expects from hyperglycemic adolecscents. As they drool upon their antiquated desks, I recount a story, one involving a moral dilemma and a transforming decision, and one which causes inquisitive head tilts, as though this was a room full of puppies.
They are the future – Honors students – presumably blessed with some genetic advantage, now given over to six 50-minute daily academic periods in hopes of activating some of that advanced neurology. I am presenting hypotheticals – would you turn your best friend/brother/ mother in for murder, for rape, for selling drugs, for driving drunk, for stealing a nickel? I’m suggesting an intellectual imperative versus a virulent emotional inclination. Cerebral cortex vs. limbic system.
They struggle to rationalize their positions, swayed by the pressures of peers, parents, religion, and the various voices of a dogmatic society. To date, none of them have ever stripped themselves of external influence and delved into their own beliefs – a notion which scares the hell out of me, since these kids will be taking care of my generation when we’re clad in fecal-protecting cloth.
Science says these young brains are not well-formed enough to make moral judgments, that adolescents are selfish and not integrated with the global picture, that they see themselves as part of a small group of one, rather than a piece of the whole. Consequently, science says they struggle to empathize with others, and can only think from their own personal perspective. I call bullshit.
I am standing here…listening to brilliant young minds piece together their own opinions about the world, about how allegiance to law might be more important than allegiance to friendship, how the Darwinian rules of the Amazon jungle might not be applicable to a greater society. These are children doing this….making sense of the world because someone dares to stand in front of them and ask them to think, without giving them the answers.
Perhaps there is hope. Maybe they will suppress their amygdala and will allow their cerebral cortex to hold dominion over the actions. Maybe the future will raise up a generation of leaders who have done some profound thinking early enough in their existence to make good decisions later in life. Sometimes when I stare into these blank faces, I see a twinkle of activity, as if something is being considered, as if they are deciding something for themselves, for the first time.
Yes, perhaps there is hope….