It's Not The Schools

People love to blame the schools for all of society's problems. What if we asked what we can do to fix society instead?

Some things are as reliable as clockwork. The moon and tides. Death and taxes. Politicians lying. And out-of-touch Silicon Valley tech millionaires and billionaires descending from their gold-plated PCB thrones to bestow upon us us, the unwashed masses, their most brilliant wisdom and thoughts.

Today’s myopic missive is brought to you by Sam Altman, of Y-Combinator fame. On Sunday, he opened up Twitter and blessed us with this thought in the middle of an otherwise interesting thread:

Wow. Okay, where to start with this?

Blame the Schools!

This is one of of those things where he is so close to understanding it but, at the last minute, flies off in some random direction.

Before writing this galaxy-brain take, and assuming this even happened at all, I wonder if it occurred to him to actually ask them why they felt that way? No, he just reflexively reached for that most favorite of society’s punching bags: the schools. Kids aren’t thinking the way I think they should! Must be the schools!

I mean, it must be the schools, right? It couldn’t possibly be any of these:

  1. Fifty plus years of inaction on the subject of climate change. Look, I’m in my 40s now and we have been warned about, and been warning about, the subject of anthropogenic global warming and climate change since I was a kid. We’re fifteen years removed from Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. We’re more than 20 years removed from the Kyoto Protocol, and six years removed from the Paris Agreement. And what all has changed in that time?

    Very, very little. Nowhere near enough to matter, and it’s only getting worse.

  2. Geriatric politicians that absolutely refuse to gracefully step aside to make room for the next generation of leaders. Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Grassley are 88 years old. Nancy Pelosi is 81. Joe Biden is 78. Even Donald Trump - not that he would actually care about this - is 75. Every congress since 2000 has been among the oldest ever.

    I mean this with absolutely no disrespect to the older members of society, but many of these politicians have been in Washington for so long and are so hilariously out of touch that they literally have no understanding of the problems facing average people, and especially the problems facing younger people.

    Why should young people feel empowered to do something about this when they don’t have a seat at the table, their voices aren’t being heard, they are talked down to by their elders, and their attempts to protest and bring attention to their concerns are at best ignored and at worst violently suppressed?

  3. Blatant corruption by the obscenely wealthy and multinational corporations that have vested interests in maintaining the status quo. In the US, thanks to Citizens United they don’t even bother hiding the corruption anymore.

  4. Attempts to shift the blame onto individuals when just 100 companies are responsible for the vast majority of the problem.

    I don’t mean to sound dismissive about this; recycling is great, and we should all strive to be a little less impactful as we’re able to. But all the individual change in the world isn’t going to make a big difference in comparison to the well-monied corporations. Many of which have a virtual veto over climate issues that affect them by virtue of their corruptive influence in politics. Banning plastic straws will not make a dent in climate change.

  5. Our complete failure to adequately address COVID-19. Something that is, in comparison to climate change, much easier to address. We know what needs to be done, and we have the tools to do it. But we can’t even begin to cooperate within our own nation, let alone foster the global cooperation that will be needed to face climate change.

    Right now, this country is tearing itself apart and having an existential crisis over wearing masks during a pandemic and whether vaccines actually work, and you think we are ready to address climate change?

  6. Our complete failure to address other problems that affect them. Like healthcare, education, gun violence in schools, housing, jobs and income inequality, for instance. All of these things are much easier for us to address than climate change will be, and yet, nothing happens. Kinda hard to feel hopeful about the future when you grew up with active shooter drills.

  7. Millionaires and billionaires, people with the actual financial ability to make large-scale changes and maybe even get corrupt politicians to care, instead piss their money away on expensive vanity projects. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are having a private billionaire space race while the planet cooks and people suffer. What do you expect kids to feel about that?

    Sam, you have an estimated $250 million net worth. For years you headed one of the most widely-known startup accelerators. What are you and your fellow investors doing to make it better?

    Right now the investor class is busy funding AI startups, blockchain crypto startups, social media sites, gig economy apps and video sharing apps. Tell me, how does any of that help young people feel like they have a role in battling climate change? How will any of it actually help, or will it actively make it worse?

    Because that’s what’s happening. Far from being helpful, many tech innovations are actively making things worse for the environment. Like how bitcoin “miners” are buying and running fossil power plants, offsetting any gains made from the growth of renewables. What message is that sending to the kids of today? Is it better to fix climate change, or is it better to roast the planet solving Sudoku puzzles?

  8. The derisive mockery of the people who actually are trying to help. People have mocked Al Gore for years for trying to raise the alarm about this, and he was the Vice President! Just look at what Greta Thunberg has to put up with and ask yourself why they should be optimistic at our ability to tackle climate change. If they’re doing this to a teenager, why would a college student think their treatment would be any better, and quite possibly be a whole lot worse.

  9. The knowledge that they’re going to be the ones that have to live with this when all the current people in power in politics and businesses - the ones who actually have the ability to head it off - are dead.

    It’s like a big game of musical chairs. Each year we remove a chair, but the older people get a head start on choosing their chairs and get to go ahead and sit down. Some people even get to lay down across three chairs. So each year they’re having to fight over fewer and fewer chairs. They’ve already correctly deduced that the very large bulk of them won’t have chairs when the music stops. So why even play?

But yeah, it couldn’t possibly be any, or all, of those. It must be the schools teaching them helplessness. And even if it isn’t, we’ll just add yet another thing schools need to be responsible for: making young people believe that they still have the ability to change things, even when all the evidence of their eyes and experiences tell them that they simply don’t.

It’s kinda like the “OK, Boomer” thing. It’s not that younger people can’t or won’t explain why they feel the way they do. It’s that they have. Over and over and over and over and over again. And they’re not being heard and are being actively ignored. So they quit trying and withdrawal. This is something that should be very familiar, especially to some older generations - notably Gen-X’ers. It was etched into our culture:

Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy. Slackers (1990),
also quoted by R.E.M. in 'What's The Frequency, Kenneth?'

Kids are smarter than adults give them credit for. And I absolutely don’t blame them for feeling hopeless about tackling climate change. I completely get it. I feel hopeless about it. I feel bad about the world my daughter is going to live in after I’m gone, and I feel powerless to stop it. Because those in power with the ability to actually make change are getting rich by ignoring it.

So what can we do?

Well, to start, you could try actually listening to what they have to say. And when they tell you that these are the manifold problems they are facing, maybe look into it instead of dismissively waving it away and saying that kids should have hope and the schools should teach hope to them. That’s not helpful to anybody.

You could also expand your “smart college kids” pool. Did your pool include minorities and low-income students? Guess who will feel the brunt of climate change. Did you include students not at places like Stanford and Berkeley, or did you not leave the Bay Area? My guess is that you are going to get some interesting answers. My guess is a smart kid from the Louisiana bayou might have some interesting things to tell you about sea level rise and coastal erosion.

Tackling climate change is going to require a worldwide, systematic re-think of how our entire civilization is structured. But our complete inability to tackle any of the points above means that we have almost zero hope of making a dent in climate change before it’s too late - if it’s not too late already. If we actually want kids to care, and to believe that they can make the changes needed, we should start by making sure they have the agency to affect change. We should be doing the things necessary to give them a head start. Right now we are doing an astoundingly poor job of that.

Finally, you could put your money where your keyboard is. Sam, hate to break this to you, but as a wealthy, connected and influential person, you’re one of the people in a position to do something about this. Unless you’re actually willing to start making positive change, much like Marc Andressen’s missive about “building”, these are just meaningless words without actions to back them up.

I see you are funding some nuclear power startups. That’s a great start! Maybe get some of your fellow VC’s and millionaire/billionaire class involved in solutions that actually help humanity rather than hoping for a massive short-term payout? There has to be ways we can allocate capital better. We don’t need any more social media sites, gig economy apps, blockchain crypto startups, video sharing apps, and we definitely don’t need billionaires having meaningless space pissing matches. None of those things are going to help us fight climate change. You have access to levers of power that those college kids don’t. Use them.

But ultimately, these are just words that are just straight up blaming kids for our failures as adults to even begin to take their concerns seriously. The schools aren’t failing the kids and the kids aren’t failing us. We are failing them.

If we want kids to not feel hopeless, maybe for a change we should try listening to them and giving them a reason to be hopeful instead of telling overworked underpaid teachers that they are now responsible for making them hopeful in between active shooter drills. The outcome will be better for all of us if we do.

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