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Teach Our Children Well

Written By Jon Budington

September 4, 2020

In the waning days of August, I managed to escape the confines of the Capital Beltway for a brief family vacation. We filed a plan with the state of Rhode Island, found a house with a workable kitchen and coordinated seven COVID tests. Even domestic travel today is complicated.

The change of scenery and time with family were wonderful, but the most memorable part of the trip was the long drive home. I had seven hours in the car with my three sons, and it only took about 10 minutes to start arguing over the music. 

As an optimist, I’m required to experience and accept new melodies; only pessimistic old guys look for radio stations associated with a particular decade. I like to keep my ears and options open. But as we made our way down the highway, I was growing frustrated—not with what I was listening to but how I was listening to it. It was a playlist that went from rap to country to alternative and, finally, to classic rock. The collection of music had no purpose; it simply became noise, so I suggested a radical idea. “Let’s try an album.”

Halfway through the progression of Deja Vu’s curated tracks, questions began popping up.  “When was Neil Young part of Crosby, Stills & Nash?” “Why was Woodstock such a big deal?” “What town is Young singing about in ‘Helpless’?” These questions provided the opportunity to talk about growing up in a time of change and how similar the 60’s must have felt to today’s mosh pit of social, scientific and economic upheaval. It also demonstrated the magic of longform content.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 describes a dystopian world where books are banned and entertainment comes through screens full of short, worthless videos—like TikTok. The goal of this madness is to prevent people from forming their own beliefs. Now I’m not comparing today’s endless streaming media with the world of Guy Montag, but I do worry that we spend too little time consuming longform and instead attempt to understand the complexities of the world through posts, tweets and hashtags. Empathy requires a deep understanding of the subject; it requires focus, effort and patience—an album, not a playlist.

Just skimming? Shame on you, and start here.

The process of empathy, or fully projecting yourself into a subject for the purpose of understanding, is hard work. Empathy isn’t something you have; it’s something you do. I find reading longform content like books, articles and blog posts is a good place to start. The process of converting the curated words on a page into images and feelings in your head is possibly the most efficient way to gain a greater understanding of a subject.

Not the senior year he was planning on, but still a privilege.

“Teach our children well, this COVID hell will slowly go by …”

Upon returning home, my twin boys got to work converting our basement guest room into a classroom. I listened through all the complaints about online learning, missed friends and other unmet senior year expectations. Yes, this stinks. But I reminded them that lifelong learning is a necessity for all of us, and that having a structured process with professional educators guiding you through the world’s history, mathematics and new ideas—the planet’s greatest longform content—is a privilege, and a requirement for developing empathy.