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Don't just say "It gets better"; show it
On teenage angst, schools going back to basics, and what adolescents ought to read
School's purpose is to prepare young people for life. People may differ on the focus of that preparation, and whether it should take a practical form, a vocational form, or a classical form. But the nature of things in a democracy is that no one form truly prevails. Some vested interests will promote "back to basics", others will promote "social-emotional learning", and in the end, a little of almost everything makes its way into the curriculum.
■ As part of a well-rounded education, every American high-schooler ought to read at least three important stories of self-discovery: The Enchiridion of Epictetus, the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and "Up from Slavery" by Booker T. Washington. Most of life is spent along paths others have walked before. Yet the young person usually doesn't know this, at least not in the innate sense. In youth, we think our troubles are new and our challenges are novel.
■ From Epictetus, the young person gets exposure to a tidy and practical version of Stoic philosophy that says life and happiness descend from perceptions: "[I]f the essence of good consists in things within our own power, there will be no room for envy or emulation." Nobody expects a 16-year-old to have full control over their instincts for envy, but it's easier to start the quest for control knowing that others have sought it, too.
■ Franklin's autobiography is simultaneously a roaring tale of self-creation and a terrific exploration of American self-identity from someone who shaped that identity at least as much as anyone in the country's history. Franklin takes pains to walk the reader through his thoughts on everything from familial love to religious faith to business success. He confesses to the very kind of brash self-confidence that a teenager ought to recognize: "It was about this time I conceiv'd the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wish'd to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other."
■ From Washington, an autobiography no less significant than Franklin's, because it tells the story of his rise from literal chattel slavery -- and it is told exceedingly well. Washington's crisp prose and his relentless focus on rising and lifting are words that young people need to have imprinted on their minds, even if they are too inexperienced in life to truly appreciate everything Washington seeks to teach them in words like, "[T]he happiest individuals are those who do the most to make others useful and happy." For all the terrible things done to him and the vast odds against his work, Washington's character-obsessed optimism comes from a source no reasonable person can contest.
■ Many other works and authors are worth exploring, too. But Epictetus, Franklin, and Washington are special in what they can offer to people looking for direction and guideposts. It's no small matter to know that life is rarely a blank slate. It can be hard to find answers in the people immediately around us, and to find answers in stories written long ago helps to assure the reader that there is always cause for hope. Don't just say "It gets better"; show how others got there. There is scarcely a better lesson for an adolescent to learn.