Why are we so afraid of teenagers' opinions?

Posted June 20

Why are we so afraid of teenagers' opinions?

This year, high schools across the country have censored students' words in yearbooks, newspapers and classrooms. The latest crackdown came last week when a valedictorian in suburban Pennsylvania criticized the "authoritative nature" of administrators -- and one of those administrators cut off his microphone and ended his graduation speech.

We're seeing an odd confluence of trends: More and more, students are able to complain about schools, expose wrongdoing and rate teachers -- often anonymously -- on social media. Yet schools seem uneasy about hearing them.

The Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit group in Washington that advocates for the First Amendment rights of student journalists, has gathered reports of principals and teachers going after everything from news articles to artworks. While the group does not keep year-to-year statistics, director Frank LoMonte says the Internet, and Google in particular, have jolted school leaders.

"The types of expression that might have been tolerated a few years ago are of greater concern now because of their potential reach and lifespan online," he told me.

As a parent who has raised two teens and as someone who spent time as a teacher, I've exhorted kids to speak up and speak out -- so long as they don't denigrate others and don't incite violence. I don't always like what I hear, and I've refereed several classroom discussions that became heated as students aired different perspectives.

In the end, though, they agreed that they learned more from each others' differences than from cocooning themselves with like-minded peers. Those lessons are especially important in a time when even many adults cannot distinguish between facts and falsehoods.

I spent years as a college admissions coach, helping teens consider campuses and think about their applications. I know that the best colleges, including enormous state schools as well as smaller private ones that most of us have never heard of, want students who read, digest facts, synthesize materials, and then articulate their views.

One student I worked with wrote a wonderful essay about dinner table debates in her family, headed by a Democratic father and a Republican mother. Yes, the student got into her top choices of colleges (and yes, the parents stayed married). I have a strong sense from talking to admissions officers that they admire applicants who make themselves open to a range of opinions.

I wish administrators at high schools felt such confidence. Consider the case of Pennsylvania's silenced valedictorian: Peter Butera, 18, had just told his audience at Wyoming Area High School that the "authoritative nature" of "a few" administrators and school members "prevents students from developing as true leaders."

Butera later said the principal told him to stop. Butera, who is heading to Villanova University, got a standing ovation.

"When a public school tells a student not to disclose information or express a heartfelt opinion solely because it will 'make us look bad,' it unteaches a lifetime of civics education," LoMonte told me.

Exactly. And in an era when "red" and "blue" citizens alike say the government is unresponsive, we'd do well by preparing tomorrow's voters to be constructive critics.


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