The 6th grade teacher at our school has been doing a project called Proteus for over 30 years. Students pick a topic of interest, research it, decide how to present it and the whole thing culminates in a fair of sorts with booths.
But this year, she shifted the question from “What are you interested in?” to “What problem in the world would you like to help solve?” The results were impressive, as students delved into big topics like homelessness, racism, women’s rights and smaller ones like “how to make a quieter vacuum cleaner.”
Our school seems to be taking our social justice mission more seriously these days and this was another great step in this direction. The 5th grade teacher (my daughter) did a year-long study of the various isms, tackled the refugee problem and had her kids research and present the various social reform movements of the 60’s and beyond. The art teacher (my wife) did a project around the Flint water crisis. One of the music teachers (me) had kids write reports about how jazz musicians contributed to social justice issues. And there were more examples from other teachers as well.
I’m wary of entirely foregoing one’s eccentric interests and always having to “save the world,” but when done well, one can take one’s inclinations and enlarge them to include your own style of contributing to a world that, let’s face it, is in dire need of healing. The human mind is so intelligent, the imagination so broad, the heart so capable of love, that indeed I believe many of our human-created catastrophes can be at least slowed down, minimized, contained, if not solved—if only we took our humanitarian promises seriously enough to get to work. So why not start young?
Changing the question from “What do you want to be when you grow up?” to “How will you contribute to making the world more beautiful, more fair, more livable?” is a good start.