Who are you, and what do you stand for in the world?
Coming to understand personally-meaningful answers to core questions of identity can take years of seeking, honest conversations, and understanding relevant facts about the world in which we live — but for most teens, almost none of this vital process of self-discovery happens through the coursework they are exposed to at school.
The world we live in is radically pluralistic with respect to meaning systems, beliefs, norms, and core values. Any teen with access to the internet is a few clicks away from vast worlds of media that contradict or undermine any given belief system or set of moral norms. They hear their environmental sciences teacher talking about the harms of pollution, then watch videos about glamorous gas-guzzling cars. They hear about respecting diversity then watch movies with racist language. They hear about the importance of sexual consent and then watch videos in which sexual assault is the norm. This dissonance is extreme, and standard academic course work is almost entirely unrelated to the intense emotional and spiritual challenges faced by American teens.
In the typical high school, it is uncommon for daily academic learning to be connected to a student's sense of meaning. Academic courses are experienced simply as requirements to be completed. Even if a student does find academic coursework intrinsically meaningful, the homework load at most high schools prevents them from taking the time to think through the personal implications of what they are learning.
There is a profound tension between the idea of high-schools-as-transmitters-of-curriculum, on the one hand, and teens-as-seekers-of-meaning, on the other.
Our question is, should schooling contribute to a sense of personal meaning, and if so, how?
At ATI, we answer with a resounding, “yes!” Students who have the opportunity, through their schoolwork, to explore their own identities and develop their own unique perspectives on relevant and challenging topics are happier, more motivated, and more connected to their schoolwork.
When a school creates an environment in which conversations about meaning are encouraged and nurtured, the immense appetite that teens have for such conversations becomes apparent. Sometimes these conversations are at the highest levels of abstraction: What is “truth”? Is there a “truth”? Can we know anything? What is the infinite? Is the universe infinite? Does time exist? And so forth. Sometimes these conversations are very personal: Why do you make excuses for your behavior? Are you responsible for your own behavior? Do you want to be responsible for your own behavior? Do you respect people who make excuses for their behavior? On other occasions these conversations may explore an immense range of issues in between: Will war always exist? Are we by nature jealous? Are people naturally racist? How much can education change people? Are we biological machines whose lives are determined by our DNA? And so forth.
When teens are invited to engage in honest and respectful conversations that emphasize diversity and a variety of perspectives, they explore and develop their own identity in the process. Often, we see students who have been bored and listless at other schools come alive once they attend a school like ATI. In some cases, they may have been straight-A students at a conventional school–but they were uninspired by the curriculum and homework. In other cases, they may have been depressed or unable to function. Sometimes they were floating in the middle–still functioning at some level in school, but gradually drawn to more stimulating (and sometimes harmful) activities outside of school.
While we also offer courses that prepare students for College Board AP exams, our core curriculum, including life design, Socratic humanities, and mathematical problem-solving, along with individual mentorship of each student, meets this fundamental need of teens, and opens the door to exploration of personal meaning.
At ATI, we want to go far beyond what your teen knows—we want to know who your teen really is.