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Kiran Sridhar Headshot

A Twelve Year Old's Look at the Aspen Ideas Festival

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As a twelve year old, I feel very fortunate to have attended the sessions at the Aspen Ideas Festival. I have interpreted the ideas presented from my generation's perspective.

New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post Columnist Michael Gerson agreed that the nation is polarized. They said that the Obama Administration would not waste political capital on bold initiatives because it would further polarize a divided nation. I recognize, however, that bold initiatives, such as those highlighted at the Ideas Festival, are necessary and essential for our country to maintain its leadership position in the world when my generation comes of age. Our political establishment owes it to my generation to show true leadership now. Bold initiatives are necessary in the areas of education, economy and technology.

One major theme of the Ideas Festival was education. America is well behind its peers on the education front. As Davis Guggenheim, who directed An Inconvenient Truth and a new film about education, Waiting for Superman, said:

"In America right now, a kid drops out of high school every 26 seconds. These drop-outs are 8 times more likely to go to prison, 50% less likely to vote, more likely to need social welfare assistance, not eligible for 90% of jobs, and continuing the cycle of poverty."

Given that China's population is predicted to be four times more than the US, we need to educate our population well. We need to make up in quality what we lack in quantity.

What I found heartening was that there were a lot of people working at the grassroots level on providing a good education for all in our nation. Examples include Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone, an organization which works to help disadvantaged children close the gap and go to college; the SEED school, a charter boarding school in a poor area in Washington, D.C. and Laurene Powell's College Track, which provides support for low-income kids whose parents never went to college. All the examples show that there are known ways to fix the nation's schools and help close the achievement gap between the wealthy and the poor. The kids who enter elementary school behind due to their economic and social circumstances need a longer school day, shorter summer breaks, frequent testing and excellent teachers. They cannot afford the bad teachers. Greg Mortenson's work building girls' schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan is doing more to bring stability to an entire region than nine years of armed conflict. His belief is that providing education to girls will help reduce infant mortality, birth rates and result in higher literacy and openness in the society. All of these achievements result in young people who are less likely to follow extremists. These educational entrepreneurs are truly making a difference in people's lives within the country and abroad. The challenge would be to learn from these examples, duplicate it all over and reform the nation's schools.

There was also a lot of discussion about the financial crisis and whether it will lead to America's decline. Harvard historian Niall Fergusson pointed out that the American way, which dictated the world's financial system, has been undermined due to the crisis. However, as with everything, there is a silver lining. In several sessions ranging from the economic crisis to sustainable values, speakers and participants pointed out that Americans are searching for a new meaning to their lives and transforming the "Me" generation to a "We" generation. While the "Me" generation is transforming to a "We" generation midway through their lives, it left me to think about how we are going to instill the community and social value very early on in our schools and avoid a midcourse correction for my generation.

Another subject of conversation was technology. Bill Gates pointed out that educational tools online are the great equalizer, allowing individuals to get access to materials otherwise unavailable. These included sites like Wikipedia and the Khan Academy. And Twitter's co-founders pointed out that with a chalkboard and a laptop, mom and pop grocery stores, restaurants et cetera, have a great tool to advertise. However, there are some negative effects of the internet. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former member of the Dutch parliament and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, pointed out that the internet was used as a recruiting tool for fundamental Islamists. She said that we must offer a different set of values for extremists. It is important that we instill the proper values to those who use the internet, so they can take advantage of its perks, but not fall into its drawbacks. I walked away thinking that these technology tools -- which spread virally among my generation are a great asset to both educating my generation and a platform to instill proper social values.