04/11/2011 05:01 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2011

Bezos Scholars Program -- Incubating Big Ideas and Model Citizens -- One High School at a Time

"Ideas are like rabbits.
You get a couple, learn how to handle them,
and pretty soon you have a dozen
-- John Steinbeck --

Most Americans are deeply concerned by the performance of our educational system. Everyone from the president on down worries that students aren't learning the skills they'll need for good jobs in our global knowledge economy.

Author Susan Engel goes a step further, recently writing in the NY Times: "Our current educational approach doesn't just fail to prepare teenagers for graduation or for college academics; it fails to prepare them, in a profound way, for adult life."

Even if you don't feel as I do that we urgently need to increase the number of seriously engaged citizens in this country -- even if your vision of the educational process is solely to produce innovative entrepreneurs and productive workers to keep the economy vibrant -- the bottom line is that if students don't have a visceral sense of their roles as citizens, upon graduation from high school, they're not likely to develop that sense of civic connection later.

And we wonder why we're so polarized in this country.

So a shift in mission seems to me to be badly needed in the national conversation about the role of education. But even if we agreed on that, how would this be implemented? Is it enough that teachers and curricula emphasize the importance and values, the rights and responsibilities, of the good citizen? Or do kids need to learn this from experience?

What if there were a way to take bright, eager-to-learn high school students and inspire in them the belief and confidence that they should let their civic passions run free -- and channel that energy into community organizing projects that benefit their school and their home town -- while teaching them valuable life lessons to take with them to college and beyond?

In other words, a model for creating model citizens. Too good to be true?

Welcome to the Bezos Scholars Program, run by the Bezos Family Foundation in association with the Aspen Institute.

Every summer, 12 public high school juniors, and 12 of their teachers, are given an all expense-paid trip to the Aspen Ideas Festival, where they are exposed the extraordinary array of ideas on display, and meet and share meals with many of the movers and shakers who speak there. Politicians, journalists, artists, scientists, inventors, environmentalists, national security experts and more share their time and wisdom, inspiring the students to dig deep and ask themselves: What's your passion to improve the world? What's your big idea?

Then, after the students return home, the program supports them throughout the year as each student, working in collaboration with a teacher/partner, develops and launches their own Local Ideas Festival, focusing on issues that are important to them.

Right now, all across the country, high school students and their teacher/collaborators are mobilizing schools and communities around critical social, political, environmental, and other issues -- and in so doing, they're helping those in need, and increasing civic engagement by one and all.

Topics include:

  • Balancing the inequities in the Chicago school system through a novel student Bill of Rights.
  • Applying the scientific method to all forms of academic, civic, and political problem-solving.
  • Book giveaways to 2nd graders through an innovative literacy campaign.
  • Exploring ways to break down social, political, and racial issues among students who rarely interact with people different from themselves.
  • Developing greater communication and interaction between students and local service organizations by (among other things) establishing working relationships between students and local soup kitchens.
  • Examining the importance of water in our lives by connecting water conservation concerns in Seattle, with the larger global problem of access to clean water -- and how that relates to war/poverty/disease -- all the major problems in the world.

All this and more -- from 17-year-olds.


I recently interviewed a dozen of this year's student scholars -- and also asked them make home-made videos to briefly describe their festivals, and the lessons they learned in the process. Here's montage of those videos.

These young scholar/activists are not only identifying problems that grown-ups have failed to adequately address -- and are conceiving and implementing innovative solutions -- they're putting their ideas into action in a sustainable way -- designing their festivals so they might continue annually, after the scholars graduate.

For example, the "I Feel The Need To Read" literacy festival is now in its third year, and has grown to include two additional high schools -- which, in turn, will reach 56 second grade classes with book giveaways and reading programs. And they hope to add three more high schools next year -- and then take it statewide.

"If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples, then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas."
-- George Bernard Shaw --

The word scholar connotes heady intellectuals, buried in books and theories -- but what these kids are really learning is how to act. And how to lead. But not for personal gain or power, but for doing good in one's community.

And in so doing, they are also learning how to be an effective and engaged citizen -- a well-informed community leader who not only mobilizes people around an issue, but who also inspires others to take the lead on issues that matter to them -- continually expanding the pool of engaged citizens in their schools and communities.

Consider the words of student scholar Honghe Li.: "A leader is created by followers, who are actually fellow leaders in clever disguise."

It's like taking service learning to whole other level, and paying it forward.

Informed individuals striving for excellence, supported by and giving back to their community.

What kind of education could be better than that?

As mentioned above, one of the goals of the program is sustainability. And the projects that succeed best in that regard are those where the student/educator team share the passion and commitment, as the educator is key to making the project repeatable. These visionary teachers are obviously critical to the program. They will be the subject of a future post.

But the students are the spark and the energy source. And as much a beneficiary as those they impact. In addition to building self-confidence in pursuit of one's passion projects, they also develop and learn strategies for connecting students -- with each other -- and with faculty, school boards, and leaders from local business and nonprofits.

America longs for the kind of leadership that collaborates with each other, and that engages the rest of us in a substantive way.

"Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind
than in the one where they sprang up."

-- Oliver Wendell Holmes --

Having met these kids in Aspen, and having recently interviewed them, and felt the conviction in their videos, it's become clear to me that they, their projects, and this program need a higher public profile. Not to inflate egos. Too many young people today are already fed an empty calorie diet of false self-esteem building. But credit where credit is due.

As such, these budding scholar/leaders should be honored, protected -- and replicated.

Honored because it's culturally wise to celebrate altruistic achievement and civic consciousness as we navigate the long and winding road toward the good society.

Young people need protection because they will soon enough be exposed to the virus of cynicism that runs rampant in modern society, and our future depends on finding ways to inoculate their idealism.

And replicated because America needs thousands of such programs for all serious students eager to learn and make a difference with their lives.

But one foundation can't do it all by itself.

So, I wonder, why are there not programs like this happening in every school in the country? Trips to Aspen don't need to be part of the equation. There are many amazing thinkers and doers in every American city who'd be happy to connect with bright eyed students if asked. And with the internet at our service, there are limitless sources of inspiration available without leaving town at all.

Perhaps some of the many millions of dollars and man hours spent on endless debates -- about questionable reforms, supposed union intractability, class sizes, etc. -- should give way to a whole new mission of redefining the very purpose of education itself.

The Bezos Scholars Program has planted a flag on the small steps of the moon. Are you ready to take the next giant leap for mankind?


Visit "Song Of A Citizen" for follow-up videos on these young scholars.