Products of Our Expectations: Moore speaks on changing fortunes of America’s youth through education

BRIA GRANVILLE | Staff Photographer
Wes Moore, author of The Work: My Search for a Life That Matters, speaks Thursday morning in the Amphitheater.

In America, the fastest-growing high school, collegiate and post-graduate demographic is not only girls, but girls by an overwhelming margin. For Wes Moore, when it comes to today’s young men, these numbers cannot be ignored.

The author, social entrepreneur and former Army officer occupied the Amphitheater stage Thursday morning, where he discussed the transformative power of education and mentoring in boys’ moral development.

Young women, while still facing obstacles, are more empowered than at any other moment in history, Moore said. According to Moore, the largest growing group of entrepreneurs is African-American women.

Boys are not only lagging at a comparative level, but at an absolute one, Moore said.

He asked why. To answer the question, he elucidated the tragic events in Baltimore that began on April 12 with the arrest of Freddie Gray.  After an hour in police custody, he was in coma. By April 19, Gray was dead.

Moore described the “string of personal and real events” that followed: city-wide peaceful protests, bringing together people of all colors and creeds. During Gray’s funeral on April 27, his family asked for a halt to demonstrations to allow them to grieve.

However, social media buzzed with a call for a “purge” — a reference to the 2013 film with the conceit that crime becomes legal once a year for 24 hours.  Students from Frederick Douglass High School in West Baltimore planned to gather across the street at Mondawmin Mall and march together to downtown Baltimore.

They were met with a phalanx of law enforcement, Moore said. Officers in full riot gear corralled students, blocking streets, shutting down the subway and forcing them to disembark from buses. For the students, it was their ground zero. That night, Moore described the opportunistic adults who used the event as an excuse to destroy businesses and frighten neighborhoods in the Baltimore riots.

But it all started with the kids, primarily boys aged 14 to 17.

“The average cumulative GPA of high school graduates from in Baltimore is 1.8,” Moore said. “These kids who feel they are existing in a system that does not care about their success or failure.”

The real tragedy, he said, was not just that it happened, but that it was preventable.

“[The week’s lecture theme] ‘Boys Will Be Boys, Then Men’ means there has to be a better way of setting up what a definition of manhood means in the first place,” he said.

He read an excerpt from his first book, The Other Wes Moore, regarding his visit to South Africa when he was 20.

He lived with the Xhosa people, the tribe of Nelson Mandela. He described their specific manhood ritual. It begins with circumcision. While healing, the boys are taught the history of their people and their place in the tribe’s culture. When they return, they are no longer treated as boys. They are treated as men.

Regarding America’s manhood problem, Moore had three specific points: to define it, to educate about it and to expect and demand it.

When what it means to be a man is not defined, he said, it allows young people to define it in their own terms.

“Like anything, if success isn’t defined, it becomes malleable and feeble,” Moore said. “But when responsibility is realized, when it sits with them, when they realize they’re not here to support themselves, but to serve others, it uplifts and motivates them.”

To illustrate his point, he told the story of his two friends, Dale and John. They were best friends, so inseparable they joined the National Guard together. Their unit was eventually deployed to Iraq. While driving a Humvee, they passed an innocuous pile of trash.

But it wasn’t just trash; it was an improvised explosive device, or IED.

“The explosion blew the vehicle 20 feet in the air,” Moore said. “And when John came to and looked in the passenger seat, he saw his best friend dying. When medics arrived, they managed to save Dale’s life. But they could not save his legs.”

The two returned home to North Carolina to a hero’s welcome. While John was the only one from the Humvee who was physically uninjured, he suffered severe PTSD and survivor’s guilt. He became suicidal.

Dale wanted to help his friend, but first Dale would need him for something. He wanted to build veterans’ homes.

John didn’t understand. “How are you going to build homes when you don’t have legs?”

“Yeah,” Dale replied, “but you do.”

So began the Purple Heart Homes. To this day, John and Dale travel the country, building homes for veterans, Moore said.

Moore’s second point was education. Too often today, simple regurgitation of information is mistaken for education, he said.

“Real education challenges, it makes us question it and forces us to draw our own conclusions,” he said. “Education is the process through which we view the world and our places in it.”

He attributed the growing student debt epidemic to this misunderstanding. While overall high school graduation rates have risen from 64 percent in 1994 to 80 percent in 2014, college completion is receding, with many students walking around with debt and no degree, Moore said.

“What we’ve realized is the chokepoint is freshman year of college,” he explained. “And if we know what the chokepoint is, we can reinvent the freshmen year.”

This is a core initiative of Moore’s program, Bridge-​EdU, which helps students transition from high school to college through practical and experiential internships and service opportunities.

“We want an educated population, not a certified one,” he said.

Lastly, Moore said we must expect and demand the very best from America’s youth. The term “a product of environment,” in Moore’s view, couldn’t be further from reality. In truth, we as humans are a “product of our expectations.”

To avoid becoming a nation of self-fulfilling prophecies, Moore said it is important how we talk about youth and what we call them. After the Baltimore riots, the first word on the lips of many officials was “thug,” he said.

“As if our young people weren’t listening, as if they weren’t internalizing that,” Moore said.

He paraphrased a Booker T. Washington quote: “If you break a man’s spirit, you don’t need to show them the back door. They will walk through it themselves.”

Taking the audience back to Baltimore, he said it ultimately doesn’t matter what the legal fates are for the six police officers indicted in Gray’s death. A court decision will not solve these issues.   

“The conversation needs to have boys and girls at the center — and not as subjects,” he said.