Trenton, New Jersey. - The local newspaper in the Indiana town where I was teaching last year ran a cartoon-drawing contest for school children. The students were to create a one-frame cartoon on any topic; the best of these would be published in the ''Kid's Page.''
A representative sample of the winning entries revealed a common theme. A girl in Grade 2 drew a sad-faced planet Earth, with the caption, ''I am weary. I am tired. Please quit wasting me!'' A boy in Grade 6 sketched some mountain-sized hills beside a sign reading ''Landfill,'' with one tiny person pointing out to another, ''Here we have the tallest hill in Bloomington.'' A girl in Grade 3 depicted a number of crying animals looking at a house under construction with some smokestacks in the background; the captain read, ''We want our homes back!!!'' Other entries showed black South Africans being crushed under the boot of apartheid, mushroom clouds emerging from backyards, and forests being cut down by huge chain saws.
Such a common focus could be coincidence, or conscious indoctrination, or the honest effort of teachers to get students involved in important issues. Some teachers do use their power to indoctrinate; most of us have had experience with them, but they are rare. Usually, teachers are motivated by the best of intentions: They want their students to become informed, independent and committed thinkers.
Yet we have a problem: Frightened children are coming home from school. After some coaxing, the parent is told that the child fears the world is a cold and scary place. All the furry animals are being killed and all the nice green trees are being cut down. Even breathing the air is dangerous. Parents do their best to soothe the child's fears by reassuring them that while there are problems, things aren't as bad as that. This may only compound the child's worries, for now the teacher and parents are perceived as contradicting each other. Whom should the child trust?
I think the problem is that teachers are putting more burdens on young students than they are able to bear. It's a truism that you can't teach calculus before arithmetic. In trying to convey their sense of urgency about the world's problems, I fear that many of our teachers are committing the analogous error in the case of environmental issues.
Children are not able to deal with problems of international garbage disposal when they are still grappling with issues of personal hygiene. They are not able to put in context issues of international race relations when they are struggling with how to deal with schoolyard bullies and being talked about behind their backs.
When students are overloaded, they become frustrated and frightened. When they think the problems they are being asked to consider are too much to absorb, they give up trying to understand. If the teacher persists, the student simply mouths the appropriate words to appease the teacher.
My college freshmen classes are regularly populated by young adults convinced that no solutions are possible and so it's useless to try, or who are so desperate for answers that their minds close on the first semi-plausible solution they encounter. Apathy and dogmatism are enemies of social progress. Both are defense mechanisms against feeling that you are living in a hostile world whose problems are too big for you to handle. And these are attitudes children often acquire early in their school careers. It is a paradox, but pushing global problems upon unprepared students may create the type of apathetic or dogmatic student that college teachers regularly despair over.
This does not mean educators and parents should pretend that environmental problems do not exist. There is a delicate line between overload and indoctrination, and Pollyannaism. We need to be sensitive to our children's vulnerable cognitive context. In discussing these issues with them we need to take extra pains not to overburden them, to teach them about the principles involved on a scale they can grasp.
This is especially true in the case of environmental issues, because these are by definition complex global issues -- issues many adults have difficulties dealing with intellectually and emotionally. If we want our 6- and 9-year-olds to be ready to deal with acid rain when their time comes, teach them now how to care for a 30-gallon aquarium and why they shouldn't throw candy wrappers into the ravine. If we want them to be in a position to handle the Saddam Husseins of the world, help them now evolve strategies for dealing with the little tyrant who extorts their lunch money and the kid who always wants to copy their homework.
These are the problems they are engaged with and ready to consider solutions for. Do not ask them now what they would do if terrorists exploded chemical weapons above their town or what we could do if the food chain were irreparably damaged by pollution, for the child can only think, ''If I could die at any moment, what's the use of worrying about anything?''
Frightened or apathetic children are not going to grow into the adults who will solve the world's problems. Problem-solving requires confidence that solutions can be discovered and self-esteem about one's ability to find them. These attitudes require long nurturing on countless small, day-to-day issues. Too much too fast can only destroy them.
Stephen Hicks teaches philosophy at Trenton State College.