Can we teach youth to take up duty to humanity?

The Big Questions (Templeton)

I think we're failing young people today, I really do. And I was alerted to this by an extraordinary book written by two American Christian teenagers a few years ago with a very striking title: Do Hard Things, subtitled A Teenager's Rebellion Against Low Expectations. They were really complaining about the fact that Western culture seems to constantly speak to our self-interest, our self-esteem, our self regard. The icon of our age is the selfie.

Now, young people actually are altruistic. They are inspired by high ideals. They are not yet cribbed, cabined, and confined by disillusionment, or the sense that you can't really change the world. Young people are convinced that you can change the world. And if you believe it, you probably will. So I think we have to deliver a message which is quite different from that of liberal democratic politics and the market, both of which are entirely viable, but both of which speak to my self-interest.

There has to be a third language, an altruistic idealistic language, that says we can change the world if we work hard enough and we work hard enough together.

I've had the privilege of meeting a few young people who decided to change the world and they actually succeeded. A few months ago, my wife and I were visited by a young man called Adam Braun, 31 years old, who just wanted to meet and have a conversation. And he told us his story. His story was that when he was a university student, he did something called Semester at Sea, which allows you to board a ship which travels around the world while you're still taking university courses. And in order really to enter into the spirit of each new country he visited, he decided he would ask a child at random what, if they could have anything in the world they would like, they would like to have.

When he went to India, he took a child from the streets and asked him that question. And the child, a street child living in poverty, said to him, "A pencil." Adam said, "No, you can have anything you like." And he said "A pencil." So Adam gave him a pencil. And then he got back on the ship.

And sometime later, the ship was involved in a storm where everyone on the ship thought they were going to capsize and drown and they didn't. And he felt, "My life has been saved for some purpose. What is it?" And his mind went back to this Indian child and he suddenly realised if I could just give children in a poor country, who have no chance of an education, if I could build a school for them, that would be a way of giving back something for the fact that my life has been saved.

So he built a school. He was working for a management consultant firm in New York. And using all his management skills and social networking technology, he got together the people to help him build a school in Laos.

And by the time I met him at the age of 31, he had built 300 schools around the world. I thought: that is one young person, driven by a sense of possibility, who has changed the world for thousands and maybe tens of thousands of people.

I think stories like that inspire young people because they simply don't know the word "impossible". And we need to capture that energy.