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Michaud: Who should ensure our youth's allegiance?

9 year-old Vincent Paul shows a flag in

9 year-old Vincent Paul shows a flag in honor of his grandfather, Army veteran Joseph Paul, to John West School principal Carol Muscarella. Hundreds of flags were erected at the school in honor of loved ones who have served or are serving in the military. (Nov. 14, 2013) Credit: Alejandra Villa

The column I wrote last week about 100 or so Americans fighting on the side of the Islamic State group drew dozens of passionate responses. People viewed it as an opportunity to weigh in on what they believe is wrong with our society.

A number agreed with my analysis: that the generation that's running things -- let's say those 40 and older -- is too preoccupied with winning political battles to fix anything. We're not concerned with creating jobs or even volunteer corps that would help young people travel from adolescent dependence to adult autonomy.

I said we're failing to inspire rising generations, and some young people don't see much of a future. Thirsty for help and guidance, some are entrapped by the mirage of meaning and purpose of jihad.

The solutions I offered are programs like the Peace Corps, GI Bill, Teach for America or Eleanor Roosevelt's National Youth Administration. But it's not all about government programs, as I said. As adults, we should ask kids about themselves and share our experiences, passions and dreams. I said I appreciate people like Huntington's interdisciplinary artist Rob Goldman, who's prompting teenagers to think about why they matter in the world.

In response, a woman left me an anonymous voice mail, saying she loved the column and wished it had been on the front page.

Several others mentioned church, God and family. They said that's where children must learn values and meaning.

"As a former teacher of primary school children for 26 years, I know the importance of inspiration, encouragement and guidance," wrote Long Islander Ann Stein. "For a myriad reasons, there are too many young people who are not receiving this, either from their parents, who have difficulties with their own lives, or from a society that cannot offer them the values and opportunities that they need."

Others weren't so forgiving of parents. "Some parents expect the schools and government to take over that role," wrote John Hannon of East Patchogue. "Many families have checked out emotionally or financially."

Paul LaMaster, a reader from Florida, blamed babies "born without a father."

The response I found most disturbing was the idea that our society no longer has any good values to pass along to new generations. "Have you considered that we're communicating our values -- our true values -- all too well, and that's why kids are running off to join our enemies?" asked Florida reader Doug Hyden.

He didn't elaborate, but I'm going to take the liberty here of quoting a frequent Newsday contributor, Paul Manton of Levittown. He wrote, "Americans have traveled light years away from the idea of a New Jersusalem and Christian piety . . . the vision of a New Athens of intellectual enlightenment envisioned by the Founding Fathers, and the liberator of oppressed nations that [our country] was in 1945. They now spend more money on booze, drugs, pornography, tobacco, tattoos, junk food, mindless gadgets, and body piercings than many countries spend on teaching their better-educated children . . . ."

I'm not quite as pessimistic as that. But each one of us must own our responsibility for living and communicating our values, instead of blaming some faceless "other" that's ruining America -- be it today's lax parents, the fringe that parrots Rush Limbaugh, or "liberals" who are "ashamed" to teach America's history of "overcoming obstacles using freedom and the Constitution," in the words of Joel Thornton of Tallahassee, Florida.

Goldman told me that the feedback he received was that my column was wrong to associate Long Island teenagers abusing drugs with traitors joining the Islamic State in the Middle East. Perhaps. What ties them together for me is the disaffection of youth.

And what I want to know is, what are we each going to do, personally, to change that?

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