Might Adolescents be our Guide to a Revitalized Democracy?

By Lowell W. Libby, Co-founder of Third Thought Initiatives for Civic Engagement

Third Thought Initiatives for Civic Engagement was created by Waynflete, an independent school located in Portland, Maine, to cultivate in students from schools across Maine an essential capacity for living in a functioning democracy: the mindset and skill of productive dialogue. 

The name Third Thought came from a participant in one initiative, the Can We? Project, an “experiment in revitalizing democracy” designed to promote the capacity for dialogue across political differences in high school students throughout Maine. In the Project debrief, the participant was asked what she had learned from the experience.

She said she had learned to say her “third thought.” When asked what she meant, she said that previously her first thought  when confronted by a viewpoint substantially different from her own on a topic of importance to her was more often than not an emotional reaction and her second thought a justification for the first. Neither deepened her understanding of the topic at hand.

But when she took a deep breath and actually listened to the perspectives of others, got curious about where they were coming from, and reflected on her own beliefs and found them both valid and limited, she was able to transcend her either/or thinking and open herself to learning. Moreover, doing so helped her peers do the same. 

By humanizing each other in this way, these leaders of tomorrow were able to tap into the expansive wisdom inherent in their diverse viewpoints. In dialogue, they evolved their perspectives, deepened their collective understanding of the topic at hand, and developed creative solutions to the complex problems with which they had been grappling. As adolescents who are naturally attracted to novelty and still forming their identities, they took to the enterprise as if it were of great importance, which, of course, in a democracy and in life, it is.

Isn’t that how democracy is supposed to work? 

With the rise of political polarization and paralysis in the United States, there is a renewed interest in civic learning for the nation’s youth. That is a very good thing. But too often, improvement proposals overlook the foundational element of building capacity for productive dialogue, which starts with humanizing the “other.” 

As the nation’s current leaders, we need to explicitly teach our young people how to access their third thoughts. If we don’t, whether or not they have learned how a bill becomes a law or can recite the Constitution and all of its amendments by heart will not really matter. The next generation of leaders would be as polarized and paralyzed as their parents, and that would be a very bad thing. 

If we do teach our youth how to reach their third thoughts, not only will they be better prepared to meet tomorrow’s challenges, but we may also learn something of great importance from them that we can use today.



Lowell Libby is a member of the CivXNow State Policy Task Force representing the State of Maine.

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