After last month’s Elementary Recitation, an uncle of one of our students found me afterward in the Atrium. After brief introductions (and with his niece’s not-quite-school-aged sibling riding on his shoulders), he told me how much he enjoyed seeing our young students recite what they were learning and how impressed he was with our school.
“When I think of my own schooling years, I shake my head,” he said, doing exactly what he described. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “But I see the progress of humanity here.”
I recently thought about his observation while reading two books. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure is a succinct analysis of three “untruths” running rampant on many college campuses today:
– the untruth of fragility (what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker)
– the untruth of emotional reasoning (always trust your feelings)
– the untruth of “us versus them” (life is a battle between good people and evil people)
The authors examine how these untruths have played out at universities in the past five years, leading to campuses and students increasingly marked by intimidation, violence, witch hunts, polarization, anxiety, and depression. Some of this, they say, is due to paranoid parenting and a decline of child’s play at younger ages; some has to do with a “bureaucracy of safetyism” and an unhealthy pursuit of justice without proper proportionality. Whatever the combination, the result is all too familiar:
In 2017, 58% of college students said it is ‘important to be part of a campus community where I am not exposed to intolerant and offensive ideas.’ This statement was endorsed by 63% of very liberal students, but it’s a view that is not confined to the left; almost half of very conservative students (45%) endorsed that statement, too. (pgs. 48-49)
After a multitude of case studies and insights to convincingly illustrate their points, the authors offer practical suggestions for kids, universities, and societies to try to deal with and address the untruths. They recommend letting kids take more risks, as well as learn the basics of cognitive behavioral therapy so they can rightly deal with poor self-esteem; they call colleges and universities to endorse the Chicago Statement on free speech and academic freedom and to establish a practice of not responding to public outrage when pressure hits the fan; they suggest societies hold social media companies’ feet to the flames by tweaking algorithms to contribute less to echo chambering and lessen the negative effects of device use.
While these are needed conduits for change, if there are missing pieces from the authors’ solution, they are agency and content. This is where The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance by Nebraska senator Ben Sasse is to be commended, in particular the excellent chapters on education (“More School Isn’t Enough”) and reading (“Build a Bookshelf”). He writes:
I think the problem is that we already overmanage the lives of young adults rather than that we are not offering them enough bubble wrap. I take issue with the notion that young adults are incapable of making choices or acting independently. It is clearly true that they aren’t very good at it, but that is because we failed to help them learn how to seize the reins and do it themselves much earlier – in primary and middle school – and doesn’t mean that we should still be choosing and acting for them after high school.” (pg. 76)
But what specifically should students choose and act upon? Sasse understands the need for ancient wisdom to inform modern what-to-dos, invoking Dorothy Sayers, a matron saint of classical Christian education in America:
In arguably the most important essay on education written in the last century, English author Dorothy Sayers railed against the power of educational ‘specialists’ who act like the rest of us couldn’t or shouldn’t fully own our own process of learning. Education, she argued in 1948 in ‘The Lost Tools of Learning,’ is inherently about the goals of lives well lived; it is about the good, the true, and the beautiful.” (pg. 78)
Sasse then channels writings of the Greeks, Puritans, and Founding Fathers for a better way forward, elaborating on what the aforementioned transcendentals translate to:
America…was founded deliberately, by people with strong ideas about heaven and hell, about rights and responsibilities, about public and private – and about the kind of society that would promote virtuous living and serious thinking…The correctly American answer has always been for the state to stand down, for people to pursue their dreams and to seek ultimate meaning outside of politics, and for citizens to sort through their arguments and debates in a liberal, open public square by persuasion, not by either forced or prohibited speech.” (pgs. 207-208; 223-224)
To get at these strong ideas, students have to accept the challenge to read and discuss them. This is why our Petra reading list in the hands of our capable teachers is second to none when it comes to promoting virtuous living and serious thinking. And this is why our students win supposed “non-humanities” competitions and awards; if people are involved, the humanities pertain!
I don’t know all that our student’s uncle was thinking when he claimed to see “the progress of humanity” at Petra. I’m guessing he caught a glimpse of how young students learning to handle prose and poetry in a monthly recitation might, across the years, prepare those same students to stand before (and sometimes against) one another in healthy dialogue and debate as to the greater good later. Since that’s rarely done much anymore, perhaps I better understand his wistful surprise.
As the folk saying goes, “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.”
Surely this is what “the progress of humanity” requires…and always has.