What does it take to form young men and women who are confident, capable, focused, and free?
Our young people are showing signs of a serious resilience deficiency. It has been more than 20 years since Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club provided a prescient account of the consumerist malaise that had permeated a listless Generation X. While Fight Club’s “Snowflake” epithet may not be the most constructive or charitable image, we immediately recognized that it was describing something familiar. As devices and screens have become ubiquitous, the phenomenon has become further intensified in an even younger generation of 21st-century teens and tweens.
We know that our children are made for something more…but how can we encourage without hovering, support without enabling, and guide teenagers in such a manner that they learn to gain real wisdom?
Addressing the Resilience Deficiency
The resilience deficiency is not just a challenge for young people, parents, and educators. Business and government leaders are also focusing their energies on understanding millennials as they enter the workplace (or as they defer that entry). Fortunately, there are some valuable studies taking place to aid in that attempt. Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck’s research on the “Growth Mindset” as well as NYU Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt and civil rights attorney Greg Lukianoff’s recent studies on young adults are receiving considerable attention. The point of consensus in their work is the observation that young people need to learn to reassess their understanding of challenging situations. Challenges should be viewed as opportunities for learning and maturation, and struggle as a healthy sign of life.
Messrs. Lukianoff and Haidt argue that teaching young people the skills of critical thinking is one of the most effective ways of combating anxiety. “By almost any definition, critical thinking requires grounding one’s beliefs in evidence rather than in emotion or desire, and learning how to search for and evaluate evidence that might contradict one’s initial hypothesis.” Lukianoff observes that much of the work needs to take place in education: “Communities where teachers and students pursue the truth, together, in a spirit of intellectual friendship.”
A Shared Pursuit of the Truth
This sounds a lot like the goals of a robust Liberal Arts Catholic Education. A shared pursuit of the truth is not a project that can be restricted to the ivory tower, and neither is it for the faint of heart. Academic abstraction can be a useful tool, but it is only a tool and not the full encounter with reality. Because reality is the thing in which we actually live and move and have our being, truth will always require something of us. We know that resiliency is never real until it is proven. In order to become a long-distance runner, you actually have to run long distances. One can only become strong through struggle, through the physiological experience of pushing muscles to the point of failure. The same principle is at work in the life of the mind. As much as we hate failure, mistakes are essential for growth. Students need to overcome the fear of failure and learn to embrace challenges. Yet, none of us is an island. We need one another in order to become our best. We need people who care enough to encourage us to push us on towards the heights and stand with us in the depths. Learning takes place both as a deposit and a shared encounter of reality. At root, education is always a community effort.
Healthy communities of learning should focus on three things:
Expect Greatness. We can do better than Palahniuk’s cynical vision. Every student does, in fact, bear a profound dignity and is called to a particular mission. Young people need to understand that their work and their lives have a real purpose. High school is a critical time for them to grow in the awareness that what they do and who they become really matters. However, human dignity must be grounded in something fundamental, or else it risks veering off into nothing more than self-esteem consumerism. Dignity must be grounded in a reasoned understanding of first principles. Given the appropriate instruction, teenagers are cognitively ready to begin thinking in these terms.
Challenge. Students should be encouraged to try new things. They can only grow when they can get out of their comfort zones and challenge themselves daily. Whether through academic debate, trying a new sport, public speaking, group projects, outdoor adventure programs, exposure to the skills of fine arts or artisanship, students need opportunities to learn from unfamiliar experiences.
The Art of the Question. Teach students to ask good questions. For a lot of people, it is difficult to stay engaged when they are only expected to regurgitate answers. If education only consists of reporting back what has been dictated from an authority, then learning becomes a mere transaction. Knowledge becomes nothing more than the ability to recite arbitrary bits of data that are largely devoid of substantial meaning.
That doesn’t mean that some students will not be able to do what is asked of them. What it means, is that it will be difficult for them to develop any interest in their studies as personally relevant. This is especially the case for teenagers. At the high-school level, classes should be structured to help students take ownership of their education because problem-solving skills require engaging with the problem…at a deeper level. Good teachers know that you can’t understand the solution until you’ve really encountered the problem. Learning to ask good questions is how we develop critical thinking skills. This sort of learning also decreases “triggers.” If the conclusions are not apparent or immediately given, young people learn that perhaps their initial understanding of an idea is incomplete and that adequate critiques take time to develop.
Reclaiming our Inheritance to Form Strong, Happy, Free Adults
Make no mistake, this vision of education as a shared pursuit of the truth is a recovery project. We are appealing to the inheritance of a rich Christian Humanism that has largely been brought forward through the endeavors of the Catholic academy. This requires a reassessment of what we should expect from Catholic secondary schools and universities. These schools need to give young people the opportunity to test themselves against something real. Our students deserve the best of what civilization has thought, asked, and said. This brings real substance to their work as they look to move forward in hope with a zeal for bringing real goodness to the world. We don’t want to matriculate grown-up “children” and blithely pass them along. Our end goal needs to be the formation of strong, happy, confident and free young adults who are developing a sense of purpose and mission, and thus equipped to engage the world with faith, hope and love.