Dewey or Don’t We? Why Our Kids are Messed Up

In the first part of this essay, I suggested that an educational system dominated by the philosophical baggage of logical positivism and reductivist materialism, animated by fear of “falling behind” others in math, science, and technology, and focused primarily on training students for a job, had left America’s children bereft of the knowledge and skills necessary for a happy domestic life.  The only thing the culture thought worthy of investing any time teaching them about was “sex ed”; there was no “marital ed” or “domestic life ed.”

Ask the best and brightest students about their career plans for the future, and you’ll find they have a clear, worked-out set of options: they know what courses they will take, what internships they’ll get, and what entry-level jobs with what companies they’ll be applying for.  Ask them about marriage and family, on the other hand, and you’ll find they have absolutely no idea how to get from Point A to Point B.

Do they know about sex?  You bet they do.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Everything: both biology and best practices (whether they’re engaged in it or not).  What they don’t know how to do is ask a girl out on a date, how to develop a relationship from one date to something more lasting, or how to cut off dating if they don’t want anything more.  How do they handle the whole business now? Usually with alcohol or by chance encounter, or both.  And as far as the whole business of getting married and setting up a home for themselves and their children, you might as well be talking about how to get to Mars.  “That sort of stuff just happens, doesn’t it?” most of my students will say to me.  “You can’t really plan for that, can you?”  “No more than you can plan for a career,” I tell them.  “Anything can happen.  I had students who thought they were going to work for Enron after college.  That didn’t exactly work out the way they planned.  So although you can’t control life, you can prepare.  You can get yourself ready.”

Unfortunately, too many students go through our schools thinking that by going through the motions, they’ll be awarded with a gold ring at the end, like one of those innumerable “rewards” they get while they’re in school.  They haven’t ever really thought of their education as preparing them with invaluable skills that will be essential to their future success.  They tend to think that a job is just something you get when you’re done with the formality of school.

So too, my students largely seem to think that “marriage and family” are just things you “get” at a certain point after you’ve done a certain number of things in your “career.”  It’s sent it to you, like a diploma.  It just shows up one day on your doorstep.  “Oh, look,” you say to your roommate, “my wife just showed up; I guess you’ll have to move out.”

It’s touching, really, their implicit faith in the system— really stupid, ultimately, but touching, especially in its naïveté about the way the world works.  Is it any wonder so many of them are unhappy in their career choices and in their marriages when the culture spent so much time teaching them about “best practices” in business and sex and so little time going over the goals those practices are meant to serve?

Is it really any wonder that we have a culture of divorce?  The sort of choices we make, what we reward, and what we pay special attention to: these things show our children what we truly value.  It’s easy to think our children’s fascination with sex and with consumerism is the fault of the media, and they certainly play their part.  As a friend of mine once said: “Leaving your children alone in front of the television is like entrusting them to a convicted serial child molester.”

What St. Paul understood, and that we seem to have forgotten, is that one good way to take those very natural desires and turn them into something more noble was to direct them into and discipline them within the self-giving love of marriage and parenthood.  Are any of our kids really being prepared for that?  To be honest, that’s like asking whether a kid who has never seen a soccer ball is ready for the World Cup.  How would he even know what’s expected of him?

Blessed Pope John Paul II used to talk a lot about the family as “the domestic church.”  That’s a term worth reflecting on.  What Pope John Paul undoubtedly meant when he used the term is that the family is the place where the faith is first taught, and that parents have a largely irreplaceable role in instilling faith in their children.  I’ve taught theology at the middle school, high school, and college levels, and let me assure you, if parents don’t care about the faith, their children are very unlikely to do so either.  Numerous studies show the same thing.

There are few things more painful than seeing kids whose parents have dropped them off at religious education classes to “learn something about the faith” while their parents are off doing something else.  Those students are very unlikely to learn anything about the faith.  Students have to care to learn, and if their parents don’t care, their children won’t either.  And when students don’t care, they usually won’t retain anything.  Trust me, it’s amazing how little they know, no matter how many years they’ve been in Catholic school.

For example I might say to my first-year college students: “Finish this trilogy; Abraham, Issac, and _____?”  Nothing but silence.

“Who can tell me what Pentecost is?”  Blank stares.

It’s not that they haven’t been taught; it’s that what they were taught went in one ear and out the other.  It’s like trying to teach them Chinese history out of a dull textbook. The names are so odd and the facts are so far from their lived experience that it just doesn’t inhere.  The information has no place to take root.  Have you ever tried to teach the rules of rugby to someone who really doesn’t care for rugby, or the rules of baseball to someone who is really bored by baseball?  You’re always amazed at how many times you have to explain that it’s three outs and three strikes, but four balls, or why you can hit as many foul balls as you want.  “How hard can this be?” you wonder.  To someone who doesn’t care, it’s excruciating, and thus infinitely forgettable.

My experience has been that students will generally only care about things like education or learning about their faith if the adults in their life care.  That is why Pope John Paul II is right when he says that the family is the first (and by this he means “primary”) educator of the child.  Parents may not be able to teach their children what St. Augustine said about the Trinity or what St. Thomas said about the sacraments — that’s what they hire someone like me for — but they can instill in them the desire to learn.  So, for example, if you glanced at the first part of this sentence and said to yourself: “St. Augustine and the Trinity, like that really matters!” then rest assured, your children will too.  They probably already do.

So too, no one is going to educate your child about domestic life, to value it and to seek out its virtues, if you don’t.  Think of the family as the domestic church: the church where the domestic life is nurtured.  There is certainly no place else left in the culture where that can happen.

In fact, I fear something entirely different is taking place in many families: not the exaltation of marriage and family and a gentle encouragement to undertake its blessed rigors, but rather a continuation of the message of materialism and fear that began in the schools.  My experience with college students suggests that the one thing parents have very effectively communicated to their sons and daughters, whether intentionally or not, is that under no circumstances are they to get married until later.  When “later” will be is not often specified, but everyone, whether male or female, knows that it means something like they must wait until they have “finished school” and are fairly well “established in a career” before they should even be entertaining the idea of marriage.  Whether or not parents have said it in so many words, everyone knows it.  And what’s the result?

Let’s try to be honest here:  When parents send their children off to college, they suspect their children may fornicate.  Most parents hope they won’t, but they suspect they may, “kids being what they are these days.”  But even if their kids fornicate here and there, the real nightmare is that they might get pregnant!  The “burdens” of a spouse and a child, they assure their hormonally excitable children, will likely “destroy their future,” keep them from “getting a good job,” and thus making it, as they are expected to do, into the upper middle class of American society.  To be blunt, this is one of the chief reasons, in my experience, that even the daughters of “good” Catholic parents get abortions and the sons of “good” Catholic parents will pay for them.  (And by saying “good” here, I don’t mean to imply they’re not.  I’m quite sure they are very good.  The problem is, rather, that a certain sort of “goodness” may be getting in the way of a more ultimate sort of “goodness,” contrary to what the parents themselves would—at least in their better moments— wish for.)  Somewhere along the line, someone “clarified values” for these kids, and the highest value wasn’t marriage and family or giving birth to a child; it was having a successful career and looking good.  “Getting pregnant” and having to “get married” is what the trashy kids do — or the Hispanics.

This was, of course, what the Catholic immigrants before the Hispanics did too:  the Irish, the Italians, and the Eastern Europeans.  They came to this country, dedicated themselves to faith, family, and education, and in doing so, succeeded in building beautiful churches, impressive hospitals, and a parochial school system that was the envy of the world.  Now we teach our children that, above all else, they should devote themselves to their careers, and that education, whether in the classic humanistic disciplines like reading and poetry, or in the rudiments of the faith, are only of moderate importance, if any importance at all.  And what has Catholic culture produced lately?

Allow me, if I may, to finish with a story.  I have a friend whose grandfather was an Italian immigrant; he came to this country and became a big-project electrician, working on the buildings and bridges that were sprouting up in New York City in the thirties, forties, and fifties.  He never was able to afford to go to college, but he taught himself to read English and eventually to write (as I will describe in more detail in a moment) by reading voraciously, and in particular the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I once had the privilege of reading a copy of a letter this man had written to his union president defending a fellow worker who had been treated unjustly, he thought, by the local union boss.   I have no idea whether he won his appeal, but the letter was forceful yet diplomatic, well-argued and above all eloquent.  I sat in wonder as I read it.  I have yet to find a college senior who could have written such a letter, either in terms of the quality of argument or the caliber of prose.  (If you doubt this, take a look at any copy of Time magazine from the 1940s and compare it with any copy from this year.)

But look, by the same token, I don’t want to over-romanticize the man — there is much about him I don’t know, and I have no doubt he had his sins as we all do — but he and those of his generation built something impressive.  Those of us who have benefitted from the fruits of his labors haven’t benefitted as much as we should have, or in the ways we should have, from imitating his example.  Instead of faith, family, church, and neighborhood, we turn ourselves over to the “expert” advice of highly-paid “scientific” management consultants and their endless “best practice” plans for renewal and improvement.  Education is thought to be a game, not a privileged place for the disciplined development of excellence and skill.  And reading — who does that anymore?   What, then, are we building for our future?

It’s one of the odd paradoxes of history that people who selflessly dedicate themselves to otherworldly values often end up building an impressive world, whereas those who dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to the things of this world often end up making their world an unlivable mess.  True wealth and true success of the lasting sort comes from a culture that has its priorities straight.

Do we or don’t we?

Part I: Dewey or Don’t We? Why Our Kids are Messed Up


  • Randall B. Smith

    Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

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