Education Should Not Be Fearful

At the beginning of the summer, an open letter by the heads of eight private schools in Washington D.C. appeared in the Washington Post and caused waves throughout education circles on the internet. In this letter, these modern-day educators announced that they were taking the supposedly radical step of eliminating Advanced Placement (AP) courses from their curricula. For the blessedly uninitiated, AP courses are specific high school classes that are geared towards preparing a student to take a standardized AP test at the end of the year, the score of which will hopefully give them college credit after they graduate.

While much of the letter from the independent schools provides for interesting reflection, one line in particular stood out, and I believe it is a line on which all those interested in education should pay attention. They said, “in the belief that failing to take an AP course may hurt their college prospects, students reluctantly pass up more interesting, more engaging and potentially more intellectually transformative and rewarding courses.” In other words, out of fear that they won’t be able to get into college, the students often pass up courses that they have a genuine desire to take. Here, the educators reveal a deeper, more foundational issue at stake within modern education: oftentimes the primary motivating tool used by today’s schools in educating young people is fear.

St. Thomas Aquinas says that fear is the avoidance of “a future evil, arduous and not to be easily avoided.” Fear is when man recoils from an evil that he perceives to be difficult to overcome. Furthermore, fear can, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, be conducive “to working well, in so far as it causes a certain solicitude and makes a man take counsel and work with greater attention.” It can cause us to focus our attention on the task in front of as we try to avoid the arduous evil. For instance, think of how a fear of hell can help us pay closer attention to the decisions we are making day in and day out.

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Today’s schools use this aspect of fear as the primary motivation to get their students to work. Having oftentimes reduced education to a preparation for college and career, the modern school drives home the necessity of current learning by emphasizing the danger of future failure. Students are told that they will need this material later in life. The difficulty of college is so greatly emphasized that students feel they must learn this now or they are certain to fail in the future. In short, students are unconsciously threatened, as it were, with future pain and misery if they do not accept the demands of their high school. Indeed, even the educators from D.C., who say that ditching AP courses “will encourage student motivation driven by their innate curiosity and love of learning,” allude to the belief that college courses require “critical thinking and rigorous analysis” and that “colleges and universities want the most capable and hard-working students.” Even while expressing a desire to motivate students in a different manner, these educators still can’t help but emphasize the supposed difficulty of the modern university and real life.

However, the great danger of using fear as a motivating factor to action was highlighted by the great St. Thomas centuries ago, and his words ring true in regards to our high school youth. For instance, in the section of the Summa Theologiae quoted above, immediately after highlighting how fear can help us focus on our actions, St Thomas goes on to give this warning: “If, however, fear increases so much as to disturb the reason, it hinders action even on the part of the soul.” In particular, St. Thomas describes two types of fear that tend to be the two different reactions of young people today to threats regarding their future lives. On the one hand, he says that an evil might be extrinsic to one’s person and “unforeseen … thus future misfortunes are feared, and fear of this kind is called anxiety.” Many young people today, driven to fear life after high school as a means of motivating them to work, become so anxious about their grades they will argue miniscule points. In recent years, an increase in anxiety has been noted among teenagers. An article published in Time magazine in 2016 entitled “Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright” states, “About 30% of girls and 20% of boys—totaling 6.3 million teens—have had an anxiety disorder, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health.” While multiple factors go into this increase in anxiety, the overuse of failure as a motivating tool in getting children to work cannot be helping. We so often emphasize the trials that lie ahead in a young person’s life that often even the most capable of students feel paralyzed about what might come.

On the other hand, many students today go to the other extreme. If they do not fall into anxiety, they often fall into laziness by simply opting out of the obligations altogether. Convinced that the real world will be too hard, they simply choose not to become a part of it. Herein lies the stereotype of the young man or young woman who refuses to go to school or do homework. It is the young person who refuses to get a job or move out of their parents’ house, as can be seen in the recent case of the 30-year-old man forced to move out of his parents home. It is the young adult who becomes absorbed in the world of video games, because at least there they feel they can accomplish something. Hence, St. Thomas lists laziness as a type of fear, since laziness is “when a man shrinks from work for fear of too much toil.” Today’s young people often shrink from toil because, rather than being accustomed to it, they have been conditioned to fear it. Ironically, modern schools often use this fear of difficult work in the future to try to make students do difficult work now, and some just simply refuse to do either.

Fear, though, does not have to be the primary motivating factor in a child’s education. While understanding the importance of forming young people who are competent enough to take on the responsibilities of adult life, we ought also to emphasize the desirability of knowing the truth for its own sake if we wish students to actively partake in their education. Indeed, in line with a more traditional notion of a liberal education, we need to start forming in children a love for the good, the true, and the beautiful. Education, and especially Catholic education, needs to begin to ask itself “How do we form in children a love for the knowledge of truth?” As the American Catholic author and teacher John Senior says in his The Restoration of Christian Culture, “The restoration of reason presupposes the restoration of love, and we can only love what we know because we have first touched, tasted, smelled, and seen. From that encounter with exterior reality, interior responses naturally arise, movements motivating, urging, releasing energies, infinitely greater than atoms, of intelligence and will.”

Teaching our children how to love the truth by exposing them to what is good is the ultimate solution to the problem of desire raised by these D.C. educators. We cannot simply substitute certain courses for others while maintaining fear of failure as the ultimate motivational tool. Instead, we must begin to form a desire for knowledge in students by exposing them to the beautiful riches of Western Civilization: the songs, poems, stories and, most importantly, the religion that shaped what was once known as Christendom. Until we do this, we will only worsen the anxiety and laziness of the next generation through our overuse of fear.


  • Matthew Anderson

    Matthew Anderson teaches theology at Lumen Christi Catholic School in Jackson, Michigan, where he lives with his wife and four young children. He earned a Master’s in Systematic Theology from the Christendom College Graduate School of Theology in 2018.

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