Teaching Teens: The Risk of Education

We were driving home from Mass when my seventh-grade daughter exclaimed, “Why do we have to sing all those boring hymns every week?” Her tone was challenging, belligerent even. The expression was a frown, the body language, crossed arms and a slouch.

My wife scolded her, “It’s not for you to criticize the hymns we sing at Mass.” But I stepped in: “Hang on. She’s asking a question about her faith. That’s allowed.” I addressed Madeleine: “The hymns are part of the tradition. It’s true that they’re not always the hymns you know or like, but we’re lucky that our parish has a good organist and a good music director. Why not give them a chance? Eventually you’ll get to know them and you will enjoy singing them.”

Maddy’s tone changed immediately because her question was taken seriously, and as a result she felt that she was taken seriously. I went on, “It’s okay to question your faith. In fact, it’s a good thing. But it’s possible for the questioning to be done positively—even if you feel negative at the time. The negative feelings are just the urge to ask the question. Figure out what the question is and ask it intelligently and positively. Then the urge to question becomes a way to learn.”

Six months later Maddy joined the church choir, and she now takes part in the parish music program with gusto. Furthermore, her religion teacher at school noticed a change. By the end of the year he reported that Maddy asks the best questions of anyone in the class. She is beginning to engage with her faith in an intelligent and positive way.

The Italian Connection

Instead of quashing my daughter’s religious inquiry, I encouraged it—even though it was expressed in a negative manner. I wish I could say my response was the result of my own inspired parenting skills. Instead, it was prompted by the writings of an Italian priest.

As chaplain at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina, I was challenged by the headmaster to read The Risk of Education by Msgr. Luigi Giussani. Monsignor Giussani was born near Milan, entering the seminary at a young age and being ordained in 1945. He developed an interest in Eastern Christian theology and American Protestantism. In the early 1950s, he requested permission to work in high schools, and taught at the high school level for ten years. During this time he was involved in Student Youth—an arm of Catholic Action. In his booklets Christian Life and Presence in the World and Experience he outlined his ideas on the formation of young people.

Monsignor Giussani went on to teach at the college level, and in the late 1960s he spent time in the United States researching American Protestantism. This led to his scholarly work An Outline of American Protestant Theology. Then in 1969 he returned to head up the former student group that had broken away from Catholic Action to become Communion and Liberation. The group became one of the new ecclesial movements, and he headed it until his death in 2005.

In The Risk of Education, Monsignor Giussani outlines the problem that existed in Italy in the 1950s. On the surface, the situation in the Church appeared positive: Parishes were run efficiently, there were a good number of priests, religious, and sisters; the religious traditions were kept alive in the family; religion was required in the schools; and attendance at Sunday Mass held up fairly well.

However, Monsignor Giussani noticed among his high school students other, more worrying conditions. First, he noticed that there was no profound motivation for belief: There was head knowledge, but no heart knowledge. Secondly, he saw that the Faith did not affect the behavior of the high school students. There didn’t seem to be a real connection between the Faith and their lives. Third, there was a general atmosphere of skepticism. Catholic young people regarded the Faith to be an irrelevant tradition at best, and at worst, a dangerously outmoded superstition.

Monsignor Giussani concluded that the problem was in the transmission of the Christian Faith. Faith had to be communicated not merely as a tradition handed down by authority figures, but as a reasonable and relevant philosophy of life. Furthermore, faith had to be verified; it had to be put into action and experienced in order to be real.

This is risky for two reasons. First of all, faith cannot be proven mathematically. While it is reasonable to believe, faith cannot be proven by reason, and attempts to help young people engage with the Faith reasonably might back-fire and cause them to lose their faith. Furthermore, to claim that religious experience is necessary is also risky. Religious experiences are notoriously subjective and fickle. They can be faked both by the educator and the student. The religious experience must be authentic, and this means it will be unpredictable. The religious educator must therefore be willing to accept the “quicksand of freedom.”

If this risk is taken, religious education becomes an adventure of faith rather than simply the rote acceptance of religious dogma and practice. For Monsignor Giussani, religious education is a quest on which the educator and student embark together into the mystery of God.

Unpacking the Backpack

Up to about ten years of age, a child receives his or her knowledge of the world and its workings from authority figures. Children accept the version of the world that their parents, teachers, and adults offer them. Monsignor Giussani says this stage of the educational process is like packing a backpack for life’s journey. At adolescence, however, the student is beginning to realize that the adult world is just around the corner. This causes him to look inside the backpack to figure out just what equipment is in there, and whether it works. The Greek word for this rummaging around is krinein, or krisis, from which we get the words “crisis,” “critique,” and “criticism.” Monsignor Giussani insists that a “crisis of faith” is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is “criticism” always a bad word.

I have witnessed this process unfold in our high school students today. During a discussion with our campus ministry team, a high school junior said, “A lot of the kids don’t think the faith works because they’ve tried it and it has failed them.” I asked what he meant by that, and he said, “They probably prayed and asked God for something they wanted and didn’t get it.”

This instinct to criticize is natural, and the education system must not only cope with it but be built around it. Monsignor Giussani therefore insists that the Faith must be taught with a “critical” method. In other words, the educator must not only propose the truth, he must accompany the student as he seeks to verify the truth.

Three Ways to Go

The instinct to test the truth is God-given. But educators, especially religious educators, have often operated either in ignorance of or direct opposition to this process. As a result, the critical instinct in teenagers takes three forms. The first is rebellion: The student reacts against his religious formation in an instinctively critical manner, but instead of encouraging the proper kind of criticism, the educator views the criticism negatively and quashes it.

The student’s inner logic goes like this: “I’ve been given this religion that I’ve been told is the greatest thing in the universe, but when I try to question it, I’m told to be quiet and simply accept. Therefore it can’t be as great as it’s cracked up to be. If the adults can’t take a little criticism, they either can’t defend their beliefs, or they must be scared that it’s all hogwash. That’s why they try to shut me up. The whole thing must be bosh. I’ve got to find a philosophy for life that works, and if this one can’t take a little criticism, it must be wrong.” The practical result of this thought process is teenage rebellion, not only in belief but in behavior.

The rebellion makes the teenager unhappy because he is now frightened of the future. To extend the metaphor, his backpack turns out to be full of second-rate equipment. He needs some serious gear for the challenge of life, and he feels like he’s been given string and picture hangers. The rebellious teenager is desperate for security, for sure guidance and a reliable guide for life. If he feels the one he has been given has let him down, then rebellion turns into rejection, and his life may take a downward spiral into despair.

The second response to the critical instinct appears to be more positive. When faced with the opportunity to criticize, the student declines to do so. He accepts everything the adults have said, toes the line, and remains everyone’s golden boy. This response could be called polite conformity. The student has not engaged his critical facilities at all; he has merely taken the path of least resistance. He conforms outwardly to the Faith but has not engaged with it in any real or practical manner. Unfortunately, most religious educators have not only been perfectly content with the response, they have positively encouraged it.

The problem with “polite conformity” is that it is artificial. The student becomes the typical religious hypocrite—putting on a false front to please the authority figures while behaving in an un-Christian manner. This reaction is actually worse than open rebellion because the student is often fooled by his Own facade. He comes to believe that lip service and outward conformity are all that is required, and if he is never challenged to engage his critical instinct positively, his religious development will either be stunted or retrograde.

The third response is the most difficult, but also the most authentic: encouraging the student’s critical instinct.

Indeed, the educational method from high school upward is built around this instinct and uses it as the motor for the entire educational enterprise. In this response, the critical instinct is seen as positive, and the student is encouraged to rummage through the backpack and test the contents to see if they are true and reliable.

Reason and Responsibility

If the educator accompanies the student as he verifies the truth, then a new perspective is opened up on the educational process. In a Catholic school, the mission becomes not simply to produce good examination results to get students into good colleges. Neither is the sole purpose simply to produce “good Catholics” who learn to “pray, pay, and obey.”

Instead, every subject is taught with the critical instinct fully engaged. The reasonableness and necessity of every subject is verified, and the students are truly educated rather than simply given facts. When an entire school embraces the vision of “verifying the truth,” the students are given an overarching principle of education that enables them to draw together the different strands of education and experience in order to prepare them for life’s adventure.

Engaging the critical instinct in education also brings teenagers into a higher level of responsibility. If he is simply learning facts, the student is not taking responsibility for his learning. But if he is engaging the critical instinct, he is automatically responsible for what he learns. As this becomes a habitual way of responding to his world, the student learns in a most natural way how to apply this critical instinct to every other aspect of life, and so learns to take responsibility for his thoughts, words, and actions.

Youth with a Mission

When I was a senior in high school, I was invited to go on a summer mission trip with an Evangelical team that smuggled Bibles into Eastern Europe. I had to pray and work hard for the money to pay for my trip, and on the trip I was on a steep learning curve with my faith. I was challenged, but that summer changed my life. I saw God in action, and my faith took a quantum leap.

As a result, in the first year of my chaplaincy at St. Joseph’s Catholic School I started a summer mission trip to El Salvador. Six students volunteered. They prayed for the money to come in, wrote letters to raise the funds, and embarked on an adventure of faith. The summer mission trip is one of many service projects the school undertakes in order to help our students test their faith in a positive way.

Service projects and mission trips take the faith out of the classroom and out of the chapel. Through these opportunities they see faith at work in the real world. They experience the life of faith by working with religious and charitable professionals, but more importantly, they realize that their faith can only be real within community. Service opportunities and mission trips force the critical young adult into a community of faith, and the truth—that authentic Christianity is never individualistic becomes real.

This real-life experience of faith lived in community is vital for the development of Christian young adults. As they face the prospect of launching out into the world, they need real experiences as a testing ground. The initiation into adult life is daunting, but the transition is made easier as they realize that not only is there a loving and dynamic community ready to welcome them, but that community is necessary both for success in life and for the development of their faith.

Bringing It Home

Monsignor Giussani’s principles give a dynamic guiding principle to Catholic education. Our school is fortunate to have been recognized as one of the top Catholic high schools in the country, but this means more than simply turning out high test scores and getting graduates into good colleges. Our main aim is to produce young men and women who have embarked on the adventure of faith. One of the hallmarks of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy has been his emphasis on the need for an authentic encounter with Christ. Monsignor Giussani’s principles help us understand just how that can happen.

These same principles cannot succeed at school unless they are also used in the home. Many parents view the teenage years as difficult. They are usually so if the parents have not understood how the critical instinct is crucial to positive adolescent development. Oppressive parents continue to use methods that were appropriate for young children; they expect their teenagers to obey without question and to accept authority blindly. This is a recipe for disaster.

A good friend told me what problems he and his wife were having as their oldest son entered adolescence. They were trying to control everything in his life, and the boy was naturally kicking against the restraints. A priest who was a member of Communion and Liberation advised them to prepare the boy for freedom, to step back and let go. They discussed the principle of the critical instinct, and together tried to make the boy’s testing and criticism a positive experience. As if by magic, the boy’s attitude changed and he began to respond reasonably and responsibly. He developed his own disciplined life of prayer, began to discuss the possibility of a religious vocation, and successfully headed off to a Catholic university.

Much of Monsignor Giussani’s insight is expressed in the ancient wisdom of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The wise father granted his son freedom. That freedom was a risk for all, but it was only through that freedom that the son could eventually come to himself—while the son who stayed at home represents the child who responds with polite conformity.

If we are to teach teens, then we must be the faithful fathers in the story. We give them their inheritance, the Catholic Faith, and then we give them their freedom, and as they seek to verify the truth we accompany them, so that the adventure of their lives becomes an authentic encounter with the Lord of Life.


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