Teaching Catholic Character?

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

— W.B. Yeats

It’s nearly Labor Day, and people with children know what that means. The kids are going back to school. Some parents may even be sending their teens off to their first year of college. Whether the school is a Catholic one or not, it also – as teachers can well confirm – means something else: rampant cheating.

A young friend is in her second week teaching at a local Catholic high school. Her most difficult and mentally exhausting challenge (and her biggest surprise) has been the rampant cheating. In one case, an entire class received the answers for the daily quiz from someone who had taken it earlier in the day. Cheating on your ethics quiz is supposed to be ironic: the paradigm of bad behavior. But it has become, it seems, simply another example of standard operating procedure in the “game” of school.

In an important book entitled The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens after High School, Tim Clydesdale artfully compares the situation of teens as they transition out of high school to their sitting at a wobbly table, supported by two pedestals.

One pedestal represents the new economic realities of the global economy: outsourcing, short-term contracts rather than long-term employment, long hours are often expected of those with specialized advanced degrees.

The other pedestal represents American popular culture. The table is wobbly because the moral structure of the first pedestal is cracking and the new global economic realities operate on the second like a hydraulic lift that raises or lowers its end of the table capriciously.

“The teens who gather around this wobbly table find two items on it,” says Clydesdale. The first is what he calls an identity lockbox “into which they can place their critical religious, political, racial, gender, and class identities for safekeeping during the first year out (and beyond).” Teens also find on the table “a complex but engaging board game known as daily life management” – a game with myriad pieces and complicated rules: relationships with peers, family, and various authority figures; money to be earned, managed, and spent; social activities to choose and navigate; refueling requirements (food, clothing, and health).


Given the intensity of the game,” says Clydesdale, “its interactive nature, and the range of strategies one can apply as it is played,” the complex game of daily life management becomes the paramount focus of teens, and most “never give second thought to their use of the lockbox and forget its presence on the table.” As most high school and college teachers can attest, few teens indicate any real interest in intellectual or cultural engagement, because it would require “an exploration of the broader forces affecting teens’ focus on daily life management.”

As a result, most teens, while styling themselves “cultural rebels,” rarely question the basic presuppositions of mainstream culture. The identity lockbox “preserves teens’ mainstream American identity from intellectual or moral tampering that would put them out-of-step with the communities that shaped them or hinder their efforts to purse the achievement they have envisioned for themselves.” In short, they have been effectively insulated from the kind of education the best Catholic schools would seek to give them.

Why the rampant cheating? Because what American culture is increasingly teaching teens is that there are winners and losers: winners are gods and losers disappear into oblivion, never to be heard from again. (Olympics anyone? Professional sports? Does anyone even remember when something called “good sportsmanship” forbade taunting one’s opponent?) So it’s best to “win at any cost.”

Education is increasingly seen not as a means for developing meaningful skills, cultivating prudence, or broadening one’s moral outlook. It is simply another “system” to be gamed,” another piece on the board to be “managed.” Education is seen by teens, reports Clydesdale, “as a large bureaucracy to be wary of.” They know that it is “the standard pathway to occupational achievement,” but it is also “not a trusted institution beyond supplying necessary credentials.”

Students know they need something called “a degree,” but it represents nothing more than a ticket to something else, like buying a ticket to an amusement park ride. You pay the money; you go through sometimes painful motions (up, down, around, even upside down); and then you get your reward.

But what is your reward? You didn’t put forth any real effort, other than merely showing up and braving the roller coaster, so other than the shared feeling that “we got through this together,” what can teens expect at the other end? Nothing worth having can be gotten without discipline, and the word “discipline” comes from a Latin root suggesting someone who is “teachable.”

G.K. Chesterton distinguishes the practical man from the thinking man: “A practical man means a man accustomed to merely daily practices, to the way things commonly work. When things will not work, you must have the thinker, the man who has some doctrine about why they work at all.”

If the old order is increasingly breaking down (and it is), and if we can say about our coming age, what W. B. Yeats predicted about his, that “the centre cannot hold,” then we will need something more than the company men, the hollow men, the stuffed men, the “men without chests,” without a sense of wonder and why, produced by modern forms of “practical” education, whether it goes by the name “Catholic” or “public.”

Paying people money to teach your children without inculcating in them first the necessary character and desire to learn is like planting a rock in expensive soil and expecting it to grow. It won’t, no matter how expensive the soil.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.