HEADMASTER: Thanks for meeting with me. We need to discuss your daughter’s senior thesis proposal.
DAD: Yes, her mother and I are quite excited for her. I think it will prove a project where the entire school, even the faculty and board, learns a lot.
HEADMASTER: Could you tell me in your own words what your daughter’s thesis is?
DAD: Maeve has proposed an argument in favor of suicide. The thesis statement she gave to her advisor is: Suicide is morally and theologically allowable.
HEADMASTER: I cannot allow a student to make such an argument. She’s going to have to choose something else.
DAD: Has she told you about her proofs yet? Her arguments?
HEADMASTER: She has. However, arguments are beside the point.
DAD: Arguments are beside the point. Interesting. How come?
HEADMASTER: This is a Christian school and Christianity has a rather long tradition of condemning suicide.
DAD: But what about her arguments? Her arguments come from classical thinkers and Christian thinkers. She’s referencing Augustine, Dante, Goethe. There’s a strong biblical component to her argument, as well, with very carefully interpreted passages from Judges and I Kings. Doesn’t her argument matter?
HEADMASTER: Not really. This is a school, sir, and Maeve will present her thesis to a large group of her peers. I can’t have an intelligent, well-liked student—a model student, really—tell high school freshmen that God doesn’t mind if they kill themselves.
DAD: But her arguments—
HEADMASTER: She may have come up with a very sophisticated way of arguing in favor of suicide, but suicide is wrong. It’s not up for debate.
DAD: There’s nothing in the school statement of faith about suicide, though.
HEADMASTER: Maybe there should be. Look, I have to admit that I’m surprised that Maeve of all people would want to make such an argument. Doesn’t your family attend a Latin Mass Catholic church?
DAD: We do. Maeve regularly takes jabs from her classmates about it, too.
HEADMASTER: What would your priest think if he heard your daughter was arguing in favor of suicide?
DAD: I don’t think he would be too happy.
DAD: Maeve never intended to present a thesis to her peers on the moral allowability of suicide.
HEADMASTER: Then why did she write this proposal?
DAD: Well, sometimes people propose to do one thing as a way of accomplishing something completely different. Like when Solomon commanded that an infant be cut in half. He ordered it, but he didn’t want it.
HEADMASTER: Then what does Maeve actually want to her write her thesis about?
DAD: Education. Classical education, actually. She wants to investigate the claim that this school teaches students “how to think, not what to think,” which she hears all the time. And which is all over the school website.
HEADMASTER: She wants to investigate it?
DAD: Yes, because she doesn’t think it’s true. She believes that students at this school are taught what to think and how to think—and she wants to argue that a good education involves teaching students both how and what to think.
HEADMASTER: So why did she first propose to write her thesis on the moral allowability of suicide?
DAD: Research. Research to help prove her point. You don’t care how elegant, sophisticated, and well-cited an argument in favor of suicide is. It can’t be argued at this school. The how doesn’t matter, only the what. If this school only cared for teaching students how to think, there could be no objection to an elegant, sophisticated, well-cited argument for suicide. But you do care about the what of an argument, as well, and the long haul of Christian history has determined a good deal of the what—far more of the what, in fact, than modern Christians commonly admit. Honestly, I’m very glad a well-researched argument in favor of suicide is being shut down. Some things aren’t up for debate. Many things aren’t up for debate, in fact.
HEADMASTER: But Maeve’s point is particularly angled at this school, though.
DAD: A good many classical Christian schools claim to teach students “how, not what.”
HEADMASTER: What does Maeve think she can gain from arguing this?
DAD: In her time at this school, Maeve has seen many teachers get squeamish about coming down hard on moral, cultural, theological, and aesthetic issues. When a student asks a significant question about what is right and wrong, good or bad, pious or impious, teachers present both sides, back off, and tell students they have to choose. And Maeve sees her classmates choosing bad positions over and over again, which is why she believes her classmates need more what and less how.
HEADMASTER: I’ll grant that students need to be taught what to think, but only to a certain extent. And if I told prospective parents that their children would be taught “what to think,” they’d regard it as an open admission the school was authoritarian and propagandistic. The very idea of “teaching people what to think” is widely regarded as fascist and cultish.
DAD: Yes, any culture which wants to democratize the truth will believe that, but a classical education isn’t a democracy. It’s a hierarchy. It’s an arrangement of greater to lesser glory. The idea that this school teaches students “how to think, not what” might get more people enrolled, but that doesn’t make it right. Look, Maeve isn’t going to argue we should do away with logic classes and rhetoric classes. Her argument is that you can’t teach students how to think without also teaching them what to think. The two simply go together.
HEADMASTER: She wants her teachers to be more opinionated?
HEADMASTER: Won’t parents be upset if their children are definitively taught things their families don’t believe?
DAD: As a Latin Mass Catholic sending his children to a Protestant school, it’s never been a problem for me. I would rather my children have teachers with strong backbones who occasionally say things I disagree with than wishy-washy teachers who live in fear of getting yelled at.
2 thoughts on “A Tough Conversation About Suicide”
Well said and executed. It’s okay to stand for things that are of value and not back down.