Teenagers believe that adults are good. This belief wreaks havoc on the teacher who is trying to instill a desire for virtue in his students.
Teenagers have believed this lie of the Devil: When I am older, I will read my Bible a whole lot more than I do now, and I will pray far more than I do now, as well.
Who can blame teenagers for believing this? Teenagers have been so often told by adults, “Read your Bible. It is very important to read your Bible and to pray every day. You will not be able to lead a good life if you neglect the Scriptures.” Teenagers have concluded, “If adults are so convinced that happiness and virtue comes by way of reading the Scriptures and praying, surely they read the Scriptures and pray.”
Teenagers assume that reading the Bible and praying become natural, effortless as a man grows old. Reading the Bible is somewhat dull, but adults have somewhat dull taste, so the Bible fits the taste of older people. For this reason, when adults say, “Pursue a life of virtue. Lust will ruin your life. Pride and envy will ruin your life,” teenagers think, “This is easy for you to say. You are an adult. It will be easy for me to avoid lust and pride and envy when I am old.”
In fact, if a man practices not reading his Bible and praying for the first eighteen years of his life, he will simply become good at not reading his Bible and praying. He will be a professional Bible non-reader, non-prayer.
Because teenagers believe adults are good, teenagers perceive most moral advice as self-serving. Adults are not teaching goodness, but their own simple way of life. Teenagers think adults lives are simple, but their own teenage lives complex. The life of a husband is grounded by the fact his wife and children depend on him. The life of the family depends on the mother and father in a way the life of the family does not depend on a teenager. The teenager also rightly understands that he may waste his virtue away and regain it later. A teenager caught doing drugs can make a full social recovery in a matter of months. A teacher caught doing drugs may never make a full social recovery. The teenager lacks a pressing material reason to be good, whereas the adult does not.
The teenager perceives the moral universe of the teacher as a thing apart. Adults are good. They speak their own language, a moralist language of easily obtainable virtues. When teenagers overhear adults speaking about teenagers, adults are amazed that teenagers are disobedient. Adults say, “I can’t believe one of the sophomores lied to me the other day,” and the teenager thinks, “How very naïve. We lie to you all the time. You are too innocent. You do not understand the dicey world of the teenager.” Adults say, “I don’t understand why you find it so hard to comply with the dress code,” and young men think, “You don’t understand? Are you daft? The dress code is a petty set of laws. Obeying the dress code will profit me nothing in overcoming the one, besetting sin of my life— the only sin for which I truly feel guilty— and that is the sin of lust. Nothing you ever talk about in class has anything to do with overcoming the temptation to lust. Until I can deal with lust and the shame I feel for lust, nothing from Jane Eyre or Hamlet or Frankenstein will really matter.”
Neither are adults afflicted by the confusion which attends the teenage fear of never marrying, the fear of getting fat, the fear of flunking out of college. Adults do not talk about the world of teenagers. Adults talk about the world of adults, and teenagers are tempted to think— even during a very good lecture or captivating discussion of Paradise Lost— that “Some of this might be really useful to remember in a few years. The adults are giving clues to use about the adult world.”
Small children are very excited about marrying what they learn in school with the world outside of school. They are delighted when the teacher describes condensation on a Tuesday and then they find condensation on the car window during the ride to school Wednesday morning. “Condensation!” the little first grader will cry. But a chasm opens up between the world of school and the real world some time around sixth or seventh or eighth grade. At this time, students begin amassing private information, insider information, “us only information,” and begin discussions from which they rigorously exclude adults. “Us information” trumps “them information.” The real business of school is the continuation and cultivation of “us only information” in the margins of class or during class. Class merely provides fodder for “us information,” for the conversation of forbidden subjects.
There is potential to begin bridging this chasm at tenth or eleventh or twelfth grade, though.
How does the teacher bridge this chasm?
The teacher must use the lectern as a confessional.
The teacher must dispel the teenager’s belief that adults are necessarily good people. The teacher must acknowledge his own struggle to heed the counsel of Austen, Boethius, and Burke. The teacher must not be a teacher, but a student. “You are not to be called teachers, because you have only one teacher, the Christ,” teaches the Christ. If the teacher makes himself a student and subjects himself to the moral exhortation and pious demands of his texts, the students will follow that teacher into the dangers of confession. The teacher will no longer speak a language apart from the students. The teacher will show his students how to be torn apart by a text and healed by a text. The teacher must perform this before the students. The students do not know how to be torn apart by the text because they have not been shown. The teacher cannot teach Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis and say, “This book really did a number on me when I read it for the first time years ago.” The book must do a number on the teacher today, as the book is taught. The teacher must be crucified on the lectern as the description of Francis’s life is transformed into moral imperative before the watching eyes of the student.
The teacher must take great care to not scandalize the students, though, and so the teacher must simultaneously present himself as a pitiful and desperate sinner, but also a moral authority. The teacher must carefully navigate the difference between revealing too much of himself and revealing too little of himself. Most teachers have erred on the side of revealing too little, though, and have believed that students will only take seriously those teachers who are morally upright. To be sure, the teacher will certainly think it safer to reveal too little. In revealing his own struggles, the teacher always runs the risk of normalizing sin, or simply mortifying himself.
However, Christianity has a long history of teachers who stand behind the cruciform lectern. In the Confessions, St. Augustine spares himself little dignity whilst describing his youth. I can think of precious few persons in high-profile ministerial positions today who seem capable of teaching and preaching, alongside St. Paul, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” The Gospel writers insist we encounter the earliest heroes of the Christian faith in all their selfishness and cowardice, but ours is a culture which prefers ministers to theoretically admit to sin, but not to investigate temptation from an interior point of view. We pass over Augustine’s “hissing cauldron of lust” as an overly purple profession. We are embarrassed by St. Peter’s cursing denial and his bitter tears.
But we may not be embarrassed of Peter or Augustine without risking our students will respond the same way. If we treat Peter’s cowardice and Augustine’s morbid introspection as separate issues from the pursuit of virtue, our students will take note. Their suspicions will be confirmed. They have nothing to do with us.