(Also posted on GreatConversation(s))
There are a myriad of things which we can say about the current landscape of education. Living in Loudoun County, VA, we could focus on the “culture war” playing itself out at the school board meetings. Alternatively we could focus on the disconnect between secondary education and careers, in terms of college graduates finding themselves “failing to launch” and living back at home with their folks.
We could talk about those young adults, having launched, marrying later than they ever really imagined, feeling disappointment in their careers — if they have one—a lack of fulfillment in their relationships, disconnect from their communities. In the end, it would be hard not to come to one over-arching and inevitable conclusion: something has to change.
Where does the failure lie? Who is to blame? Schools? Families? The Church? Bad diet? Social media? Sin? Video Games?
Who knows, really. But what can we do about it? Maybe another “Great Awakening” is around the corner. Maybe these things have a tendency to simply work themselves out. Every generation seems to have a version of lament about “kids these days.”
The truth is that there is one place where we can look to try to make a real difference: High School.
High School is that magical place where the children gain all the functional abilities to become an adult, but without the Executive Function to do it in a way that doesn’t make us all a little bit anxious. Infinite possibilities and infinite diversity in infinite combinations all culminating in that glorious moment: when they turn 18 and they are no longer the legal responsibility of anyone but themselves.
So what would a high school look like if all it really focused on was making sure that at that monumental 18th birthday, the newly minted “adult” was in the best possible position to forge their path into the “real world”?
First, it would most certainly NOT focus on “career readiness”… mainly because there is a great likelihood that whatever given career the youngster intends to pursue, either their talents, their opportunities, or sheer circumstances will likely lead them somewhere completely unexpected, and that’s not always a bad thing (your humble author was supposed to be an astronomer).
Second, a properly focused secondary educational program would most likely NOT focus too much on the social “identity” aspects of their lives, as they are still in the process of understanding the own inclinations and personalities. Constant obsessions with identity in terms of groups or in terms of individualism has resulted in our current zeitgeist’s inculcation into modern youth an unspeakably harmful narcissism. This leads nowhere but disappointment.
Speaking of self discovery (and disappointment), this high school program would also certainly NOT be focused on a mission to “save the world” or to make “relevant contributions” to the world. Many life and career paths can seem very frustrating and unfulfilling, especially as it is measured up against the unrealistic (or unreal) profiles one is going to see on one’s friends’ Instagrams. Not everyone is going to be a marine biologist and save the whales, much less the planet from ecological catastrophes. Not everyone is going to cure cancer, fix world hunger, or end racism. Some will be thankful for having a job where they can help anyone or build anything or feel like they’re making a difference at all, even within their own small communities.
Rather, a “high school” education should work not on the future, or for that matter the past or even just being “present” and “in the now.” Instead it should be about the Permanent Things. Things that have lasted and will last. Character, wisdom, humility, and all the virtues of humanity which unfailingly make us good husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, service-minded bosses or employees, citizens and statesmen, thinkers, craftsmen, artists… human beings.
A real, modern, and successful high school experience should be concerned with developing strong communication skills — reading, writing, listening, thinking, and speaking — so as to prepare young adults to communicate with a variety of people in a variety of circumstances, wherever life takes them.
Lastly, an effective high school program should encourage students to focus less on saving the world and more on improving themselves. It should help them to work on their own strengths and challenges; to take the time and give proper attention to their souls, spirits, and their Creator, so that when they go out into the world, they can make it better by their witness, their example, their faith, and through confidence borne through humility and God’s grace.
All of us — mentors, parents, citizens, students — are in a position right now where we see the “system,” for lack of a better term, systematically failing us. But our community is stronger, more resilient, more permanent, and has no choice but to strive for something better.
And by “something better,” we don’t mean something theoretical. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be discussing a new — and old — approach to secondary education which will seek to forge a new path for a select set of teenagers. The program, set in Loudoun County, is the culmination of years of work, of deliberation, and no shortage of prayer, and comes at the time when we are most in need of good and affordable options.
We will be accepting between 10 and 30 students for the first year, and will give priority to freshmen and sophomores. If you are, have, or know of, a high school student who is ready to take on the high school years in a unique, rewarding, and thoughtful way that is respectful of teenagers’ time … then reach out to us as soon as you see this. Time is of the essence, possibly for your teen, but indeed for the country.