Why Schools Need Real Counselors

Here’s a wonderful story about St. Benedict’s, a boys’ preparatory school in New Jersey where the students–most of them from low-income black or Latino families–have a 98% graduation rate. The monks attribute their success to the fact that they have real counseling services–not just career counselors or academic counselors, but actual psychologists–who help the boys deal with anger management, depression, and lack of a father in their lives.

“The counseling center is critical,” said Father Edwin Leahy, a monk and the school’s headmaster, to the Huffington Post on Tuesday. “I don’t know how people do this work without attending to the kids spirits, psyche and heart. It’s very rare that cognition is the reason for poor academic performance in our experience — frequently it’s emotional distress.”

 

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What a Catholic approach! They’re educating and healing the whole person–not just the mind or the soul, but the brain, the psyche, the emotions. They’re not just assuming that a good education and a good spiritual life will solve all problems. As I have written many times, Catholics often fail to understand that psychological problems can be different than spiritual ones. Prayer can heal, for sure, but we’re more than just souls, and sometimes our minds need healing too. You wouldn’t rely on prayer alone to fix a physical problem; God doesn’t want you to leave your mental problems untreated either. I have seen firsthand, in college, what happens when you take young people with depression or an unhealthy past, expose them to heady ideas and philosophies, and offer nothing but hard academic work and daily Mass to deal with their psychological problems. They go off the deep end.

I recently received a fundraising letter from my alma mater, which emphasized the way that the college defied the trend of hypersensitive “safe spaces” and “microagressions” and instead formed independent and strong men and women. So far so good; but the president of the college lost me when he listed, under the heading of emasculating demands that the ivy league made, “free mental health support.” Opposed to this he listed “daily Mass and sacraments,” as if the two were mutually exclusive. Now, it may be mostly the “free” part that the president was balking at; but the fact remains that he considers mental health support a symptom of the entitlement society, rather than a crucial part of care for the whole person. This is a dangerous and foolish way to treat the education of young men and women. May more schools follow the example of St. Benedict’s, and show their students God’s loving care for us–mind, body, and soul.

 

Photo: Boy carrying brother by wyammadison on Flickr (license)

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What We Have a Right to Expect from College

My goodness, my liberal arts rant generated a bit more controversy than I was expecting.  A few thoughts, in response to comments:

  • I didn’t mean to attack the liberal arts.  I love the liberal arts.  I just don’t think they should be taught to the exclusion of everything else.  If you want to teach Euclid, fine.  Euclid is gorgeous.  But please throw some more practical math in there, too.  (I personally had to weep my way through set theory and Aristotle’s logic.  Gargh.)  If you want to teach science as “natural history,” from a theological or Aristotelian point of view, that’s nice.  But throw in the basics of modern science too, please.  If you want your students to do a lot of writing, that’s wonderful!  But why don’t you add in a little bit of proofreading, editing, formatting, and computer skills while you’re at it?
  • I think it’s very important to remember that your job and your vocation are not necessarily the same thing.  You may have a vocation to be a scholar, or your vocation may partly involve a love for and study of the classics; but you may not be able to make a living that way.  Not only is it okay if it turns out that way, but it’s fine to plan for an unrelated career, and fit your studying in on the side.  In my opinion, because my alma mater really pushed the idea that our vocation was to be academics–almost to the exclusion of being anything else, like someone with a non-academic job, or a Christian–they encouraged students in pipe dreams of making their living in academia.
  • Some people objected that preparing students for a career is not the job of a liberal arts school.  A few people suggested that parents should be responsible for real-world skills, and that we shouldn’t expect the school to raise our kids for us.  I agree that no matter what resources the school offers, a lot of it is up to your personal effort, personality, hard work, and connections.  However, I don’t think that all parents are able to give their children preparation for the job market, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable of them to ask the school to do that, even if it is a liberal arts school.  (Especially a Catholic school!  Catholics are supposed to care about educating the whole person–mind, body, and soul–and preparing students to be integrated, well-rounded witnesses to the world.)  I also think it’s unrealistic to expect a kid fresh out of high school to really know what he wants to do with his career.  That’s why I intend to keep track of my children’s interests and talents and suggest career paths for them.  They can begin with something that seems like a good bet, through trade school or community college, and then continue on to liberal arts if they want.  That way, if they change their minds about what they want to make their life’s work, they will have much less debt than if they had gone straight into college; and their initial training will give them a way to pay the bills until they figure out what they really want to do.
  • I also just wanted to add that my post was not intended to be a screed against the student loan system.  I see a lot of anger out there about greedy lenders charging crippling interest rates, and graduates being crushed by debt.  But regardless of how the system is set up, I did agree to incur that debt.  I don’t have much sympathy for the Occupy Wall Street types who feel like they’re being persecuted because they owe lots of money but can’t find jobs with their puppetry degrees.  I’d just like to see colleges, students, and parents put a little more forethought into career planning.  Is a 17 year old really mature enough to understand what it means to incur that much debt, and to make a realistic career plan?  Not usually.
  • One last point–I’m not very knowledgeable about economics, but it seems like a college degree is worth a lot less than it used to be.  There are so many college graduates out there, and so few jobs.  My husband applied for a low-paying teaching job at a private Catholic school a few years ago, and he was competing with about 30 other applicants, several of whom had masters’ degrees, and one who was a PhD.  One more thing to consider before you pay for a college education!  Here’s a good article about the worth of a 4-year college degree in today’s economy.
  • So far I’ve heard from alumni of Thomas Aquinas College in CA, University of Dallas, and Thomas More College in NH.  I’d love to hear more stories!

Would You Like Fries With That?

When I went to a small, Catholic liberal arts high school, my Euclid teacher, Mr. L., used to tell us that proponents of the liberal arts were often scoffed at for preparing students to live in a cave, not to encounter the real world.  Then he would gleefully proclaim that his main goal in teaching was to prepare us for that cave.  None of those mercenary, servile arts for us!  We weren’t being prepared to do anything so ignoble as make a living.  We were studying beauty, truth and goodness for their own sake.

My college’s former president, on the other hand, Dr. S., was rather sadistically fond of this joke: “What question are liberal arts students most likely to ask after graduation?”  “Do you want fries with that?”  Ha ha!  As a political science major working part time at a supermarket, that one isn’t so funny anymore.

Looking back, I’m not sorry that I pursued liberal arts all the way through college.  In addition to the enrichment it brought to my faith and the wonderful people it brought into my life, college taught me how to write well, how to speak clearly and persuasively, and how to research and make public presentations.  It didn’t teach me how to get a job, and I wasn’t expecting it to.  But looking back, I really wish it had.

Instead of glorifying in its “uselessness,” my alma mater’s current tactic is to promise prospective students that employers will be lining up to hire them after graduation, not because of their job skills, but because their classically-trained minds will be an asset in any industry.  They feature stories of alumni who have gone on to earn advanced degrees and succeed in various professions, all beginning with a degree in literature or philosophy.  They do not make it clear that these people are the exception, not the rule.  They do not feature stories like my husband, who needed to support a family immediately after graduating, and found out that he needed to go through a long, exhausting, and expensive graduate program to do so; or my friend J., who wanted to pursue a medical degree, but had to first add many basic science courses to his already-heavy college course load, to make up for the lack of science in our liberal arts curriculum; or my friend M., who was unmarried and pursued his love of theology through grad school, but found himself afterwards with not much more of a career plan, but a lot more debt.  Or you could end up like many of my friends, who found a satisfying job in writing or teaching, but still had to deal with the fact that it didn’t really pay enough to easily support a family or pay back student loans.

Now look, if my kids feel a calling to the liberal arts, I’m not going to stop them.  I think it’s a wonderful thing.  But I’m going to encourage them to take a year off first and get their LNA, or their HVAC certification, or learn a foreign language.  If they end up at a liberal arts college, I want to make sure it will give them some real career advice, instead of assuming that they’re just going to be perpetual students.  I don’t ever want to see them unable to buy a house or have another child, or have to work 3 jobs, because of crippling student loan debt.  I also want them to know that there’s nothing wrong with a job that’s not intellectual!  There’s nothing wrong with a job that’s boring, or manual, or technical, or unimaginative.  As Christians, we’re supposed to strive to sanctify any work we do, whether it’s “meaningful” employment or not.

In this economy especially, schools are doing kids a grave disservice by either encouraging them to dream about living in romantic poverty and writing poetry, or lying to them about the job prospects of someone who spent the last four years writing essays on philosophy but who never learned to write a resume.  I’m grateful for the lovely things that the liberal arts filled my mind with, but I think it’s possible to have it both ways.  Here’s hoping that my alma mater will realize this by the time my kids are old enough.

I’d love your feedback on this!  If you went to a liberal arts school, did it prepare you for a career?  Do you regret doing liberal arts?  Do you regret going to college at all?  What are you plans for your kids?