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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Making Decisions out of Fear and Guilt

Here’s a wonderful article, from the blog A Knotted Life, about how to be at peace with your decision to not homeschool.  My husband and I were both homeschooled for many years, and we’re very grateful for it; but we’ve decided to send our oldest child to kindergarten this fall.  I had always assumed that I’d homeschool, but the closer it got, the more I panicked.  I love teaching my son, and I had happily anticipated all the fun homeschooling we’d do–the field trips, the nature walks, the crafts, the science projects–but I had to reconcile myself to the fact that I am just not up for it right now.  With a small, crowded apartment, a busy schedule, and a toddler and a newborn, I knew that our homeschooling days would be filled with tears and yelling; and more importantly, I knew myself well enough to know that I was prime bait for homeschooling guilt.  I also knew that, if my son turned out anything like his parents, he would need a lot of help overcoming social awkwardness, and he wasn’t going to get it being homeschooled by us.  (I’m not trying to perpetuate the “homeschoolers don’t do socialization” myth here, but it’s important to note that, while most homeschoolers are socialized just fine, some really aren’t–and that includes me and my husband.)

Even after realizing all these things, I still felt compelled to homeschool.  Most of my friends are homeschoolers, and of course I’ve heard all the public school horror stories; so I felt horribly defensive any time it came out in conversation that I was considering public school.  I escaped this mindset mostly through the example of my sister, who wrote about her decision to stop homeschooling here, and chronicled some of her kids’ positive experiences with public school here; but it was only recently that I made a final and peaceful decision about it.  I realized that I had been feeling forced to choose homeschooling out of fear and guilt.  Instead of thinking of homeschool and public school as two neutral options to choose from, depending on my family’s situation, my son’s personality, and the quality of our local schools, I was thinking of homeschool as the default thing, the really good and wonderful thing, and public school as the not-so-great option I could choose only if I had reallyreallyreally good reasons.  Once I removed fear from the equation, I realized that my reasons for choosing public school were more than valid.

I have recently realized that many other parenting decisions I’ve made have been made out of fear.  I had always heard so much about how modern society fears the sacrifice and lack of independence that comes with having children, and how many people contracept because they are afraid of what parenthood will do to their lives; but I also realized that the opposite problem is possible too: I was afraid to even entertain the idea of having a small family, because I was so afraid that I would be judged, or I would not be living up to my faith.

Now obviously, fear can be a healthy thing, when we’re talking about fear of something intrinsically evil: fear of sin, fear of Hell, fear of offending God.  But when we’re talking about a decision that is morally neutral in itself, such as the decision to have another child, it is not okay to be motivated by fear.  Fear of falling short of the ideal picture of motherhood in my head led me to choose breastfeeding over formula, even when breastfeeding was becoming a problem for my health and my family dynamic; it led me to resist painkillers during childbirth, even when they wouldn’t have hurt the baby, and they probably would have helped me calm down; and it led me to feel horrible guilt over my inability to even imagine having a large family.  Only recently have I realized that I should not let guilt be the deciding factor in the way I live my life.  (And I’m not saying that I don’t feel guilty anymore!  Just that now, usually, I recognize it for the seductive falsehood that it is.)

These realizations probably have less to do with my spiritual state than with the fact that, 3 kids into this, I don’t really have the energy left for any unnecessary guilt.  The hell with it.  And let me tell you, nothing feels so good as stepping out of the box that you have guilted yourself into and finding out that you–not the internet, or the tricks your mind plays on you, or the perceived judgement of your peers–know what is best for you.

P.S.–when I was re-reading my sister’s articles, I discovered one more that pretty much says what I’m saying here, except probably better. Here it is.

 

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!