Going back to school this week? Here’s some advice from generations of America writers.
Summer is over! At least it is for the vast majority of schoolchildren creeping like snails unwillingly to school this week, as well as for the legions of teachers from kindergarten through university who are beginning a new semester. For parents, the end of summer can be a mixed bag—on the one hand, thank God the kids are back in the classroom; on the other, with how many half-days and back-to-school shopping trips can August disrupt other routines? For the teachers, well, they’re putting a smile on their faces and reassuring us all they’re delighted, delighted to be back.
Over the years, America’s contributors have offered much advice to readers about what to expect from the new school year. Those range from many, many essays on childhood education by men with no children to rather more helpful reminders of what is important for educators, children and parents alike. We still like the topic—our latest foray into this oeuvre was just last summer, with Marquette University theology professor Ryan Duns, S.J., offering “21 tips for new teachers from a Jesuit educator.”
“Contrary to popular stereotypes, teenagers are not shallow. They just don’t know they are deep…yet,” Father Duns wrote.
“Contrary to popular stereotypes, teenagers are not shallow. They just don’t know they are deep…yet,” Father Duns wrote. “It’s your responsibility to uncover latent gifts and hidden depths. They’re there.” At the same time, he had some blunt advice for teachers trying too hard to earn their students’ affection and attention: “Do not make them the center of your life, because you are not the center of their lives.”
Pope Francis made the list as well: In 2018, he spoke to the Italian Association of Catholic Teachers, encouraging them to build alliances with the families of their students for mutual support. The educational “pact” that once existed among the state, schools and parents must be restored, he wrote. “But even before that, foster a new ‘conspiracy’—and I am fully aware of this wording—between teachers and parents,” Francis wrote. Educators and parents should not have an adversarial relationship, but should put themselves “in the other’s shoes, understanding the real difficulties both sides face today in education, and thus creating greater solidarity, a supportive collusion.”
One of my America favorites is more than 90 years old: a 1932 essay, “Rules for Fond Parents,” by Paul L. Blakely, S.J. Along with eight helpful rules for parents and teachers, Father Blakely presented some vivid images of what education is and isn’t. “The job of educating a child would be simple enough if it were a kind of trespassing. With the lid of the skull lifted, and the necessary knowledge and culture neatly packed in by skilled fingers, the patient could be left to nature and the hope of a speedy recovery,” he wrote. “But education is not so simple. With some pupils, it seems to be very much like looking into a dark room at midnight for a black cat that isn’t there.”
Nor, Father Blakely wrote, was education like “baking these new patent biscuits, where nothing is required but ten minutes in the oven at 100 degrees, and then serve. You don’t know how long, when the biscuit is a boy or girl, and you don’t know at what degree, because you are never sure about the dough.”
Eighty-four years later, frequent America contributor Ellen K. Boegel reminded readers that “[e]ducation is a cooperative venture. School administrators, faculty and staff cannot achieve the difficult task of creating learning communities that are safe and open without help. No one is a bystander.” Before you or your kids go back to school, Ms. Boegel recommended, learn the institution’s rules and regulations—it will save you a lot of agita in the future.
James Martin, S.J.: "You don’t have to know it all now, or decide it all now, and even after you decide, you can change, and even do some U-turns, like St. Ignatius did."
While it may not fall strictly into the category of advice, Elizabeth Grace Matthew offered her thoughts on secondary education just last week in America. Her hot take? The beloved Robin Williams film “Dead Poets Society” gets pretty much everything wrong about teaching teenagers.
“The problem? The film’s fictional Keating and his real-life counterparts—who now dominate secondary and post-secondary education—mostly poison the young people whose intellectual and spiritual thirst they mean to quench,” Ms. Matthew writes. She continues:
When Keating is confronted by Dalton’s headmaster, Mr. Nolan, and questioned about his unorthodox teaching methods, he replies that he “always thought the idea of educating was to learn to think for yourself.” What Nolan says in response includes what are meant to be the most villainous and regressive lines of the film: “At these boys’ ages! Not on your life. Tradition, John. Discipline. Prepare them for college, and the rest will take care of itself.”
All reductions to absurdity and excesses notwithstanding, the fictional Nolan has it right.
Last but not least, we have a contribution from America’s editor at large, James Martin, S.J. (his new book is out! You can buy it here), from 2016, offering advice to new students at Jesuit colleges and universities. Among his nuggets of wisdom? Make good decisions—but don’t panic if you don’t always get it right on the first try:
So many decisions might seem overwhelming now, but God gives you the ability to make good, healthy and life-giving decisions. You can rely on wisdom from your family, from good friends, from your religious traditions, whatever they may be, and you also have God’s working within you, moving you to avoid things that are bad and embrace things that are good. And again, you don’t have to know it all now, or decide it all now, and even after you decide, you can change, and even do some U-turns, like St. Ignatius did.
Paul L. Blakely, S.J., in 1932: “Education is not so simple. With some pupils, it seems to be very much like looking into a dark room at midnight for a black cat that isn’t there."
In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.
Other Catholic Book Club columns:
- Vatican II’s secret priest-journalist: The story of Xavier Rynne
- The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison
- The America editor who ruined nuclear fallout shelters forever
- The mystery of Thomas Merton’s death—and the witness of America magazine’s poetry editor
- Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)
- Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review
James T. Keane