This article was previously published in Sword and Spade magazine.
R.J. Snell, father and scholar, acknowledges that moms do a lot of the teaching, but dads have a pivotal role, still.
Leon Kass opens his book Leading a Worthy Life by noting the sad truth that our society has produced “a world prosperous beyond all previous imaginings” even as “this world, with every passing decade, has become ever more spiritually impoverished. That war on poverty is the great unfinished task before us.” That is, many have fat wallets but thin souls, suffering from a spiritual poverty so profound that its dehumanizing effects are now thought normal, as if the loss of God is simply how things are and ought to be.
When a child neither knows nor loves God, he is adrift, like one floating through space, unable to distinguish up from down, forward from backward. He might move his arms and legs frantically, clawing now this way and that, full of movement and effort, but it lacks direction—it is pointless. This is so even if that child is rewarded for his frenzied movement with accolades, awards, and admission to the best colleges and law schools. All the glitter, without an orientation to the divine, is pointless.
Kass suggests that we have become “supercompetent when it comes to efficiency, utility, speed, convenience, and getting ahead in the world; but we are at a loss concerning what it’s all for.” In part, he continues, this is because “cynical public intellectuals” run “around undermining belief in the gods and in traditional mores.” “Young people are out to sea” — I used the image of adrift in space — “regarding work, family, and civic identity. Authority is out to lunch.… Irony is in the saddle, and the higher cynicism mocks any innocent love of wisdom or love of country.”
If Kass is correct, it explains why contemporary education seems not just pointless but a hurried, harried, frenzied mess. Doing more for more’s sake, with boasts that Timmy can read by four (even if the books ruin his imagination) and do algebra by 4th grade (even if Timmy doesn’t know how to pray).
Increasingly, many students know this is pointless. A few years ago, William Deresciewicz warned “the nation’s top colleges are turning our kids into zombies.” While they were bright, accomplished, and well-credentialed, he suggests that if we “look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment,” what we’ll often find “are toxic levels of fear…, emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.” As Mark Shiffman describes it, contemporary students are “majoring in fear.” They know the adults are asking them to do more, faster, in an arms race of education.
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has Screwtape (a demon) repeatedly advise his underlings to keep humans away from real things (a helpful intro to The Screwtape Letters is on page 18). Rather than living in the present moment with its present joys, the demons keep humans “perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel where-with to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered to them in the Present.” Does that not sound like the education on offer at so many schools? Always studying for an exam which is yet to come, with that exam serving some other distant, future purpose? The point is never to read and enjoy this book, but always some future possibility. This frog to catch, this poem in which to delight are all scuttled for the sake of a future which is not present, not real in the here and now.
In one famous passage, Screwtape insists that humans ought not ever be allowed the real and genuine pleasures of innocent realities: “make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people he likes, but in conversation with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. Keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room.” He rebukes one junior demon, noting, “you first of all allowed the patient to read a book he really enjoyed, because he enjoyed it and not in order to make clever remarks about it to his new friends.… The characteristic of pains and pleasures is that they are unmistakenly real, and therefore, as far as they go, give the man who feels them a touchstone of reality.”
I’m suggesting that many children are educated in a system which promotes a frenzy of accomplishment without ever lifting their eyes to their final end, and that they are being educated in abstractions, without a hook into concrete reality. Such education is worse than pointless, for it also harms. The good news, however, is that fathers are especially well-equipped to help their children precisely where the school systems are failing. Fathers, just now, are presented with a remarkable opportunity to help their children.
We ought to admit the truth: most children are directed in faith and education at mother’s knee. Like most dads, I am very much in the passenger seat when it comes to the education of my children. (We homeschool, but this is the case for those using more traditional schools as well.) I promise to teach subjects or topics I know and which the curriculum somewhat misses, but my work is taxing, there are bills to pay, and so I teach in fits and starts, sometimes with weeks in between. If mom taught the way I taught, the kids would be feral. That’s alright. My task, your task — the father’s task — even then, is to provide a way of life and an attitude towards life. It is a true element of education.
How? I make two broad suggestions, both antidotes to the failures of contemporary education.
First, dads provide a hook into reality. Make sure to offer real books, real nature, real ideas, real dancing. The young, who want meaning, who want purpose, will look for it and find it if we give them the real. Some dads are readers and teachers and scholars — great, give your kids real books, living books, books which take them into real adventures. Other fathers prefer the outdoors to the library. That’s good, too. Let them see real birds, touch real fish, an actual deer antler, get too close to a skunk. Try to catch an actual reptile. (How I remember trying to capture a porcupine, and the terror and sweat of my youthful effort.) The twang of a bow. Or, if that’s not your thing: feel oil from a motor, the bite of a saw into real wood. Or the crack of hickory on hide or the feel of a hard tackle (not just from the stands or on the screen), the feel of wind in the sail, the creak and smell of leather on a horse. Children have videos and mediated, curated experiences, but they should smell the tang of blood, taste the tang of salt water, feel the tug of a fish at the end of the line. Anything honest and decent which gets them into reality. God sustains all real things, all real things hang in existence by God’s favor and agency, and a study of reality cannot but be a study of God, in some way.
Second, adventure. Ask moms about dad putting kids to bed. Everyone is quiet, teeth brushed, in pajamas, and then dad decides it is time for…an adventure. Dads in their masculine lumbering ways are adventurous. The kids are getting crushed by the educational arms race, with souls paper thin. Thicken them with some adventure. I don’t just mean a vacation somewhere; we’re not spending our way into fat-souled children. I mean a sporting attitude to life. The sense that there is more than success — that life is a challenge, fun, amazing, dangerous. A healthy sense that an A+ just isn’t the ultimate goal. Frankly, too many kids, and too many boys, are a little fussy and a little downtrodden. Some need to have their sense of adventure awoken, and fathers are uniquely suited for this.
Safety, security, comfort, guarantees, these are not what we’re after. Because we are made for transcendence, we are restless and slightly discontent. Every parent wants their children to be happy; the temptation is to think that happiness is attained when a child is satisfied with herself and her lot. That’s not right. Happiness, for us, this side of the Kingdom, is experienced as movement, dynamism, growth, restlessness, yearning, unease. We are still strangers and sojourners, and nothing will guarantee unhappiness so much as wanting to be settled and fixed and comfortable, at ease. That’s spiritual death, spiritual poverty. Spiritual richness, on the other hand, is a searching.
These two things, freedom and restlessness, are what I mean by the adventure of life. A real education places us in a very large room, a room in which there is space to move and seek and peruse, but a room so large as to point beyond itself, yonder, to that which is nearest to us and yet not possessed. Caring fathers want their children to have a kind of holy discontent, a sanctified restlessness, and do everything possible to allow their children to have the great adventure of life. Too much schooling seeks security, esteem, accomplishments, laurels, and guarantees. There aren’t any, because we are meant for something far more meaningful and hopeful.
dads have it
In our time, many children are suffering, even children from wonderful families with excellent parents, because their education has removed the meaning of life, erased the hooks into reality, and replaced them with an Olympian version of education — faster, higher, stronger. Fathers, whether heavily involved in the formal schooling of their children or not, are well-equipped by both grace and nature for the very needs of the moment. Get kids into reality. Take them on an adventure, and give them a sporting attitude to life. These are our gifts, and we ought to use them. Besides, it’s fun.