Thursday, February 03, 2011

You have made us...

The first section I cover with my freshmen addresses what some might call their 'existential' condition; normal people, I reckon, would simply say that we start the course by investigating what it means to be human. Part of being human, our textbook suggests and our in-class conversations corroborate, means that we are filled with deep longings and yearnings. Over the last few weeks, I cannot help but marvel at how well  Saint Augustine captures this visceral hunger: "...you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

This is the best word to describe my freshmen: restless. They are, as a wise Jesuit teacher expresses it, "all boy." They fidget. They are easily distracted. They are curious about everything. They hold nothing back. Each day I need to come up with some new way of keeping them focused: a review game using a Nerf gun, having them tie their ties around their heads like Rambo, journal writing, note-taking, class discussion, visual aids, the use of "answer cat" who gets thrown around and held when someone is answering a question, stories of Father Peppard's exploits, bitter diatribes and the capybara, and the use of a puppet I named "Wisdom Wolf." Their restlessness encourages, or forces, me to adapt and stay on my toes. Their restless, I should like to think, points to their deep longings...although, in the age we live in, this longing often gets labeled as ADD!

I bring this up because, I fear, we are afraid of our students' restlessness. We expect our kids, from the age of five and six, to sit up, sit still, and behave. We have jettisoned recess because we're afraid of lawsuits and we have watered down PE because we don't want any hurt feelings or embarrassment. "School time" is measurable time, able to be quantified and tested, and if an activity or program doesn't produce testable results...then is it worth doing? This leads me to wonder if our educational system doesn't suppress the natural hunger for the infinite and substitutes a form of intellectual tube-feeding of a tasteless, albeit sufficiently nutritious, supplement? Our kids desire a feast...and what do we give them?

I love that my niece Emma asks "why" about everything. She is infinitely curious about the world around her. She's unafraid to get dirty, to explore, to use her imagination in order to investigate. Her questioning opens up for her new adventures. It sickens me that in just a few years she may lose this curiosity: good girls take notes quietly, good boys sit still. Good girls don't dig in the mud...good girls don't try to build bridges....good girls don't.......

Soon, I fear, Emma will enter the "Control-F" generation completely. She'll stop asking interesting or imaginative questions and simply pull up documents and books on the computer, hit Control-F, and find the word or phrase that gives her the answer she needs to fill in the blank or bubble. Emma won't have to read deeply or widely, won't risk stumbling upon a new insight or idea, because she'll just Control-F and find the answer...not any new questions. She seems to be a clever little girl and, I hope, she'll find a lot of answers to fill in a lot of bubbles and if she gets many of them right, she'll go to college where she'll learn how to....find answers and fill in more bubbles because, as we are seeing, filled-in bubbles that measure our education tell us how educated we are.

Is there a bubble for beauty? For imagination? A bubble that says, "my restlessness impels me to seek, to explore, to discover"? Probably not, because we can't measure or test or examine this. I'm afraid for Emma and for Quinn (my nephew) because I don't want them to lose their restlessness, their inquisitiveness, their spirits of adventure.

When religious adults criticize others for being "spiritual, but not religious" I'm finding that I'm not sympathetic. If I am right that we are seeing the burgeoning of the Control-F Generation, then these are kids who are finding that the major religions don't give them easy answers to the questions on their hearts and minds. Why is there evil? Why is there suffering? Where is God? These aren't questions that have a bubble to fill in so, without knowing how to ask adventurous questions, they are ignored. The spiritual restlessness, however, remains...

Forgive me if what I write this day is a bit inchoate. I'm trying to sort out my own thoughts on several issues: the restless nature of my students, the trend of people saying "Spiritual, not religious," the state of education in our country. My title for our students - the Control-F Generation - seems to be a neologism...at least, I can't find it anywhere on-line (when I put it into Google, at least). As an uncle to both and a godfather to Quinn, I can only hope that I will be able to exercise enough influence on them to continue to be restless, to ask the big questions, and to grapple with the ineffable mysteries of life and creation. My own restlessness leads me to encourage my own students to settle for no easy answers and push on, to push further, to probe deeper, so that they are never idle or satisfied. My own restlessness which drives me to ask "Why?" leads me to praise the author of Creation and gives me hope that one day I shall bury my questioning heart in the bosom of the Creator who has given me a heart that yearns to know, a restless spirit that, with each question asked, draws me closer and closer to God.
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