Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sickening Feeling

Over the last two weeks, I have watched with an increasing feeling of dread and disgust the unfolding of the most recent crisis related to sexual abuse of minors in Philadelphia. For excellent coverage and some of the emotional toll it has taken on its author, I encourage you to read Rocco Palmo's brilliant blog Whispers in the Loggia

Just today, an old friend of mine wrote to tell me that he was unable to consider himself Catholic. His anguish over what has been unfolding over these years has crept so far into his soul that he cannot see himself offering his heart any longer to the Roman Catholic Church. I understand his pain and I can appreciate his decision, even if I do not agree with it. He will be in my prayers, though, and I trust God will lead him where he needs to go. I trust God to lead our leaders, too, although I sometimes wonder if they don't put up more of a fight than many of the flock.

Philosophical Investigations and the Control-F Generation

I have the terrible habit of reading multiple books at any one time. At this moment, I'm working through three different texts: Being and Time, Sources of the Self, and the Philosophical Investigations. Heidegger's Being and Time is on my nightstand, Taylor's Sources of the Self is in my book bag, and Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations is...well, in the bathroom (be glad for me that I'm reading it and refrain from asking me to borrow it).

As I continue to reflect on the meaning and nature of what I have taken to calling the "Control-F Generation" and its relationship to religious practice, it occurs to me that Wittgenstein's text may be a helpful guide.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Dispatches from an Observer of the Control-F Generation

I’ve spent the last several days up on Mackinac Island with a group of four U of D Jesuit seniors and several adults leading a Kairos retreat for a group of students who live here on the island. This has been a great experience as it has given me a chance to know the students and colleagues in a new way and to bring the gifts and graces of Kairos to another group of students.
I’ve been reflecting over the last few weeks on what I’ve dubbed the “Control-F Generation.” The act of naming a generation serves merely to provide a cipher that offers one handle among many as a way of grasping something that is unique to or characteristic of a group. “Control-F” is more descriptive than, say, “Generation X” in that it indicates in its title something observable: the desire to find answers quickly, even at the detriment of feeding or developing one’s intellectual curiosity. The mindset seems to be, “There is too much information out there to get my mind around, so rather than sift through it I want the easy answer, now, so that I can move on with my life.”

If my description is accurate, if I have caught an element of their intellectual and affective lives, this is not meant to be an indictment. Observing students and being attentive to media reports, it does seem to me that there is a premium placed on “getting the right answers” rather than asking or framing the right questions. The emphasis placed on standardized tests has only served to bolster the belief that our intellectual prowess and ability is measured by a series of dots that get bubbled in: I frequently hear students comparing their ACT and SAT scores, using those rather than other benchmarks as an indicator of student preparedness for collegiate studies and success.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

God Gives Us No More Than We Can Handle...

A temptation facing anyone with some study of theology is to look down on those with a less…sophisticated…notion of God. I usually have to remind myself that people generally do not care a lick about Karl Rahner’s writings on the supernatural existential or about the saturated phenomenon of Jean-Luc Marion. While I might care about these things and derive enormous joy from studying and reflecting upon them, most people go about their lives blissfully unaware of either author. What I find, generally, is that people have very basic questions about God: Is there a God? What does God do? Why is there so much evil in the world if God is supposed to be so good?

One refrain that my theological ear gets snagged on is this: “God doesn’t give us any more than we can handle.” While I seldom wade into theological controversies with folk, this is one that really seems to invite some comment.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Problem With Prayer

I had yesterday the honor and privilege of speaking at the CYO Rainbow Conference hosted by the Archdiocese of Detroit. It was an enjoyable morning and afternoon of seeing nearly 1,5000 young Catholics drawn together to find camaraderie and prayerful support as they attempted to "Live for Him" as the conference theme proclaimed. My own role was to give two presentations addressing God's Job Description.

During my first presentation, one of the students asked me about prayer. "What," he asked, "should we pray for?" Unable to cede my beloved role as teacher, I posed the question back to him: "What should we pray for?" The young man gave all of the right answers: an end to abortion, respect for human life, vocations, the poor, etc.. These are, I assured him, marvelous things to pray for. Yet, I had to push him, is this really what we should pray for?

Monday, February 07, 2011

Literal or Literalist...

Just thought I'd mention that in the last few hours, I've had a TON of hits to my site concerning the distinction between "literal" and "literalist" readings of Sacred Scripture. Back in June, I wrote a short piece about this. Since I'm apparently one of the few people who have written or, at least, blogged about this, many students from the same cluster of suburbs in Chicago have stopped by this site for help with #5 on their homework!

(It's funny what those tracking programs like Google Analytics and Statcounter can tell you!)

On the Lighter Side

When I get a chance, perhaps on Sunday, I would like to continue thinking through the "Control-F Generation" idea. I had a very stimulating conversation with a fellow Jesuit who sees the ability to search quickly using the Control-F function as a valuable skill. This I do not deny. Yet my point or observation reaches far deeper than simply a student's utility with research. I'm afraid of this being the framework or the way of being-in-the-world that shapes the way students see reality. If reality can be reduced so easily to something searchable, something easily found...what will they do with the tough questions which do not admit of easy answers? This is something that needs further reflection.

I thought, though, that I'd post something on the lighter side:

First up: Pig Roast Video

This is a video done to help promote our annual Freshmen Pig Roast that will be held this upcoming Friday, February 11th. Vegetarians may not approve...

Our second selection: Town Hall Video

On Thursday, the Student Senate will host a Town Hall Meeting where students can come and voice any concerns they have. In an effort to stir them up and get them thinking, this is the first ad we came up with.

What I like about both of these is that they are, at least, pretty clever. Too often, such videos devolve into stupid inside jokes that are not relevant to anyone outside of the school's community. These, at least, have a bit of a bite for a wider audience. I approve!

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Control-F Generation

My post yesterday introduced (to my knowledge) a new way of describing this generation of secondary school students: the "Control-F Generation." Sometimes they are called "Generation Why" but I think this is a total misnomer: they are willing to ask "Why do I have to..." or "Why should I..." but the deeper questions that the word Why should point to are often left unasked. Based on my limited observations - after all, I'm not a researcher nor do I have experience of secondary school students beyond my own experiences teaching here at U of D Jesuit - I do think there are certain traits that mark this generation in a remarkable way.

For instance, I find many students demonstrating a near-fixation on getting the answer and then moving on.   Recently, as I sat in my office with some very bright students in an AP English course, I watched one young man go to the computer and begin searching for "the meaning of...". Given an assignment to interpret a particular poem, he had neither the patience nor (apparently) the time for reflecting on the verses before him. He searched for someone's commentary on the poem, hit "Control-F" and found an image that he wanted to focus on, and built his reflection around what "Control-F" had pointed out. Little attention was paid to the surrounding context: he sought an answer sufficient for the narrow question he had posed and, upon finding it, he moved on to a new assignment. Near as I can tell, the beauty of the poem was left very much unappreciated...and why should any more time be spent if the assignment is completed?

On another occasion, I had to prefect the library during a period. Two students in my senior philosophy class were working on an assignment I had given them on the philosopher Descartes. With both horror and bemusement, I watched them pull up a .pdf of Descartes's text and "Control-F" to find all instances of a particular phrase. Not knowing I was standing behind them, one said to the other that, "...if we use a lot of quotes, he won't know we didn't read the text." Poor little lambs...

I do not place the blame squarely on the kids. I think that they are besieged by unimaginable pressures: six to seven courses, homework, co-curricular activities, sports, training, social life, and family obligations. Add to the mix that their ability to focus is compromised by texting, instant messaging, Facebook, Skype, video games, movies-on-demand, and the seductions of the internet and you have young adults who are overwhelmed. In some ways, the "Control-F" approach to life gives them a sense of control: by searching for one thing, and one thing only, they can limit the amount of material they have to sift through. "Control-F" is a powerful tool (I use it frequently in trying to locate particular quotes) but it also threatens to frustrate an essential component of the learning process: the adventure of sifting and navigating through texts and, while doing so, experiencing one's mind and heart being opened by the discoveries made.

As I indicated yesterday, I suspect this "Control-F" phenomena - the ability to search vast reams of information for very specific words and phrases - contributes to an expectation for easy, straightforward answers. The yearning to know that we are all etched by, the deep questions such as "Why is there anything at all? Why is there something rather than nothing?" are questions that do not admit of easily achieved answers. Indeed, such questions lead us to the door of an incomprehensible Mystery that seems to have intimated itself in the very heart of our reason! These, to my mind, are the religious questions that have to be "lived-through" and cannot simply be Googled or Control-F'd. Students who have grown accustomed to finding the right answer, to getting only enough information as needed and no more, risk all the more being frustrated with the less-than-forthcoming nature of a tradition such as Catholicism (which, contrary to appearances, thrives on Mystery. It is, to my mind, the humbling effect of Mystery that keeps believers from turning into terrorists).

Hence the oft-repeated bromide that "I'm spiritual but not religious." If one has been reared in a context where answers are easily accessible and readily available, then any religion (worth its salt) will fail this test as religions do not give easy answers....or, at least, they shouldn't! Nevertheless, the fact that these are people who describe themselves as 'spiritual' should give us hope: they acknowledge in themselves a restlessness that will impel them to continue seeking and exploring. Our goal, as evangelists, should be to engage them and make thematic that religion does not offer simple answers that can be "Control-F'd". If we could do this, if we could make manifest that an ingrained worldview - that we can search and find anything easily - is something of a lie, we might go a long way in addressing the spiritual hunger that seems to gnaw at so many of our young today.

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.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame