A dangerous education

There is a certain kind of parent who wants to bind a child’s soul the way the Chinese are said to have bound their little girls’ feet to keep them dainty. There are Catholic families who proudly send their 18-year-olds up to college carefully bound and wrapped at the emotional and spiritual age of 12—good little boys and girls in cute dresses and panty-waists who never get into trouble or into knowledge and love. The Kingdom of Heaven is the knowledge and love of God, and we learn to bear the living flames of that love only through suffering the paler heats of human desire…

The Restoration of Christian Culture, John Senior

“Safety First” is all but first among the orders of the day in the modern educational arena. And safety should be first when it comes to those mortal dangers of the soul that are rampant today, such as pedophilia and child abuse, pornography, casual and cavalier sex, drug culture, and moral relativism.

But when it comes to those things inherently worth doing—such as experiencing creation, discovering humanity, encountering divinity—few such things can be called safe. In fact, most things worth doing are dangerous in their own right. Education during the adolescent years is worthwhile—and dangerous. Adolescents are creatures on fire, the word being derived from the Latin “to burn” or “be kindled.” Governing the fires of adolescence is central in education, and dangerous fires they are. But as fire destroys, so also does it nurture. Fire is never safe, but it is necessary. And thus, education is bound up in danger, in fighting and refining those fires, in running the risk of forming the fiery spirit of human beings in the light of Christ.

When convenience and gratification are held as paramount to human existence, the challenge of education is to thrust students against the realities of interior and exterior obstacles, opportunities, and objectives—which are always risky realities. The experience of risk, though, is a true awakening. In sports, studies, and socializing, good results are the outcome of long, hard toil, dedicated effort, strict discipline, perseverance, and responsibility. Confronting and testing the whole person is no mean lesson and much hangs in the balance: self-worth, self-esteem, self-confidence, self-knowledge. All ends worth achieving in this life entail, in fact, drawn out processes of discovery, requiring both patience, practice, and peril.

Education without some element of danger, therefore, can be a dangerous thing, leaving students listless and uninspired in a cooped-up world to measure out their lives with coffee spoons. Danger in education, on the other hand, manifests itself in drawing students to strike out beyond their comfort zones and engage in robust experiences. By embracing the dangers of human frailty, emotional exposure, intellectual doubt, spiritual exercise, and social honesty students assume the perils of the unknown and gain a real knowledge of themselves and the world based on findings and failures alike.

This approach involves stoking the fires of the soul towards new challenges and trials. Teachers should launch students into the healthy, normative dangers of interacting with the larger world of reality by leading them in a relationship that balances hardship and friendship.

English teachers should spur students to undertake Shakespeare, and then congratulate them when they share a thought on a sonnet before peers. Coaches should push their charges in facing physical fears, and then acknowledge a young athlete when they bloody their nose on a rugby pitch. Choir directors should demand perfection, and then honor a student for singing beautifully at Mass. Camping leaders should command excellence, and then praise a youngster for telling a story round a fire. Adolescents have an intrinsic and intense desire for such experiences and their emotional corollaries. Incident and involvement are driving forces in their psychology, with appetites and interests fixed on encounters that flirt and fence with the dangerous and the amorous. This is what makes teenagers tick, and it should be the tempo of their education.

None of these things are safe for a self-conscious teenager to tackle. They may be natural, but they are still hazardous. It requires self-denial and self-sacrifice to share the privacies of the mind and the privations of the body. If only they can be brought to, and into, those moments when they leap out of themselves. From that leap comes self-knowledge and satisfaction, which is central to any true education. Young people sense the danger of commitment, appreciate the experience, and seek to perfect their skill and strength—and the teacher, being young once, can only appreciate the reaction.

Education should draw out these drives, not dwarf or discourage them. As with all things natural that need guidance, heavy restriction produces deformities that result only in a crippled person. A mature faith cannot exist in a body, mind, and soul that have been inhibited from maturation by excessive caution. Adolescence, like life, is risky; and the course of a true education should allow it to run its course, even though it tends to take risks. Those risks can be calculated and controlled, and so they should, but not eliminated.

Education is chiefly about maintaining and managing the risks of the human condition, so that young people can learn in and through the dangers they must face as adults. This excludes, of course, risks that are never worth taking against dangers that have no business in human experience, let alone human education. But, as it stands, there are plenty of wholesome dangers that are being guarded against with the unwholesome.

More than ever, there is need for a dangerous education because it is remedial, because it is real, because it does not pander through virtual reality, but challenges towards an encounter with actual reality, daring to provide an appetite for truth when untruth is applauded far and wide.

Truth is the most dangerous thing in the world in a world lost to lies. A real education is dangerous indeed in such an unreal world. Nevertheless, teachers must not flinch from flinging themselves, together with their students, towards the truth, despite the flags of falsehood unfurled against them or the hostilities that await those who approach education with the order of “Danger First,” and educate boldly with the words of G. K. Chesterton leading the charge:

We are to regard existence as a raid or great adventure; it is to be judged, therefore, not by what calamities it encounters, but by what flag it follows and what high town it assaults. The most dangerous thing in the world is to be alive; one is always in danger of one’s life. But anyone who shrinks from that is a traitor to the great scheme and experiment of being.

SEAN FITZPATRICK is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves as the headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pa. He also serves on the Advisory Council for Sophia Institute for Teachers. His writings on education, literature and culture have appeared in Crisis Magazine, The Imaginative Conservative, and Catholic Exchange.

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