by William Michael
Kids in the information age are told that now (unlike the past), kids can grow up to “be whatever they want”. Since they know how to use a DVD player or send a text-message, they are ushered in among the elite of the human race. A second-grader is asked, “Tommy, what are you going to be when you grow up.” Tommy think for a few seconds, then shouts out…whatever. “I wanna be a doctor.” The teacher (who is not a doctor and knows nothing of the path to a licensed career in medicine) applauds and says, “Wow! That’s great Tommy!” Tommy walks away feeling proud of himself, excited about his future success.
It is this deluded arrogance among modern teachers and children that is responsible for much of the mess in education today. This is because no one in the schools is in touch with reality. Most teachers are employed by a tax-funded school system that is not required to compete against the rest of the “global workforce” they claim to be raising kids to succeed in. The schools and their staffmembers don’t have to compete for business by their own resourcefulness and diligence–they get paid to fill a spot whose existence is guaranteed by property tax collections, not a competitive market. The teachers and administrators running the school have little or no experience in the “real world” of a capitalistic economy and haven’t proven that they could accomplish anything outside of the walls of a government-subsidized institution. Yes, in their fantasy world of free money, it would seem that anyone could do anything they want.
Unfortunately, most of the kids turn 18 and finish their time in the land of Oz. They are suddenly pushed out the door into a world they have not been introduced to. Suddenly, tests aren’t curved any more, the stadards aren’t brought beneath the children’s natural ability level, and the money isn’t free. Suddenly, becoming a doctor costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and requires that a boy devote ALL of his time, attention and energy to the training for over 10 years in the prime of his life. He also learns that to start the process he needs to get admited to a college first–and the college doesn’t care what his second grade teacher told him. This is the real world, and Tommy is lost. He goes off to college with no business plan, borrowing money, making major decisions–with his second grade teacher’s emply applause urging him on. “You can be anything you want!”
The reality is, if we can extract ourselves from this delusion, that we are puffing our children up and allowing them to develop a false sense of their purpose in this life. Schools are defining success as aimless and unplanned college attendance with money-making or personal fulfillment as the chief end of life. Even Christian schools are boasting of their graduates’ admission into colleges that secular public schools are just as successfully sending students to. No one is asking students for proof that this or that plan is in accord with God’s will, for a carefully prepared business plan that justifies the time and expenses being devoted to collegiate studies, for reasons why secular industries need Christians more than churches and mission fields. There are so many questons not being asked–challenging questions that annoy us when we’ve had our heads filled with flattery and false assurances.
St. James is probably the biggest annoyance here (if we read him) because he calls all of this talk about futures and success “arrogant”.
“Behold, now you that say: “Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and there we will spend a year…and make our gain.”, whereas you know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is a vapour which appeareth for a little while, and afterwards shall vanish away. Therefore, you should say: “If the Lord will, and if we shall live, we will do this or that.” But now you rejoice in your arrogancies. All such rejoicing is wicked.”
When we add this warning to Our Lord’s commands, “Take no thought for tomorrow.” and “Do not seek for yourselves treasures on earth.” we find ourselves with a very confusing dilemma. How can we (a) wisely plan for our future, while (b) remaining humble and present-minded? Most people, and students, err in one extreme or the other. The either trivialize their religious principles and live like any worldling, or they surrender the world to the pagans and bury their heads in the sand. The former group’s motto is “God is a God of means.” (which means that the means are the matter), while the letter group spends its time singing songs like this:
The question then, is where do we find the balance between (a) prudent forethought and (b) holy present-ness?
Well, let’s begin by saying, if we may, that we’re not the first people who have needed to answer this question. We are living in–at the very least–the 7th millenium of world history. We have already named hundreds of men and women who have fulfilled the goal of human life. We call them “saints”. They are or examples and helpers, for they have faced all of the challenges we do today and have overcome them. We have an advantage they did not have, for we have their example to learn from in addition to all the examples that they had to learn from. It should be easier for us than many of them.
First of all, let’s acknowledge that most of the saints did not live in societies like America. They did not live in a pluralistic, democratic, capitalistic society. That doesn’t mean we have it harder, for we don’t live under Christian-killing emperors as many of them did. We have the same challenges, only with different appearances. “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Second, we have to acknowledge that making sure our soul is in a state of grace and ready for judgment is our chief priority. This is where the holy presentness comes from. Jesus asked us, “What will it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” That question is the wake-up call for the Christian talking about tomorrow while neglecting the reality that death is unpredictable and “it is appointed for men once to die and after this comes the judgment”. The sudden arrival of death is also the sudden arrival of our unchanging eternal destiny. This is what Our Lord taught us in the story of the successful farmer–it’s worth reading the whole passage:
“The land of a certain rich man brought forth plenty of fruits. And he thought within himself, saying: “What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?” And he said: “This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and will build greater; and into them will I gather all things that are grown to me, and my goods. And I will say to my soul: ‘Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years take thy rest; eat, drink, make good cheer.’ But God said to him: “Thou fool, this night do they require thy soul of thee: and whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?” So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich towards God…Sell what you possess and give alms. Make to yourselves bags which grow not old, a treasure in heaven which faileth not: where no thief approacheth, nor moth corrupteth. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Yes, that sums things up quite nicely, doesn’t it? That is the source of holy present-ness in this life.
Yet, while the hour of our death is unknown to us, we must live….normally 30, 40, 50, 60 or more years. We can’t stand, like the apostles in Acts 1, “gazing up at the heavens”. The angels told them to get back to their lives and do what they were told–and so are we. This, however, can be done when that holy presentness is established. Our Lord said, “Seek first the kingdom of God” and we should have done that and continue doing that. The life that we live on earth must be based on the words that follow: “all these things shall be added unto thee.” That is the answer to our earthly dilemma.
The life that Christians live on earth should not be like the life of non-Christians. We need to be clothed, yes. We need to eat and drink, yes. Beyond that, the line between “needs” and “wants” becomes increasingly personal and subjective. One man “needs” a tent while another man “needs” a $400,000 house with electricity, city water, air conditioning and broadband internet serice in a suburban neighborhood, another man “needs” more than that. We know that discussion is a painful one and I’m not going to open it up here.
Our Lord silences all this controversial talk with one simple command, “Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven.” That, for all of us, is the goal and I don’t know who would suggest it would good to have less stored up in heaven than one could. We can argue about what is necessary in this life and everyone can seem right, but the leveler of all of our arguments is how much treasure would we have reserved for ourselves in heaven? Do we have the faith not merely to talk like that, but to think and live like that?
In the Scriptures we read of men who sold lands than they owned and set the money from the sales at the feet of the Apostles. St. Peter could say to Our Lord, “We have forsaken all things and followed you.” St. Francis stripped naked in the streets and gave up his inheritance for the freedom to serve God with his entire life. Here we are, with eternity before us knowing (in our hearts) that we can be rich towards God. What should we do?
How far our thoughts have come from college admission and career planning! That’s the point. Yes, Tommy may be able to become a doctor–but is that really the best thing Tommy can be? the most rewarding things Tommy can do? Does Tommy have anyone showing him the things of the Lord, speaking to him of eternal life, sharing with him the teachings of Our Lord, and the examples of the saints and martyrs? Does Tommy spend any time holding a Crucifix reflecting on the true source of happiness?
Too few kids are thinking these thoughts, but are thinking like the world, seeking “what the Gentiles seek” in life. It’s our duty as parents, friends, neighbors and siblings to help people think rightly. Our life is greater than our food. Our body is more important than our clothing. The things God gives us are greater than the things the world works so feverishly and recklessly to attain. What do we need? What do we really want? What do we want to have achieved when we find ourselves on our deathbeds? What will we have that can pass through death with us and endure forever?
This doesn’t mean “All I know is I’m not home yet…this is not where I belong.” This IS where we belong. We are God’s servants given a mission to fulfill here with our lives. St. John Bosco taught boys how to make shoes and print books. St. Thomas Aquinas taught natural philosophy and reasoning. Jesus Christ built a Church. These were all worldly works that flowed from a holy presentness. These were works both prudent and faithful. We need not run to one extreme or the other, but look at how our heavenly happiness can be increased by our present works and investments. We belong right here, on earth, in the world, walking and doing business among men, but we do not belong in the race they are running, sekeing the things they are seeking, neglecting eternity as they are.
I believe that the work beginning in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy is a source of fulfilling work on earth. We are restoring an educational tradition that successfully balances these two concerns. There is so much to be done, so many resources available to us and yet so many Christians remain fearful of stepping out from the worldly race to do something better that will prove to be a great blessing to our children’s generation. From the first steps of Grammar through the final pages of Theology, a system of learning can be restored that serves both the body and the soul, allowing the ancient ideal “a sound mind in a sound body” to be enjoyed by Christian boys and girls. This ideal was described by the Roman poet Juvenal who, like most of the virtuous pagans spoke well of things they had not the graces to attain:
“It is to be prayed that the mind be sound in a sound body.
Ask for a brave soul that lacks the fear of death,
which places not the length of life ultimate among nature’s blessings,
which is able to bear whatever kind of sufferings,
does not know anger, lusts for nothing
and believes the hardships and savage labors of Hercules
better thanthe satisfactions, feasts, and feather bed of an Eastern king.
I will reveal what you are able to give yourself;
For certain, the one footpath of a tranquil life lies through virtue.”
The pagans understood the truth about life. Do we Christians understand it?