Just before starting second grade, my grandmother Mary died. Though her death was a deep grief to me—we had been quite close and many of my earliest memories involve her—it was not unexpected. She had a myriad of health issues, the worst of which was kidney failure. She had been kept alive by dialysis for some time when she decided to voluntarily quit treatment. She was ready to go home and, I imagine, ready to be reunited to her husband, my grandfather, who preceded her in death by six years after 43 years of marriage.
My parents spoke with me regularly about her passing and did all they could to help me understand it in a healthy way. The upshot of this was that I had, by the standards of a seven-year-old, a fairly broad way of understanding her passing. I knew where she was. I knew that everything that could be done for her had been done. And I knew that she suffered enormously. I’d never known her healthy, really. She had been in a wheelchair my entire life. But in her final days things had gotten worse as her memory and even basic awareness of her surroundings failed under the weight of a growing list of drugs she needed to take.
Even so, I never remember hearing her complain. Until her final days she was still telling others about Jesus, praying for whoever she met in the nursing home, and offering what help she could, for someone in a wheelchair and in such bad health. So the loss was real, but my grandmother’s own example and the faith she had passed on to my mother gave me ways of understanding it and living with it.
About a month after her passing a counselor at our neighborhood elementary school visited my class to talk with students about what I suppose one could call mental health, though I don’t recall her ever using that term, nor do I recall hearing it used as often in the 1990s. (A quick Google Ngram search suggests that the term was far less common in the 1990s than it is today.) I recall being given a small slip of paper with various pictures on it and text underneath that indicated a correlating experience. Underneath a thick cloud was the word “grief.” The counselor suggested that if a close friend or family member had died recently, you should circle that as grief is a normal part of the process of losing a loved one. So I circled it and was enrolled in a grief support group of sorts for students at the school.
It would be uncourteous to judge this too quickly or too harshly. I was in a low-income public school where most of my classmates ate a free or discounted breakfast and lunch at the school. Many of my classmates arrived before 7:30 and did not go home until 5:30 or 6. Years later when I worked in a title 1 school just south of downtown Lincoln, I saw similar dynamics but from the vantage point of an adult. I saw that some of these students simply did not have adults in their life trying to teach them about meaning and purpose or about their interior lives, or even simply trying to keep them fed and clothed every day. Many others did have adults attempting that work, but either due to the adults’ own wounding or sheer busyness caused by having to work too many low-paying jobs, they struggled to offer their children the support they desperately wanted to give them. In such a situation, one can easily understand why schools would introduce counselors, mental health support, and so on. The problems exist and many young Americans lack the support structures outside school to help them understand and navigate the problems.
Even so, my parents weren’t happy when they found out I had been enrolled in the group. My mom went to the counselor and talked to her. There was a presumptuousness about the conversation that disturbed her. It seemed to genuinely not have occurred to the counselor that my mental health was not primarily her responsibility, but my parents. Nor had it occurred to the counselor that the services she was providing me were not ideologically neutral. To her there seemed to be no difference between her work and the work of a doctor casting a broken arm or setting a separated shoulder. She didn’t seem to fully understand how her work followed from certain ideas about what people are, what the good life is, and how we can live a good life.
Ultimately, my parents feared (rightly, I think) that the support offered to me by this counselor would focus around a refashioning of the human life in therapeutic terms. The result would be that Christian belief was transformed, no longer understood as a true account of reality itself and instead reduced down to a privatized therapeutic technique for coping with life’s difficulties. Such a change inevitably suggests that what one believed about God, for instance, was mostly irrelevant, save how that belief informed the way one thought about oneself. The important thing was to have a robust sense of one’s own basic goodness or sufficiency as well as a bevy of tools and resources one could use to carry on when experiencing grief, depression, anxiety, and so on.
This brings us to the point: Education can’t not be catechetical. It can’t not be concerned with morality and ultimate meaning because we are educating humans and humans long for truth and meaning and goodness. And since my parents felt that the catechesis I was receiving at school ran against what they wanted for me, they ended up taking me out of public school and homeschooling me for several years, though I would eventually return to public education in ninth grade.
This is all background to a relatively simple but important point: We are now routinely seeing progressive journalists and educators and politicians lamenting right-wing curriculum proposals that they think impart the wrong values, misrepresent history, or fall short in some other vital way. In some cases, the concerns have merit—particularly when it comes to right-wing attempts to conceal or minimize our nation’s wicked history concerning race and the ongoing challenges that people of color face in America.
Yet what is so galling about these fulminations from the left is that they come in response to the American right beginning to do what the American left has done for decades. The left has long used school curriculum and practices to teach and reenforce a certain vision of morality, purpose, and the good life. Indeed, in the years since I was a public school student it has only escalated this tendency, particularly around issues of gender and sexuality.
One need only look at controversies concerning certain books in school libraries, students socially transitioning genders at school without parental awareness or consent, and schools taking students to attend drag events to see example after example after example of schools providing a specific moral and social vision of the good life for their students.
Not only that, many American progressives have supported all of that while also doing a great deal to make it more difficult for parents who opposed that vision to find alternative forms of schooling. We are not that far removed from a time in American history when homeschooling one’s children legally was quite difficult or even impossible in many states. This is to say nothing of the way that other strategies for expanding school choice for American families have likewise been opposed and resisted at every turn by many American progressives.
That the American right would eventually tire of such a state of affairs and take steps to combat it through acting directly on the public schools themselves should not be surprising to anyone. And if this unhappy tale in American public life is to end with anything other than tragedy, it will require significant steps to deescalate, steps that must begin with an attempt to sincerely understand the opposite side’s concerns. The catechetical agendas of both right and left will need to expand themselves to accommodate questions of peaceful coexistence and principled pluralism amidst our deep differences. Should we fail to do this or if this turns out to be impossible, as it may well be, then reason offers little hope for any happy outcome to these current controversies.
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