The calling to teach high school in a college-obsessed age

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Daniel Orazio, Commentary Editor

 

“What should I do with my life?” This is the question haunting a good many of us upperclassmen as our time at the University of Dallas nears its end. One of the most common answers going around, of course, is to teach high school. Often the answer is given enthusiastically; other times, with a twinge or more of resignation. Once in a while someone will even apologize for such a modest life ambition, apparently ashamed that he isn’t aiming for “higher” education, i.e. a Ph.D. and a professorship. Such shame is not justified. I would argue, in fact, that the calling to teach high school, always a great one, is in the present educational and moral crisis of these United States an incredibly important one.

I believe that fewer people should be attending college. I think the data – which show that very many students drop out of college, even after five or six years of trying to earn a degree, often laden with debt and no more credentialed at 23 than at 18 – suggest such a conclusion. The thinking that says that everyone needs a four-year university education (this is the thinking that seems to reign where I grew up) denies the great variety of human personality that is the spice of life. An 18-year-old – even an 18-year-old son of a banker – who wishes to enter the workforce to pull his own weight, or begin a two-year professional program that will prepare him for a job that can’t be exported, deserves society’s respect. For a society to function, all jobs need to be filled, which means recognizing the diverse capabilities and interests of all the society’s people, not just the people who choose, on their father’s and Uncle Sam’s dime, to read books for four or eight years.

But I do think we should all be going to high school. “Education,” Chesterton said, “is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.” Since the soul of a society is bound up more in a common civic and moral culture than in a widespread understanding of Thomistic metaphysics or contemporary cosmology, high schools can do most of this work. They can pass on a common American and Western identity and teach the essentials of reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic while inculcating the moral values of a man worthy of his freedom.

Yet what a wretched state our high schools are in. You may be aware that colleges are increasingly forced to offer remedial writing courses to freshmen; but I wonder in what area American high-school graduates are strong. Do they emerge from those four years knowing the story of the West? Of their own nation? At 18 are they conversant in French or Spanish, or able to read Latin? How’s their grip on algebra, geometry and pre-calculus? Are they scientifically literate? Gosh, do they have a clear idea of right and wrong? As Mrs. Thatcher would say, No, No, No!

This then is our opening, as juniors and seniors pondering our futures. High schools all across the country, schools private as well as public, need the invigoration of a sharp liberal-arts graduate who knows a subject well and wants to pass his learning on. You should not become a high-school teacher because you “love kids”; you should become a high-school teacher because you love cell structure, differential equations or ablative absolutes. Our schools have enough teachers who want to be their students’ friends. We need teachers who want to teach. The ages of 14 to 18 are pivotal in one’s development into a good or a bad man, into a thoughtful or a slavish thinker. While you won’t be able to make all your students B.A.-material, if you’re good at your job you really could make all the difference in the world to youths vacillating between a life of moral and intellectual purpose and one of indolence.

To those of you discerning a vocation to teach high school, do not feel inadequate. You will be doing work that needs doing, and needs doing well. The calling to be the Mr. Chips of your hometown is one for which you should be most very grateful.

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