Is Education Wasted on the Young?

“I’m going to drop my philosophy class. It’s over my head,” said Emily. I want her to do well in her other classes. But just because something is hard, should she quit? She becomes defensive if I try this line of reasoning.



K.J.’s report card from last semester came on Monday. Many of the comments from teachers were similar. For example: “With a little more time spent on the homework, K.J. can make a solid A…” Or: “I would have liked to see a little more thought and effort from him during this block…” and “With more attention to detail and less socializing, K.J. will be more successful.” K.J. smiles but gives no reassurance that he will apply more effort.



Skye had an American Literature assignment to read “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. She wanted me to answer her questions for her, but when I refused, she said, “I can’t do it,” and shut her door in my face. The stakes were high. She wanted to visit her boyfriend in South Carolina this weekend, and she knew it wouldn’t happen if she didn’t keep up with her work. Why isn’t she trying harder?


Around 7:30 p.m., Journey received a call from a friend inviting her to a Friday night sleepover. I heard Journey tell her friend that she had a swim meet and a lot of schoolwork to do “because I’m a procrastinator.” That is an understatement if I’ve ever heard one! There were six pages of math problems to do before bedtime. She asked me to help her. But before I’d finished one sentence of explanation, Journey started yelling, “You don’t explain it right!”



Even Becton, not yet a teenager, is sabotaging his education. Thursday morning, Emily found his ADHD medicine floating in the toilet. When I confronted Becton in the afternoon, he explained that he didn’t like the way the medicine made him feel and he couldn’t eat. I told him that there was a right way and a wrong way to deliver his message. Sneaky behavior was the wrong way. Instead, he should tell me how he is feeling directly and we will deal with it.



Sometimes I find myself counting the months until each child will graduate from high school and, in theory, become responsible for his/her own education. But, let’s face it, that’s not the reality. They come back. Emily is living at home again. Who knows how the others will fair with college, or if they will even go to college? And I don’t really want to lose them or sever relationships when they turn 18. Once you sign on to parent, it’s for life.

Before Skye shut the door on me, I sat down to read her Emerson essay. I printed it and got out a highlighter to underscore important points. I took notes in the margins. It was difficult language and I found myself rereading to make sure I understood. The discernment was exciting and I began to form counter arguments in my head. In the background, I heard Skye, behind her closed door, laughing out loud in Skype conversation that had nothing whatsoever to do with Emerson.

If Skye had read and thought about the essay, she might have discovered some useful information: Time spent wanting what others have is stupid. Anything worth having comes by your own effort. You can’t know who you are and what you are capable of without trying. You won’t find peace until you do our best. Each of is meant to be a nonconformist. Don’t trust what society or others tell you is good or sacred. Explore and find out for yourself. Be courageous and speak your truth even if the truth you speak today is different from the truth you spoke yesterday…

I recently ordered the book MAT for Dummies. A part of me would love to go back to school and study for a Master of Social Work degree. Recent standardized test scores are a required part of any admissions packet. For me, education is a treasure, a delight. But am I really capable to going back to school after 23 years away from the university? I won’t know until I try. At this point, I’m setting aside the voices in my head that tell me my goal is impractical. “When would you have the time to go to classes or to study?”

Wednesday night, while my younger son was in choir, I met with a group of women in the church parlor for our weekly “therapy session.” It isn’t technically a therapy session, but I think we would all acknowledge the therapeutic benefit of talking with other women who share many of the same struggles. This particular night, one of the women shared that she had recently taken on new responsibilities at work, and that this additional work made it harder for her to carve out time with her children and husband. She reflected that she must be someone who gravitated toward “chaos.”

I had a different thought about her situation. I think that educated women want “control,” and that being married to someone and taking care of children is, basically, a series of out-of-control experiences. Family members don’t behave the way we want them to behave. New crises erupt almost daily. On the other hand, professional work is one place where a person might have some modicum of control – not always, but sometimes. Family life is the “chaos.”

Our group has decided to read Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor. I have read the book, but began rereading it on Wednesday in anticipation of a discussion. In the first few pages, I was struck by several statements. Barbara writes, “[T]he call to serve God is first and last the call to be fully human…” She reflects that Jesus called believers to find life, lose life, and find it again. My first reaction was to assume these stages referred to Jesus’s life on earth, his death, and his resurrection. (To be honest, resurrection has always seemed like a bizarre and zombie-like concept to me.) But Barbara writes that, in Greek, the word for life is psyche. It includes “the conscious self, the personality, the soul.” Accordingly, losing life can mean losing track of who we are or thought we were supposed to be. “Loss” is how we come to surrender our lives. When you are “lying flat on the dirt floor basement of your heart,” then there is the possibility of life anew.

I think Emerson was writing about something similar. He says we can’t rely on others to create our path. It’s about our individual effort. But, sometimes, a tree falls or a flood washes out the path we think we are on, and we must strike out in a new direction. As we continue to change direction and discern our way, we are becoming more “fully human” (as Barbara writes) or more attuned to the divinity in us (as Emerson writes).

Don’t rely on my interpretation. Emerson would not approve. But I do take comfort in knowing that others seem to suggest that life is a series of loses and new beginnings, a journey that includes the opportunity to change directions and to learn new things each day, if we can only muster the courage to get up off the dirt floor and forge ahead.

Perhaps, education is not wasted on the young. After all, their brains are more pliable and receptive to new ideas. Perhaps, my frustration is that young minds (who live in privileged circumstances) tend not to appreciate the opportunity to learn. The good news, ironically, is that loss is inevitable. And loss, painful as it may be, can propel us toward “life” that was not previously within our view.

Maybe one of these days, the kids will look up from their smartphones, iPads, and computers to read and really take in the words of one of the posters we have hanging on our walls:

“30 years from now, it won’t matter what shoes you wore, how your hair looked, or the jeans you bought. What will matter is what you learned and how you used it.”

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