For the past 40 years or so, a group of researchers have been studying the attitudes, beliefs and values of American college freshman. It is believed that this is an indication of the direction of our culture. One of the troubling findings over the past 12 years has been the increasing amount of narcissism in our culture. Narcissism is a tendency to view oneself as the center of reality. Simply put, it is selfishness. More and more people have a tendency only to think about their own wants and care little about the needs of others. The really dangerous thing about narcissism is that when a narcissist does not get the attention that they believe they deserve they lash out in rage at those that they feel have been not giving them what they deserve. It has been hypothesized that this increasing narcissism is one of the factors for the increases of school shootings.
It might not be a coincidence that these narcissistic rages seem to take place in schools so often. For the past 25 or so years our schools have been using methods that seem to foster narcissism. Under the guise of promoting self-esteem, there is a tendency never to allow a student to fail a test, everyone gets a trophy, and lessons become more individualized. Students are not corrected or disciplined because we are afraid of hurting their self-esteem. But all this seems to foster narcissism.
Today the Church celebrates a saint who had a very different approach to education; St. John Bosco. Do not make the mistake of thinking that St. John was a “spare the rod, spoil the child,” kind of person. No, St. John told his followers to be very patient with the children in their care, and not to be quick to punish them. The difference in St. John Bosco’s approach was not to be harsher, but rather to not shield the child from reality. So St. John encouraged discipline in the children he cared for, letting them know when they were wrong or misbehaving, but then trying to encourage them to do better, and persuading them to see why their behavior was not good. He encouraged the children to learn a trade and to work together.
Two of the most important factors in St. John Bosco’s approach to education was the centrality of the Eucharist and frequent Confession. You might wonder what does the Eucharist and Confession have to do with education, but just think about it. In the Eucharist, we are acknowledging our need for the Divine, our dependency on God. We also call the Eucharist, Holy Communion; emphasizing that we are called to become one with Jesus, but also to be in union with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Instead of a self-centeredness, the Eucharist calls us to think first of Christ and then of others. The sacrament of Confession teaches us humility, which is a virtue, so a good thing. We learn to admit our faults and failures, our sins, but not so to humiliate us, but so that we also confess our belief in a loving and merciful God. Learning to admit our sins helps us to admit our faults, failures and limitations to others, and to accept the fact that we cannot do it all on our own. In receiving mercy we also become more merciful to others when they wrong us.
We might not be able to bring St. John Bosco’s wisdom into the public school system, but we can bring it into our lives, and the lives of the children we encounter; whether they be our own children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. We can patiently confront their narcissism, to help them move away from that, and learn the virtues of generosity, patience, teamwork, humility, and forgiveness. We can teach them the need we all have for God and the sacred in our lives; encouraging them to go to Mass regularly and to go to Confession. In our care for them, we can help them see what St. John Bosco helped so many children to see — the loving face of God.