Anxiety, Fear of Failure, and Surviving Education in the 21st Century
TO FATHER JOHN HUBER Ph.D. AND “PRESIDENT’’ OF DETROIT CATHOLIC CENTRAL…
Dear Father Huber… aka Dr. Huber:
You are a long-time, successful educator… now getting ready for yet another year at Catholic Central High School. I am a concerned parent… wondering whether my 13 year-old daughter, Frances Jean, and my 15 year-old daughter, Jessie Valentine and all other kids trying their hardest to get through the very competitive, American education system (in the beginning of the 21st. century) will still be spiritually and emotionally intact at the other end of their educational journey. Realizing “it takes a village’’ to educate and prepare our children for the future they will inherit from us, I thought that I might share some of my concerns with you. Conversation and the written word start the evaluation process and, if necessary, move toward progress and change. Let this be such a conversation.
I hope not to burden you, but I can think of no one else who knows more about the subject of “education’’ than you. Additionally, the Catholic Central mission statement seems to invite parent-participation in education… indicating (as it does) that parents have the “primary role’’ in the education of their children with the schools playing a secondary role with formal, classroom education. Father, I truly understand how very busy you are with your world-wide and whirl-wind schedule… so there is no obligation to reply.
FEAR AND ANXIETY BLOCK LEARNING.
Father, I found the attached article (Education: Time for a New Purpose by Graham Peeples) interesting… although the article does lose impact because it is so general in nature and without any actual context. Describing the “general’’ do’s and don’t’s of educating our children, the article states “Fear inhibits, physically, emotionally and mentally; it suffocates the ‘human being within the child.’’’ Despite a lack of specifics, the article does embrace a topic of great interest for today’s (anxiety ridden) grade school and high school students i.e. those still young kids and teenagers who have been forced to trade in what’s left of their childhood for the emotional “fear’’ and “anxiety’’ of not reaching the challenging expectations of their parents and their schools. Those very same young students (while years away from college) are also anxiously peering into the future and feeling the anxiety and overwhelming expectation of attending one of the “best Universities’’… Ivy League, MIT, Military Academies, Stanford, Notre Dame, University of Chicago—all run by overpaid administrators who hold out to the world their elitist brand of “superiority’’ as well as their overwhelming requirements for admission… usually unobtainable for all but a minute handful of students. Rhetorically, I ask… are we doing a disservice to our children (or even traumatizing them) by taking away their childhood before it runs full course, and are we also setting our children up for future failure when the “best Universities’’ eventually say “no thank you’’ despite a student’s discipline, sacrifice and academic success in high school???
ELIMINATE FEAR AND ANXIETY… OPEN UP THE MIND TO LEARN.
The idea of alleviating the student of competitive “fear’’ and “anxiety,’’ and thereby opening up the students’ mind to new ideas and new possibilities, undistracted by the fear of failure or the fear of finishing in the middle of the pack is (I think) a desirable goal. In fact, neuroscience now tells us that good teachers (Father Norbert Clemens and Father Cy Bergeron in my time and Amy Nanni, Carl Weiss and Craig McMichael in the present time and even you, Dr. Huber, as you provide entertaining, historical references as background “themes’’ for your thought provoking homilies)… repeat… that good teachers first open up the learning centers of the students’ brain by entertaining them which then maximizes the learning experience for the students… a theory I completely endorse whether teaching my own children or whether teaching occasionally at Catholic Central High School or University of Detroit Mercy Law school, and a theory, Dr. Huber, that you know much more about than I do.
BUT, FEAR AND ANXIETY ARE… INESCAPABLE TRAITS OF SURVIVAL.
BUT???… Is it even possible for teachers (and parents) to take away anxiety, fear of failure and strenuous competition from the process of education??? And, if it is, how do we reconcile the undeniable and historic role that fear, anxiety and intense competition play in the survival of the of all living things??? For example:
1. It is beyond historical or biological dispute that all life forms (from single cell microbes to complex forms of life like humans) must “compete’’ mightily just to survive. Or, as the great historian, Will Durant, points out in his book (Lessons of History), the number of hungry mouths (of all species) outruns the available food supply. Although I embrace eliminating (or at least reducing) the students’ anxiety and fear of failure in order to open up the neuro pathways to learning, I still am left to confront and reconcile Charles Darwin’s Origin Of Species and the theory of “natural selection’’ which tells us that all life forms (from single cell microbes to complex humans) must constantly “struggle’’ and “compete’’ and cope with “anxiety’’ to… well… well, to just survive. So, as much as I know that “fear’’ and “anxiety’’ block the brain’s (and the mind’s) pathways to learning and make the experience of life much more traumatic, depressed and much lessfulfilled, I also raise the question: how do you (and would you really want to) alleviate the students’ fear of failure or the overwhelming competition and the anxiety associated with acquiring an education… when, as I say, the survival of everyone of us and our entire species is predicated upon the need to compete, adapt and overcome anxiety (just to survive)???
2. It is also beyond dispute that for some students, the fear of failure is the driving force for their present (and future) success and accomplishment. But, all of us must also acknowledge that the exact opposite is true for numerous other students for whom all-out competition, anxiety and fear of failure has a paralyzing effect on their educational success and accomplishments.
IS IT NECESSARY TO “MEASURE’’ MASTERY OF EDUCATIONAL SUBJECT MATTER ???
And, if you are able to do away with anxiety, fear of failure and the intense competition for grades by eliminating the “grade point average,’’ how would you then measure the students’ educational progress??? And, is such grade point measurement of classroom success even a relevant point when it doesn’t necessarily predict worldly success accurately, and doesn’t predict emotional or spiritual success at all. Think of uneducated billionaires like Mike Illitch, Peter Karmanos (and others) and think of the saintly pauper, Father Solanus Casey, who became the Porter of St. Bonaventure and was forced to answer the door at the Capuchin Monastery in Detroit (at all hours of the day and night) because the superiors of his religious order didn’t think him intellectually bright enough to do much else. I know the Universities require grade point averages for the admission process, but, if the world of education was starting anew from a blank slate, would that new world of education even use some form of measurement to monitor a student’s mastery of the subject matter being taught, and, if so, would that measurement be the “same-o, same-o’’ (be-all and end-all) grade point average of today or would the measurement be something else altogether???
RECONCILING THE “ANXIETY’’ OF EDUCATION WITH QUALITY OF LIFE…
Perhaps, the “reconciliation’’ between our children’s overly competitive educational demands (on the one hand) with their God given right to enjoy the “quality’’ of their lives (on the other hand) lies in getting our children (and their teachers… repeat for emphasis… “their teachers’’) to understand as soon as possible the two-sided concept that: (1) God’s “gift of life’’ (from cradle to grave) is necessarily burdened with the need to struggle and the need to survive in a very competitive and anxiety driven world, but that (2) on the other side of the coin, us humans need to have some “quality of life’’ despite the obvious anxiety and fear surrounding our need to survive, including (at a minimum) a good night’s sleep… which many kids sacrifice (more often than not) for fear of not keeping up with their usual “ton of homework’’ (including lots homework on the weekends just to make sure our children don’t recover from their previous week’s anxiety and lack of sleep).
Maybe the human species must always be engaged in a “balancing act’’ that asks each student to draw their own balance line by asking the (subjective) question… Did you give it your best academic effort while, at the same time, did you get joy, exuberance and quality of life out of the gift of life that your Creator gave you??? Just asking the question may empower some immature students with a lack of initiative to “slack off’’ under the guise of “quality of life’’… by sleeping in and then hitting the dance and party circuit when they are well rested. But, for conscientious students, just asking the question might allow for the God-send of a good night’s sleep without the guilty feeling of falling hopelessly behind.
THE TWO SIDED COIN… SURVIVAL AND QUALITY OF LIFE.
Human life seems to be a two sided coin with the struggle of competition, anxiety and survival on one side and joyful quality of (God given) life on the other side… with each student required to decide which side they will see (or face) at any given moment in time. As an aside, I also acknowledge that some students seem to be graciously and serendipitously excused from deciding which side of the coin to face at any given moment because, for them, the war of all-out competition is their quality of life… with some of those overly competitive souls now being classified as “borderline’’ psychopaths. In any event, I don’t think anyone’s “lastwords’’ are (or ever will be):’’I wish I obtained a higher grade point average.’’ But, I can see many of our dying friends saying: “I wish I could have gotten a good night’s sleep more often and more quality out of my life by stopping to see and smell the beauty of life along the way.’’
FEAR, ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION… OUR CONSTANT COMPANIONS.
With 72 years of life to reflect back upon, I am fully aware of the fear of failure, the anxiety and the low level depression that I lived with in the educational system (starting as a 14-year-old late bloomer) and in the pursuit of the profession of Law (starting at age 23)… as everyday I was required to overcome anxiety, depression and fear of failure just to surmount the strenuous, non-ending demands on my own life. But, even more importantly, I am aware that (even though my outstanding education at Catholic Central and my law degree gave me “entree’’ into the profession of Law), any success I achieved as a Trial Lawyer standing in a courtroom, in front of a jury grew out of the non-academic side of my life i.e. that which I learned when I was just walking through the “streets of life’’ enjoying the quality of life or learning first hand (with both sorrow and joy) what the human condition and what human nature were really all about. It was really that experience of those fortuitous, serendipitous, non-classroom settings of life that gave me the upper hand in a Courtroom, and that allowed me to bring the jury to the “common man” humanity side of my client’s case while soundly defeating the high anxiety, highly educated and intelligent attorneys representing my Corporate America opponents. I, therefore, know from first hand experience that a well educated man or woman who knows only the overwhelming stress and anxiety of an education can never be truly successful in life as “Renaissance’’ man or woman … missing out as they are on the colorful episodes of a life that can only be found in the vibrant and mercurial world that lies outside the classroom.
SEPARATE “LEARNING KEYS’’ FOR EACH STUDENT… ONE SIZE DOES NOT FIT ALL.
I suspect that also-ran teachers lazily apply a “one size fits all’’ philosophy for each student (even as they may be unaware of doing so) while a good teacher tirelessly strives to figure out the unique strengths and weaknesses of each student so that the teacher can emotionally and academically connect to the conscientious student and eliminate stress, fear and anxiety while ratcheting up the stress, fear and anxiety for the slacker student.
NON-DOTING, KNEE JERK REACTION… “JUST DO IT’’ ???
WOW. I need to take a break. My analysis is hurting my brain. And, now that my feeble brain is worn out and I am physically tired, I subconsciously revert to a ‘‘knee-jerk reaction’’ (a reaction that cannot always be trusted). That “knee-jerk reaction’’… “life is tough.’’ So kids of mine (and all other students), you will justhave to figure out how to overcome anxiety, fear, competition and adversity, and you will have to learn how to survive by pushing yourself mentally, physically and spiritually so that education and strength are not only who you will become, but are also what you will pass on to your own children and grandchildren…come your time to do so. And, hopefully, somewhere along the struggle of your life (and the example you give to your own children on how to surmount fear, anxiety and competition)… somewhere along the struggle of life, you might even have a little fun.
But, educators… a “word of caution’’ is absolutely necessary because the mantra “Just Do It’’ can be used consciously (or subconsciously) by teachers under stress to simply slide into a “one size fits all’’ mentality… thereby emotionally overburdening their conscientious students with anxiety and fear of failure and thus short-circuiting the students’ ability to absorb the classroom material (or to actually enjoy the educational experience).
I FORGOT EVERYTHING THEY TAUGHT ME.
As a Math major in college, I worked very hard to assimilate difficult mathematical concepts and formulas—especially when preparing for my “cumulative exam’’ covering all four years of math… a prerequisite for graduation. But, within a couple of years of graduation, I forgot all of my principles of mathematics… leaving me to wonder what the heck was education all about anyway??? Ten years later, Sydney Harris, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, gave me the answer:
“Education is everything that is left over after you forgot all they taught you…’’
What’s left over??? What’s left over is a quick, agile and flexible mind that is a fine-tuned problem solving instrument… quickly and fluidly picking up new information and mastering infinite details and ultimately moving the ball down the field of life’s many and highly varied endeavors. See my first book… Children Of The Greatest Generation… pages 27-29.
PICK UP THE TAB!!!!!!!!!!
Finally, Dr. Huber… one last thing, and then I will fall silent. Our elected politicians, as well as their close Corporate America friends (who financially back our elected politicians with “special interest’’ money from corporate lobbyists), both claim that the only way to ensure America’s place as a great world power, a bastion of freedom and a strong economic producer is through education, education and more education of all our citizens. I think their assessment is correct. I also think that terrorists groups like ISIS, the Taliban, al-Qaida, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah and many others are able to thrive and dominate the minds of their followers (and deprive them of “free will’’ options) only because those terrorist groups replace education and education’s (“no holds barred’’) search for truth with a (“no questions allowed’’) faith-based “indoctrination’’ and “brainwashing’’… that by and large appeals to the poor, the hungry, the uneducated, undereducated and the disenfranchised masses (numbering in the millions, if not a billions).
In light of today’s terrorist-dominated world, education and the delivery from ignorance that education provides (including education’s freedom to engage in no-holds-barred debates in which all ideas rise and fall on their own merits)… repeat, education (and its delivery from ignorance) is the free world’s greatest allay against “terrorism’’… as well as the free world’s greatest voice in support of the “sanctity of life.’’ Terrorism is an “ideal.’’ It’s a “belief.’’ Terrorism cannot be defeated militarily. Terrorism can only be vanquished by education, education and more education which at first challenges ignorance and then erases it with logic, truth and wisdom. Case in point… Christianity. After 300 years of persecuting the Christians and their beliefs, the “word’’ (not an army, but the “word’’) of a simple carpenter from Nazareth vanquished the most powerful empire ever known to man, the Roman Empire. See the Edict of Milan 313 A.D. in which Roman Emperor Constantine freed the Christians from persecution.
If our elected politicians and their Corporate America benefactors are correct in their promotion of education, education and more education, then I say… let them put up the money to do it so that America can start educating (in Universities, in tech schools and in trade schools) all of our masses… not just the select and fortunate few who can afford an education or the select few “minorities’’ who are able to figure out how to work their way through the financial grant system. As I say to the politicians and to their Corporate America allies (based on your admonition that education, education and more education is absolutely necessary for a strong America), “pick up the tab’’ for education (Universities, tech schools and trade schools) in the same manner we taxpayers “pick up the tab’’ for high school for all of America’s youth… and we can then argue about what conditions to impose on those free educations. After all, a college education (in today’s “high tech’’ world) is the equivalent of a high school education for my generation who came of age in the 1960s.
And, support for my philosophy (“pick up the educational tab’’) is found in the history of the GI Bill when the taxpayers picked up the tab in the 1950s and the 1960s for our veterans under the G.I. Bill—all with outstanding results… as nothing but good things happened as America rose to world heights on the backs of (a G.I. Bill) educated middle class. And, in response to the “right wing’’ hue and cry of “Socialism,’’ remember the cry of “Socialism’’ never stopped public education for high school students, and it didn’t stop the passage of (or the effectiveness of) the G.I. Bill 60 years ago. So, the cry of “Socialism’’ should not stop our government from “picking up the tab’’ for college, tech or trade school educations in America in the 21st. century either… especially where that very same right wing America hailed “Socialism for the Rich’’ when America bailed out the Wall Street banks in 2008… after their fraud brought us the Great Recession of 2008. If “Socialism for the Rich’’ can be justified to bail out Wall Street banks on the grounds that the banks were “too big to fail,’’ then surely taxpayer-supported education for all of our children can be justified on the grounds that ‘‘America is too great to fail.’’
I’m done. And anyone who reads this is probably done too, and I am left to ask myself… “Fred, what the heck are you talking about’’??? to which I can only echo my (9th-grade-educated) father’s sentiments… “Lauck, I think you are educated beyond your comprehension.’’ I suspect my dear father may be insightfully correct.
Copyright © 2015 Fred Lauck