The following remarks were delivered by our Academic Dean during Convocation.
While reading the Odyssey recently, I was struck by a line to which I had not previously paid very much attention. It comes toward the middle of the book when Odysseus begins to tell his story to the Queen and King of Phaeacia. He begins by describing the geography of Ithaca, his homeland, and he says in passing, “Mine is a rugged land but good for raising sons—”
This in turn reminded me of an anecdote I heard long enough ago to have forgotten where I heard it. A farmer who owned a large and prosperous farm that employed many workers also put his own sons to work on the farm. He was asked one day why he put his sons to work raising crops when there was obviously no need for him to do so. “I’m not raising crops,” he replied, “I’m raising sons.”
And if I may, let me supply one more related example. When he was preparing his now famous documentary on the Civil War, Ken Burns was entrusted with a letter from a Union soldier to his wife. It is a deeply moving letter in which the solider confronts the prospect of never seeing his family again. At one point in the letter he writes,
“The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us.”
I mention each of these because they speak to a certain assurance about what exactly constitutes adulthood and how to get there, an assurance that is now noticeably absent in contemporary culture.
As a society, we are at present unsure about how exactly children become adults. Many people are worried that the transition is not happening at all. Some even question whether it is desirable that they do so. It’s been several years now since sociologists coined the phrase “extended adolescence.” And we can gauge the level of concern by the titles of burgeoning genre of books and articles including but not limited to The Vanishing American Adult, The Death of the Grown-Up, The Death of Adulthood in American Culture, and The Infantilization of Society and the Cult of Youth.
We might also point to rise of the unfortunate and inelegant verb, “to adult,” or “adulting.” As in, “I’d love to go out tonight, but I’ve got to adult.” As if being an adult was not something your were but something you did, and only if you had no choice. My own personal favorite data point in the “end of adulthood” genre is the appearance of footie PJs for adults.
These concerns are often manifested, less helpfully in my view, in the form of generational complaint and mockery, chiefly about the so-called Millennial generation. I say that this manifestation of our anxieties about adulthood is less than helpful because it often amounts to a thinly veiled self-righteousness. Like the Pharisee in the temple, we pray loudly, “God, I thank you that I am not like this Millennial.”
I will not attempt anything like a detailed explanation of what exactly is happening or why, but it seems safe to say that there is widespread confusion and anxiety about what it means to be an adult.
This confusion also has a flipside. The late Neil Postman, whose work remains ever-relevant, said that “Without a clear concept of what it means to be an adult, there can be no clear concept of what it means to be a child.”
So alongside vanishing adulthood, we can place the disappearance of childhood. In my way of putting it we are simultaneously witnessing the infantilization of adulthood and the professionalization of childhood.
That these trends have some bearing on the work of education seems obvious enough. What exactly that relationship may be is a little more difficult to pin down. But I’ll offer you, parents and students, a few observations to think about.
In the “death of adulthood” genre, the cure is often framed in terms of independence and self-sufficiency. It’s a reflection of the pseudo-Christian idea that God helps those who help themselves.
One reviewer of a book in the genre offered an alternative vision:
“Suppose adulthood were not synonymous with independence, not synonymous with working, not synonymous with grit or with achievement. Suppose adulthood is instead about accepting dependence, that you can’t take care of everything on your own, that you have limits; suppose the story we need is not the one about the worker who always says yes, but the person who is willing to say no—to the boss, to the job, to work.”
The stress on recognizing our dependence, our mutual dependence, and our limits seems much more in accord with a Christian vision of human flourishing and of the good society.
The idea that adulthood entails learning to say “No” rather than “Yes” is also appealing. Of course, it is not that we say No for the sake of saying No, modern day James Deans, rebels without a cause. Rather it is a matter, in my view, of learning to say No for the sake of saying Yes to what really matters. This is the essence of a disciplined life.
So here, then, are three characteristics of adulthood: dependence acknowledged, limits accepted, and discipline embraced. Let me say a bit more about that last one, with regards to our time and also our attention.
What has our lack of discipline, our inability to say No yielded? Our lives are stuffed, full to the brim, yet no happier. We barrel ahead, sometimes with no clear sense of where we are going, knowing only that we have to do the next thing and then the next. We have said Yes to too much and we have crowded out rest and worship and contemplation and play and joy.
Last year at this event, I asked us to consider the importance of attention. I asked us to view attention as a precious resource and urged us to become stewards of our attention because we lived in a world that had made distraction a matter of habit with devastating consequences for the life of the mind and the state of our souls.
The point, however, was not simply to become misers of attention, to learn only to say No to all of the notifications, vibrations, beeps, rings, and dings that address us constantly. The point, once again, is to say No, so that we might be able to say Yes to things that matter.
Perhaps we can frame maturity or adulthood as a matter of learning what does and does not deserve our attention.
“When I was a child,” the Apostle Paul wrote, “I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
Consider again how we have ignored both sides of Paul’s dictum. We have place before our children that for which they are not sufficiently mature. And we have, as adults, refused to put away childish things.
To return to Paul once more, do we, as parents and as teachers, give our attention to whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable. “If there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise,” Paul urges, “think about these things.” Give your attention to these things.
This entails an ability and willingness to judge. There is a certain irony here. Christians are often fond of pointing out that the only verse in the Bible anybody seems to know anymore is “Judge not, and you will not be judged.” Yet, we too are guilty of a failure to discern: not only between what is true and false and between what is good and what is evil, but also between what is beautiful and what is mediocre and, perhaps more importantly for our theme tonight, between the consequential and the trivial, the meaningful and the superficial.
Not only must we learn how to pay attention to what is noble and beautiful, but maturity also involves learning to pay less attention to ourselves and more attention to others.
The American novelist, David Foster Wallace put it this way in his deservedly famous commencement address at Kenyon College: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the ‘rat race’ — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”
Finally, let me return to the idea of limits. The pursuit of endless possibility is one of the marks of our deferred adulthood. Maturity entails not only the acceptance of limits, but also the realization that our flourishing requires the recognition of limits and that our limitations are the conditions of our happiness.
Wendell Berry has put this as well as I have ever seen it put:
“our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible.”
Our places, where we make our home, where we learn, where we worship, each of these can also be a site of inexhaustible satisfaction and joy, but only if we learn to tend it and care for it.
If all of this business about the acceptance of limits, acknowledging our mutual dependence, and learning to give our attention to what is high and noble sounds like a joyless affair, it is not.
Speaking about the seriousness with which we treat our fellow human beings, CS Lewis in The Weight of Glory writes this:
“This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”
Likewise, when we set aside our preoccupation with ourselves and our fascination with trivial and superficial pleasures, we will find that in learning to love our neighbor and learning to love what is true and just and noble, we will experience a far deeper joy and satisfaction then we have known.
As we plan for this forthcoming year, let us consider how we might lead our children and our students toward God-honoring adulthood, an adulthood that does not consist in rugged self-sufficiency and autonomy but rather in humble recognition of our dependence–on God and on one another–our limits, and the discipline and judgment to turn our attention to what is noble and praiseworthy.
And for those caring for and teaching little ones for whom adulthood is still a far-off reality, let us guard their childhood, their wonder, and their joy.