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What Were They Thinking?

The Rev. Daniel R. Heischman, D.D.
February 13, 2012
Surely, this is the time of year when we can be easily frustrated by student behavior. Be it on an individual or group level, we can find ourselves repeating the words above, “What were they thinking?” Perhaps, we might wonder, was thinking actually part of the equation at all? We can find ourselves asking lots of basic questions regarding what students have done, perhaps what adults have done, as news of incidents reach our desks, and which may now require a corrective and appropriate response.

A cautionary note is always valuable. Our students, as well as the adults in our community, are fundamentally good people. We need to remind ourselves of this basic fact, over and over, as we meet unexpected and undesirable behavior at any level. Recently, the New York Times Magazine reported that, when it comes to surveys on teenage substance abuse and sexual behavior, our young people are actually more conservative than many of their parents.* While the internet and social media can open up new avenues of opportunity for us to wonder, “What were they thinking?” it can also allow for a more careful monitoring by parents of their children. As one school head recently wrote, in the aftermath of one of those large-scale incidents that can wreak havoc with the morale of a school this time of year, “We have a good school and good students.” We should never lose sight of that simple reality in light of frustrating events.

These moments can also reacquaint us with another important perspective, something that strikes at the heart of what we are about as school communities. In our cultural push for young people to grow up faster, to acquire ever-greater intellectual skills and expose them to wider experiences, the cultivation of a moral compass is not automatic. Sophisticated, savvy, and very bright young people are not necessarily well-grounded in moral judgments. Indeed, as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote some years ago,** for moral judgment to flourish, young people need more, not less, time to grow up. The absence of that compass, which can come as a surprise to us, may well be an unwelcome and unintended consequence of our push to make students grow up before they are ready.

The crucial question might well be, in the words of the Archbishop, are we providing, for our children, “room to explore in safety, not to be prematurely committed?” It may well be the key ingredient in the cultivation of moral judgment, for what our students need to be thinking as they mature.

*See, Tara Parker-Pope, “The Kids Are More Than All Right,” New York Times Magazine (February 5, 2012), 14.
**See, “Childhood and Choice,” in Rowan Williams, Lost Icons (Edinburgh, 2001).