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Moral maturity and the schooling of desire

By Dr. Karen E. Bohlin
Posted: 6/12/2009

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In Antoine Saint-Exupery’s ‘‘The Little Prince,’’ we are reminded of a simple truth, “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” But how do we teach children to distinguish what is essential and lasting from what is fleeting? How does the heart learn to see rightly, when it is so easily misled?

The goal of education is to help children learn to make intelligent choices rather than impulsive ones, to help them love well and pursue what is good. Children need to understand what is at the root of all their desires: a longing for happiness, what John Paul II calls in ‘‘Fides et Ratio,’’ a “nostalgia for God.” He explains that, “in the far reaches of the human heart there is a seed of desire and nostalgia for God.... Through literature, music, painting, sculpture, architecture and every other work of their creative intelligence [men and women] have declared the urgency of their quest.” To help them “see rightly” parents can nurture their children’s longing for God by redirecting their misappropriated desires toward worthier goals.

Several years ago I led a group of students on a literary and theatre tour of London. One of my tenth graders, a TV junkie, confided her fear that our schedule might not accommodate her wide range of shopping interests. Sarah was a capable student, but completely disengaged from academics; she slid by, meeting minimum requirements. She spoke articulately about ‘‘All My Children’’ and ‘‘As the World Turns,’’ two of her favorite soap operas, and faithfully recorded the programs, sacrificing sleep to watch taped episodes.

Half way into our tour, Sarah had an epiphany of sorts on our late night visit to the Tower of London. Just inside the Traitor’s Gate, we gathered to witness the centuries-old Ceremony of the Keys. After the formal exchange of keys and a cry of “All’s well,” the ceremony drew to a close, and Sarah confronted me. “That was awesome--I can’t believe how much I’ve enjoyed this trip. And I wanted to let you know that when I go home, I am never going to watch soap operas again.” My shock soon gave way to admiration. This was not a fleeting resolution. Upon returning to school, Sarah spearheaded the school’s first literary magazine. Later, she served as editor-in-chief of the yearbook, dedicated herself to volunteer work, became a youth leader in her church and secured a part-time job to finance an educational trip to Italy. Her experience in England--from the British Museum to the Tower of London--brought the drama of history and literature to life for Sarah and awakened new desires. The melodrama of her soap operas had now lost its appeal. Sarah’s experience at the Tower of London signaled a pivotal moment, but her transformation did not take place overnight. Her new interests required commitment, training, and the relinquishing of former habits. If on our trip to London, Sarah had pursued only what she felt like doing, she would have spent her entire time shopping and watching soaps in her hotel room.

Without orientation and guidance, children may blindly pursue anything that captures their attention. With hearts unable to “see rightly,” they become vulnerable to rationalization and start to second rather than question their desires. When they want something badly enough they can justify wasting time, meanness, cheating, overspending, or even unhealthy relationships. And they are not at a loss for headlines featuring celebrities who do same, indulging their baser desires rather than evaluating and correcting them.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2573) tells us that the heart is “the place of decision...the place for truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in revelation: it is the place of covenant.” The schooling of desire, the education of the heart, is fundamental to moral maturity. It is never too early to begin. I was struck by the wisdom of a young mom who told me that whenever her son says, “I don’t feel like putting my toys away or I don’t feel like apologizing or I don’t feel like going to see Grandma and Grandpa,” she calmly and confidently responds, “Don’t worry, Honey, that feeling will go away.” That feeling usually does go away, when children are re-directed and re-connected to what is essential, the deepest yearnings of the human heart.

Dr. Karen E. Bohlin is Head of the Montrose School in Medfield and Senior Scholar at Boston University’s Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character.