Teach the children well

The Atlantic has a very long wordy windbaggy article arguing that universities should teach students religion; not about religion, but religion. Why? Because they’re adrift, and only religion can fix their adriftitude.

Long long long introductory passage that tells us far more than we want to know. He used to teach. He got to know some students.

What I discovered was that many of the students I talked to were disappointed, confused, and lost. They were bright kids. Many of them had looked forward to going to the university all their lives. College was, in their imaginations, a sort of promised land, a place where you find your calling and get the skills necessary to pursue it. What they found, however, was not a promised land at all. To them, the college curriculum was a bewildering jumble of classes that led to nothing in particular. 

And so on and on and on in that style, loose and relaxed and endlessly explaining the obvious.

I also learned that because they were adrift in so many ways, they suffered. It was not difficult to get them talking about their distress, probably because no one at the university had ever thought to inquire. There were those who drank too much and got into trouble. There were those who were full-blown alcoholics or drug addicts.

And on and on and on through every type he can think of. Bad writing! We get it; a couple of examples will do; we get the idea. Cut to the chase.

He himself had a crisis once. What to do? Psychiatrists were not much help; they couldn’t get at the core problem. What to do? Religion.

What to do? I had never been religious. Far from it, I was a confirmed atheist. But, in desperation, I began to attend what might generically be called a “spiritual program.” Some call it a “religion” and others call it a “practice.” It doesn’t matter. The important point is that the people in this spiritual program embraced me, identified with me, and told me to do a specific set of things. There was talk of God, but they explained that talking was secondary to doing. I didn’t have to believe in God, they said, all I had to do was practice the teachings of the “religion.” If I did that, they said, I would be relieved of much of my suffering.

And it worked. Why? Because it gave him a way of life.

Without a way of life, I would say, one’s thoughts and actions tend to move at random, like water poured on a surface, spreading out and seeking the lowest places. With a way of life, I would continue, one’s thoughts and actions move in a single direction, like water poured in a channel, moving in a single direction toward a final end.

And that’s why he thinks it’s a remedy for everyone. Kind of pathetic, isn’t it.

There are a few hundred more paragraphs about why it’s ok to teach this to students.

American higher education has, however, one glaring deficiency: it does not teach its undergraduates how to live. It teaches them when the French Revolution was, what the carbon cycle is, and how to solve for X. It does not teach them what to do when they feel confused, alone, and scared. When they break down after a break-up. When they are so depressed they cannot get out of bed. When they drink themselves into unconsciousness every night. When find themselves living on someone’s couch. When they decide to go off their meds. When they flunk a class or even flunk out of school. When they get fired. When a sibling dies. When they don’t make the team.

Believe it or not, there’s more like that. More examples; more “when they”s. That guy cannot write for shit. He should have skipped the religion and maybe even skipped graduate school and just learned how to write.

I do not think he gives good advice about what to teach students.


  1. Cuttlefish says

    His initial description of his own job explains much of why his students are “disappointed, confused, and lost”–he clearly did not care about undergraduate teaching, and claims he was typical of the faculty at his institution. But rather than admit that he and his colleagues created an environment that harmed students–rather than acknowledge that they were at least in part the cause of their students’ problems–Poe would rather abrogate responsibility and invite outsiders to clean up his mess.


  2. Claire Ramsey says

    What a pathetic article. I hate articles full of rambly, evidence-free generalizations. And he is WRONG about so much of it. I wonder how many years he taught at the university level. I found many students disappointed, confused and lost b/c they were 18 and 19 years old. Away from home, away from their identities from high school, and cognitively and socially undeveloped. They are just plain young. Dreams mostly do not come true and yes, that is a disappointment. We do not always get what we want. We learn that, most of us, as we grow up. My students wanted faculty who knew their names. They were not lacking a “way of life” and they were not lacking religion. Indeed, the majority of them were practicing religions that they grew up with.

    And at a university mostly supported on public money – state and federal – I would never have proposed anything about any religion to students. That is not what they needed me for. They needed me for other stuff and one big thing they needed me for was to help them learn to write. . . sheesh. What a total crock.

  3. karmacat says

    So, he basically admits that he needs someone to tell him what to do and probably what to think. Good psychiatrists won’t tell someone to do. This man doesn’t need religion. He needs a mommy or daddy. Oh, wait….so he found a sky daddy. Pathetic

  4. Maureen Brian says

    Claire Ramsey @ 4 has it absolutely right. The dear man should have consulted her before writing all that garbage.

    I’d also point out that socialism, if taken in moderate doses, is even more effective at getting one through the heebie-jeebies of late adolescence and firming up one’s identity in a parent-free zone. In most cases it leaves the brain undamaged.

  5. anne mariehovgaard says

    The advice we were given as first year students was to join a student organisation – political ones, student government, the various groups running the student center, or just a sports club. That will give you a social group, slightly older students as “student-role models”, shared goals that have nothing to do with academic achievement, and the opportunity to practice (and having others help you with) grown-up skills like democracy and balancing a budget. Not a complete “way of life” perhaps, but it helps. A lot.

  6. iknklast says

    I tend to find that my freshmen students are adrift, too. 90% of our students are religious, so how to explain it? Well, first, they are away from home for the first time in their lives, in a setting where they are the one responsible for getting themselves to class (or not), getting their work done, and feeding themselves (even if that only means remembering to get to the dining hall before it closes). From a world where they didn’t have to make a lot of decisions, they suddenly have to make those decisions, and it’s very shocking. And probably good for them. Most of them adjust reasonably quickly without asking their minister what they need to do. However, I can understand why he feels religion could fix this problem, since religion is about having a set of rules that you don’t have to figure out on your own.

    The other thing I see is that there is a distance between the expectations of college and the reality. Warm fuzzy expectations aside, the college curriculum contains things you don’t understand why you have to take. My students come to class the first day without any real idea why they are required to take a science class if they aren’t going to be scientists. I assume the math, English, political science, and other instructors face the same ignorance of the role of their course in the life of someone going in a different direction. I start off the semester discussing why we have to take a science course, why it’s important, and they usually prove quite capable of grasping that and moving on.

    I think this guy has taken a perfectly natural disorientation as a student moves from being a legal child to a legal adult, and blows it up into an argument for his god. I pity his students. They would be better served by addressing the real issues faced by a college student in a big new world that doesn’t quite look like the one he’s used to.

  7. johnthedrunkard says

    Gosh! Americans guzzle booze and take tons of illegal drugs, and misdirected pharmaceutical drugs. The economy of the entire world, the political and social conditions of whole continents, are warped to accommodate American’s appetite for drugs.

    And what developed nation is more religious than any other? And which regions of this country happen to have the highest consumption of booze and drugs?

    How CAN these morons continue thumping the tub for religion as a solution to this? Oh, yes, anecdotes from Oprah and this weekend’s altar call.

  8. rnilsson says


    March 7, 2014 at 6:08 pm (UTC -8) Link to this comment

    It was a target-rich environment.

    What, a totally different kuttle of fish? A barrel of bore? 🙂

    Reminds me of {Crosby Stills Nash Young} (some parts thereof) Teach Your Children Well, ca 1969. So, did we? Sigh.

  9. AnotherAnonymouse says

    I agree with so many off the commenters. I went to college because I was fascinated by computers and thought I wanted to work with them (turns out I was right, and I still do work with them). I joined my dorm’s intra-mural sports teams (we played against other dorms and then went out drinking afterwards) and joined one of the campus social groups, and found slightly-older mentors who were very helpful to my personal growth. Religion played no part of my college years except for the annoyance of having to constantly rebuff the pushy Campus Crusade for Christ and Inter-Varsity Christian groups that were constantly harassing the students. No invisible sky-daddy for me, and yet somehow I managed to graduate into a middle-class, average life.

  10. Gordon Willis says

    I am a private teacher, teaching one-to-one. I teach both adults and children. Some of the children, invariably girls, come from Hong Kong or mainland China. They come aged 13 or 14 or 15, like English children to a boarding school, except that they come alone, because their parents can’t afford the fare for both themselves and their daughters. And they find digs and join a new school of completely foreign people, and they stay, and they learn, and they do not (apparently) suffer trauma and angst and complexes and lack-of-religion, even though their English is terrible (one young lady of 17 studying A-level music with me a couple of years ago told me that she preferred it here, though she hadn’t seen very much of her parents since she was 13, and her English is still pretty bad). Though they are very much alone they just get on with it. Culture, probably. They believe in what they are to do, and they do it. It’s amazing and admirable.

    There are problems sometimes, of course. Part of being a teacher is to recognise problems and deal with them. The secret is to shut up and let the student just be. There is no reason to suppose that one has answers, but there is great benefit in simply listening and offering something immediately practical, something that can be grasped and used. Poe clearly feels that he ought to intervene and offer a life strategy to each student, as though each student were not an individual and discrete person but an object which must be changed and directed for life. He feels responsible, by which I mean that he feels that he ought to direct, not merely teach, as though he aspired to offer a life-plan for every young person. Teaching is about learning, and you can’t teach if you are not a learner.

    A teacher is not someone who knows everything (and so can “teach”) but someone who understands learning, and the vital importance of learning, and who knows that learning never ends, and that whoever stops learning is not an “accomplished” adult but a carcass fit only for worms or the crematorium. A good teacher can transform a child’s life, but it might not happen, and if it does one might never know. A good teacher is just a teacher.

  11. rnilsson says

    Gordon, that’s an admirable approach to teaching and learning.

    Ophelia, glad we’re on the same side of the LP. Alas, mine presently undecipherable in vinyl. So relying on meat-memory.

    (Almost … cut my hair!*) ~(8-{= <- DopeyDavey

    * singular

  12. Numenaster says

    I noticed early in the article the author says he “avoided service whenever I could. I do not think I was unusual in this regard. ” Perhaps religion was such a help to him because it got his attention off himself for a change. If so, his problem was a lack of ethics, not a lack of religion.


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