Saturday, September 11, 2010

Teens and Achievement: let's look again

...But maybe it just takes a wider, freer eye to recognize something new to express instead of just rolling into our own small circles.

While pondering the above challenge, which appeared here on Wednesday, I noticed that a few of my friends had posted an article on Facebook that had been published on Psychology Today, titled A Nation of Wimps, by By Hara Estroff Marano, who claims that:
But taking all the discomfort, disappointment and even the play out of development, especially while increasing pressure for success, turns out to be misguided by just about 180 degrees. With few challenges all their own, kids are unable to forge their creative adaptations to the normal vicissitudes of life. That not only makes them risk-averse, it makes them psychologically fragile, riddled with anxiety. In the process they're robbed of identity, meaning and a sense of accomplishment, to say nothing of a shot at real happiness. Forget, too, about perseverance, not simply a moral virtue but a necessary life skill. These turn out to be the spreading psychic fault lines of 21st-century youth. Whether we want to or not, we're on our way to creating a nation of wimps.

It is interesting to note that the article begins with the word "Maybe" but as the author gathers rhetorical speed, all caution is abandoned for the tone of grave and important certainty with which the above-quoted judgment is delivered. The article asserts that surveys of college counseling centers (conducted since 1988) are where the effects of over-protective parenting are first seen. We will have to accept that even though there is no study or survey cited (only isolated, anecdotal evidence is offered) to support the author's claim that the increase of psychological problems among students is linked to a shift in the way American citizens parent (and no scientific proof offered that such a shift has occurred), that there was some kind of sound scientific method used in this survey to determine that college students' mental problems are both more frequent and more severe (as described in the article):
By all accounts, psychological distress is rampant on college campuses. It takes a variety of forms, including anxiety and depression—which are increasingly regarded as two faces of the same coin—binge drinking and substance abuse, self-mutilation and other forms of disconnection. The mental state of students is now so precarious for so many that, says Steven Hyman, provost of Harvard University and former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, "it is interfering with the core mission of the university."

The author of the article suspects that parenting styles have changed since the early 1980's; this suspicion is driven less by empirical evidence and more by the nature of the author's professional training in psychology, which posits that all psychological disturbances are caused by some combination of poor "nature" and/or poor "nurture," where parenting has a greater role in determining outcomes. The greatest problem with the claims made in the article, though, is that it offers no proof that parents are behaving any differently in the 21st Century than they did in the middle of the 20th Century. The assumption that an increase in psychological disturbances (or conversely, an increase in psychological wellness) is always caused by changes in parenting styles has such cultural currency today that an article such as this one can be published and reviewed without the reviewer or editors finding anything amiss.

The other assumption that the author makes in the article is that the purported increase in college student psychopathology has something to do with a higher emphasis placed on achievement. But how was this claim tested? What standards of measurement were used? Again, we don't know. In fact, there have always been stressors that put human beings at risk for psychological disorders; why would the drive to achieve be any more severe or damaging that the exigency to survive?

If we can make the claim that more college students are struggling with psychological issues and stress (again, it's important to remain cautious, since this article is already an unreliable source for its central thesis), then perhaps applying a "wider, freer eye" to this problem could yield a different judgment. First, we might ask what has actually changed since 1988? Across the board, the percentage of U.S. citizens who report that they belong to any form of of religion has dropped significantly since the 1990 census. While other trends and shifts in demographics have been measured by various studies, as well as by the census, the particular shift among adults who consider themselves Christians (which dropped from 86% in 1990 to 76% in 2008) is indeed a factor that would impact students' mental health (the combined change for all other religions practiced in the United States was only 0.5%, which would not make any significant impression on the overall state of college student psychological coping).

That a change in religious practices effects psychosocial competence has been studied scientifically and documented in numerous studies. In just one of those studies, researchers found that "Intrinsic religiously motivated members, in general, manifested more favorable competence attributes than less intrinsically motivated members" ("Religious Participation, Religious Motivation and Individual Psychosocial Competence," Kenneth E. Pargament, et al, published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion).

If a significant shift in parenting styles has occurred in the United States since the early 1980's, then this shift has yet to be studied and documented. If there has indeed been an increased emphasis on achievement in our culture, this incidence would need somehow to be quantified and measured before it could be accepted as fact.

Yet what has been scientifically observed and measured already offers an avenue whereby a more interesting and complete judgment might be made about any increase in college student psychosocial disorders. Why is this important and evident fact ignored?

Parents, and their attempts to raise their children in a world fraught with the particular dangers the 21st Century offers, will continue to bear the brunt of the blame for any undesirable behaviors that appear in their children, as long as we, as a culture, continue to ignore the impact of a worldview that shuts out all possibility of an answer to any of the most basic questions that people ask (particularly when they reach the developmental stage of the college student): Why are we here? What use are we? Why are we given this life and not some other life? etc. This worldview has become increasingly dominant as U.S. citizens abandon religious practice.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Islamophobia and Mother Teresa - Communion and Liberation

Islamophobia and Mother Teresa

The proposed construction of an Islamic center and mosque at Ground Zero has resulted in the outrage of many Americans and the recent public discussion about "Islamophobia" in America. These events provoke us to affirm the following:

1. We notice a growing tendency to manipulate circumstances to serve as a pretext to create a public furor that demands people make a choice between one of two pre -packaged, ideological positions. We refuse to engage in a debate about whether or not to build a mosque at Ground Zero. The reality of Islam in America brings up questions that go much deeper than that of the construction of one mosque.  Indeed, one critical and open question is how contemporary American culture comes to grips with the human person's religious sense.

2. Many of those among the cultural elite, as well as many who hold the levers of power in our nation, have abandoned the religious tradition that informed the lives of the vast majority of their ancestors: Christianity. They have reduced it to a moral code or a vague myth, linked to a man dead for more than 2,000 years. Instead, they have embraced a "scientific" outlook on human life. But science provides no answer to those questions that continuously gnaw at the human heart, such as the problem of justice, the meaning of human life, or the problems of suffering and evil. In fact, science tends to stifle them.  Hence, contemporary American culture finds itself weak and tremendously uncertain about any response to universal human inquiries and longings.

3. Just over two weeks ago, we marked the 100th anniversary of Mother Teresa of Calcutta's birth. One who looks at her sees a resplendent human person, overflowing with love for everyone, especially strangers of different religions. Her humanity touched all: religious and atheist; Muslim and Hindu; rich and poor. Mother Teresa's life invites anyone who seeks truth to open his or her heart and mind and take a fresh look at Christianity.

4. For serious Christians, the challenge of Islam, the large-scale abandonment of Christianity, the emptiness of the dominant culture, and the witness of Mother Teresa signal the urgent need for conversion. Pope Benedict XVI recently said that " not a mere moral decision that rectifies our conduct in life, but rather a choice of faith that wholly involves us in close communion with Jesus as a real and living Person."  The Pope brings us face to face with the defining difference between Christianity and Islam: one religion bases its response to the human person's religious sense upon a message delivered 1,400 years ago, while the other offers the experience of a Man who died but is alive and present with us today.  As Fr. Juliàn Carròn, President of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, recently affirmed: Jesus' message and even all the miracles He performed were not enough to overcome the sadness of His disciples on the road to Emmaus --only His risen presence could ignite their hearts once again.

5. We are not Islamophobic, nor do we fear our post-modern world.  On the contrary, we invite all to look at Mother Teresa and at the Man to whom she gave her life.  In His Person, present with us today, all can find the Truth that alone will deliver the freedom America promises.

Communion and Liberation
September 11, 2010

Benedict XVI,  General Audience, Paul VI Audience Hall, Wednesday, February 17, 2010 (
cfr. Luke 24: 13-35

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What's the Topic Today?

Recently, we had some friends over for dinner and as we are like-minded and obsessed with the same topics, we readily got onto those.  Later, I heard from one person who was not pleased with the usual Catholic conservative cant. He found it was not an environment that would have made sense to a person who was not part of the in-crowd.

Now I'm not interested in dictating what is discussed at a party (in fact, it reminds me of the contrast between the political wrangling at the dinner table in Joyce's "The Dead" and the real issue for Gabriel), and while I felt defensive about our issues, I recall a similar experience during the time of the uproar over Obama being invited to speak at the Notre Dame commencement.  I was out to dinner with a crowd that was not Catholic and who could not comprehend the rancor.  In fact, a year later, no one knew or cared who the next year's commencement speaker at Notre Dame was. 

I was involved with Catholic electronic communications from before the time the internet was open, when we exchanged files and discussion over a BBS network via phone lines (1987-).  We typed and shared encyclicals and papal addresses before there was a  It was exciting, and I love the fact that everyone now waits for that next encyclical to get posted.  Before, people rarely talked about encyclicals.  If you wandered into a Catholic bookstore, you might pick one up, as one selection among hundreds of choices.  There is much to be said about all this instant and important information. And I respect causes and those who dedicate their lives to them.  Those of us who want to judge events can't avoid writing about health care reform, stem-cell research, a mega-mosque at Grand Zero.  If anything, we need more nuance, not less.  Still, it can seem truncated, these viral Catholic threads that spiral through cyberspace, which are incomprehensible to most people because they lack the context that would allow them to be heard. 

A few weeks ago, I read about a bishop of Lyons, France who went to the site of the destruction of gypsy camps, to advocate for his people.  It was a great story and of course some told it.  I think of Suzanne's striking piece about the sports events at the Meeting, which included the rigor of "a bicycle race that begins in Rimini and includes a pass through the Republic of San Marino, a triathlon (as well as a mini triathlon for kids), basketball and fencing (and even rugby) tournaments, and a 6 Km race", which shows a passion for life that anyone can appreciate.  

I hope not to discourage anyone, or myself, from engaging in the public square.  But maybe it just takes a wider, freer eye to recognize something new to express instead of just rolling into our own small circles.