High school graduation is a season of joy as we witness a sea of smiling young graduates, ready for anything. However, those smiles far too often mask the years of anxiety over getting into the right college that led up to that point.
The stress doesn’t go away once they have entered college; too many of these young people struggle to cope with challenges they encounter on campus.
Our culture pushes young people to excel in the college admissions process so much that many families and their children end up trading away happiness for a terrible bargain. We need to chart a different course. Religious education can provide valuable wisdom for how to help students not just set their sights on applying to college but thriving in life.
Parents often tell me their kids are too busy. Their schedules are filled ferrying their children from one activity to another. As college applications loom, the hustle turns into a frenzy. Students juggle mounting commitments. The all-important college application has begun to haunt too many childhoods, whispering premature anxiety into questions of what to learn and how to spend time, even where to live.
Admission counselors admit that too many of those students who make it to their campuses languish when they arrive. They possess a fragile excellence. Faced with a significant challenge—such as living away from home for the first time, a difficult course, or other demands that come with college life—these students flounder. The skills of getting into college undermine the confidence to thrive once there.
While it may sound strange coming from the CEO of the College Board, I believe it’s time to stop the competitive madness that’s hurting our students. We must find a healthier approach, one based on lasting excellence rather than fragile success, one that leaves room for faith, family, and fun.
For us to change our culture, all of us in education to recognize that education is a soulcraft. The disciplines we cultivate in young people hold sway for the rest of their lives.
The best traditions of religious learning offer lessons for healthy intellectual and social development that prepare students to flourish not only while swept up in the admissions process but in the deeper challenges beyond.
First, religious education celebrates and cultivates productive solitude—the practice of being alone. We don’t need to visit a monastery to recognize the essential link between solitude, contemplation, and prayer. Today’s young people especially need productive solitude as the technology of interruption has grown to outpace the discipline of concentration.
The sometimes-crazed pursuit of college admission tends to destroy such solitude and inhibits excellence in any activity outside of the classroom. Typical college applications have five to ten spaces for activities. There should be no more than three. If you want to do more, so be it. But those pursuits should stem from genuine interest, not the anxiety of needing to fill blanks on an application.
A second powerful practice is reverent reading. Reading deeply—attending to a text with the full powers of the mind and heart—is vital to communities of faith and to academic success. C. S. Lewis describes it best when he compares reading well to looking at a work of art:
We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. We must look and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.
I find that students are often asked more about themselves than the books they have read. Lewis describes true reading as enlarging the soul, a skill critical for the first year in college, when students spend less time in class and more time reading independently.
A third gift of religious education is what many religious communities call “grace and gratitude.” Religious training invites us to strive with all our might while recognizing the limits of our power.
A young person informed by grace and gratitude escapes the illusion that they are entirely in control of their lives. That awareness makes them less fragile in the face of failures and more grounded when successful.
These observations demonstrate how much we can learn by looking across educational traditions, including public, private, religious, and home schools.
A few weeks ago, I addressed a national audience of nearly 2,000 evangelical Christians in Nashville and called for a patient pluralism that allows us to share insights, despite the differences that sometimes divide us. The College Board counts leaders from among all those communities as our members, and we are stronger for it.
In sharing our best ideas and highest ideals, we can stop the madness. Let us foster rows of graduates who are deeply happy and ready.
David Coleman is CEO of the College Board, a mission-driven not-for-profit organization, best known for the SAT and AP Program, that is committed to clearing a path for all students to own their future.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.