One occupational hazard for the school administrator is the soul-crushing weight of teacher progress reports, budgets, test scores, student modification plans, and other sundry documents and spreadsheets. In an effort to mitigate the risk of focusing exclusively on such details, my headmaster scheduled me to teach a seventh-grade class in addition to my administrative duties as assistant headmaster. After all, the cultivation of students is the end to which our administrative energies move, and this class would provide clear sight of our target: real, flesh-and-blood persons.

The class was small, but what it lacked in numbers it made up for in personality. I quickly learned that this bright bunch of thirteen-year-olds was always ready to pounce on any perceived weakness or contradiction in my teaching. This came as no surprise. As a classical school, we not only draw upon more than two thousand years of history, but we credit the insights of Dorothy Sayers, who argued during the 1940s for the continuing relevance of the medieval trivium. According to Sayers, the “Pert” stage (roughly sixth through eighth grade) is characterized by a desire to challenge and contradict and, consequently, has a particularly high “nuisance-value.”

Rather than squelching these tendencies in students, my goal was to refine them, teaching students to think, reason, imagine, and argue well. But one day, my students’ “nuisance-value” was especially evident, in large part because their challenges were coming from a darker place. There was a “too cool for school” tone to it all; the students seemed less like curious inquirers and more aloof and detached, lobbing challenges like grenades—more interested in disruption and decimation than understanding. To anyone teaching youth, this experience is not surprising; in fact, the only thing surprising may be that it was an aberration. As I reflect on this atypical day in class, I wonder whether our educational climate actually fosters this type of detachment, even cynicism.

Thick and Thin Institutions

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New York Times columnist David Brooks recently explored the types of institutions that have a formative impact on people. Brooks distinguishes between thick and thin institutions, a distinction that turns out to be helpful for thinking about education. Thin institutions have a horizontal orientation, viewing members as resources and valuing them mostly for their instrumentality. In return, members tend to view thin institutions in terms of the practical value the institution provides its members. Thick institutions, on the other hand, have higher aims and think in terms of virtue and vice. In return, members tend to remember thick institutions with warm affection. For Brooks, thick institutions have the weight to impress upon their members a mark, even an identity.

Our educational institutions are too thin. The vision behind the contentious Common Core standards, captured in this explanatory video, provides an instructive example. (I am indebted to my colleague, Todd Wedel, who has incisively analyzed the video.) The video depicts a lone student, embarking on a trek up a cold, sparse staircase. The student’s only help in this journey is a mechanical arm, occasionally plucking her from one tier and advancing her upward. Aside from the mechanical arm, nearly every other interaction the student has is competitive, whether it’s competing on different staircases with other students or bracing for the judgment of their teacher, who stands ready to “measure success” with ruler in hand.

The purpose of education, according to the video, is to see students rise above their peers and stand apart in the world. While there’s a fleeting nod to cooperation in the closing seconds, the overriding message is one of control and competition; ultimately students are called upon to master both skills and other students in order to position themselves for monetary success. This material end is achieved through competition.

Such a flat vision for education naturally leads to a thin educational experience that leaves students feeling weightless and, as a result, anchorless. It’s an anemic vision, incapable of capturing students’ imaginations. Indeed, a major obstacle to education in America is a profound sense of dislocation that bears down on students; all too often students feel as though they are “standing apart” in the worst sense of the term.

A video produced by Parkway Schools in the St. Louis area gives clues about what students actually hope for in school. At the beginning of the school year, a Parkway high school placed a chalkboard in front of the school with a simple question: “What is your hope?” As students approached the school they wrote their hopes and dreams on the empty chalkboard. Their responses are telling. Few students sought mastery of a particular subject; no student hoped to crush the competition by dominating physics; no student indicated hopes to meet or exceed state standards in ninth-grade algebra. Instead, these students hoped for happiness (“to be happy”), friendship (“to make new friends”), acceptance (“that people will like me”; “to be included”), approval (“that my teachers like me”), and place (“that it feels like home”).

A host of contemporary cultural conditions contributes to students’ sense of being adrift—what sociologists have described as anomie. Historically, education has been thicker, maintaining a more vertical orientation and addressing questions of virtue and vice. For much of human history, the purpose of education has been to situate students in the world, helping them align their lives with the grain of the universe, what C.S. Lewis in his treatment of education calls the Tao. In the last century, however, that purpose has been supplanted by more practical goals. Whereas modern education emphasizes control over an inert world from which the student has been extracted, ancient education sought to locate the individual within a community and the cosmos.

A Breeding Ground for Cynicism

The flat approach to education has perilous consequences for students. For starters, it leaves students feeling shortchanged and viewed as mere parts in an economic machine. This starves students of deep relationships with others and the world, and it leaves them in an existential freefall. Worse, if students relate to others through competition, and relate to the material through control and mastery, many of their most important human needs—the very needs that showed up on that chalkboard—will be ignored.

A typical human response to such legitimate soul hunger is cynicism. If the world and others are to be mastered and controlled, then the student develops habits of control. Of course, the world is far too complex (even mysterious) to be controlled, and the same is true for human relationships. Since a thin education comes up short in accounting for the fullness of the student’s life, aloof cynicism is its natural consequence.

Such cynicism is an understandable means for coping with the tension. By distancing himself from the world, the student is able to “see through” to what’s really going on, as cynics always do. Perched above others, the cynic can safely and endlessly comment on how the world works and on how others relate to one another, purportedly having a real understanding of the situation though never getting personally involved.

A thin education, after all, imparts a thin view of the world that makes it easy to look down upon it from above, and so students do. Schools with a purely practical scope offer an asteroid field of data, giving students free-floating facts incapable of illuminating a student’s life, much less stirring the imagination. The likelihood of these nuggets of data coalescing into any sort of coherent picture of the world is slim, for with an emphasis on analysis over and against synthesis, students are trained to pick apart, not to piece together. The instruction to “think critically” is a recipe for precisely the kind of deconstructive agenda my middle-school students put on display that day in class; what remains unaddressed is students’ need to be rooted, and to have something else to say after they have deconstructed everything that is before them.

After several years in a system like this, students develop habits of looking down on the curriculum, down on their teachers, and down on other students. The armchair quarterback enjoys a feeling of mastery precisely because of his safe distance from the actual game, for if he were to enter the game, a swift jolt of reality (a six-foot-five, 240-pound jolt) would confront him. Similarly, students must distance themselves from one another, the world, and the curriculum in an effort to maintain the illusion of control, the quality their education teaches them to cherish above all.

A Way Forward

Rather than thinking of education as a way to help students rise above and stand apart from the world, what if educators focused on situating students within a community? What if schools became thick institutions? What if the energies of policymakers, administrators, and teachers extended beyond technical mastery narrowly defined to instead consider the deep human needs of happiness, friendship, approval, and rootedness?

This appears to be what students want, namely, to be situated and rooted in the world. Students need thick schools capable of rooting them socially, existentially, and vocationally. By focusing too heavily on the latter of these three, schools end up pushing a vision of education marked by competition and control. Such a vision of education is thin, leaving students shortchanged and ripe for disengaged cynicism.

Schools would do well to draw on ancient educational wisdom to thicken education and help students live in harmony with the world and their communities. On the part of educators and policymakers, there must be a willingness to provide the exploratory space for schools to reimagine an education that attends to deeper human needs of place, connections, and purpose. For my own school, this has meant a return to classical education. A failure to address these deeper human needs will likely lead students toward a disengaged cynicism, which seeks to see through things, through everything. And, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, students who see through everything, end up seeing nothing.