Holden Caulfield and the Risk of Education

This week’s passing of J.D.Salinger brings back high school memories of a first reading of The Catcher in the Rye. This was in the early 1970′s and I remember my English teacher telling us not to tell our parents we were reading this book. Pretty risky and risque stuff and we felt daring and dangerous. With it’s inner city encounters and rebellious attitude it’s still a dangerous and daring book, but while it has become a kind of rite of passage for many high schoolers, I wonder if the book doesn’t really provide more of a lesson for adults than teenagers.

Holden’s problem is that he can’t learn how to live in the adult world with it’s implicit compromise, hypocrisy, cant and corruption. His ideals are being challenged. His peers seem to capitulate to the adult world without a struggle and everyone he trusts lets him down except his little sister.

If only Holden had grown up in a home or gone to a school where people understood that the adolescent isn’t a malformed adult, but a child who is facing the terror of adult life with the only armory he has: questions. The adolescent is, above all, one who has questions; important questions; vital questions; absolutely essential questions, and any family or educational system that quenches the questions rather than enabling them and empowering the questioner will either produce adolescents in rebellion or adolescents who have learned that a facade of polite conformity is all that is required in order to succeed.

Founder of Communion and Liberation, Monsignor Giussani taught that, when faced with the religious questions, the teenager responds one of three ways: rebellion, polite conformity or open and honest questioning. Too often adolescent catechesis and education has been content with polite conformity, and if rebellion was the response the child was either forced into sullen conformity or rejected. The educator or parent who realizes that questioning is not only good but vital, will face the risk of education with a new creativity and zeal which will inspire and empower the adolescent to set out on the quest for truth and authenticity himself. Such direction of the adolescent instinct produces young adults who are able and willing to engage with truth as they find it. Their instinct to distrust adults is merely their natural urge to find out for themselves, and the wise parent or educator will understand this and compel the student to trust the authority not as the arbitrary dictator of all truth but the wise guide and mentor as the child sets out to discover the truth.

This is most important for an enlightened Catholic education. Tough questions are especially dangerous in the realm of religion, and yet this is the very realm where the questions are most vital and most important. Too often Catholic catechists have suppressed the questions or been unable to answer them. The adolescent must be able to question his religion or he will never make it his own. Catholic education must view the adolescent instinct to question as positive and good and enable the questioning to proceed with proper direction and formation.

Holden Caulfield’s teenaged angst, despair and eventual collapse is simply the witness to failed parenting, failed education and ultimately a failed faith. With a different philosophy of education Holden’s intelligence and sensitivity would have been captured and channelled rather than wasted.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08353696433987975754 Karen

    I think it's also important that catechists be able to admit to a student that they don't have an answer to a particular question [and then be willing to try to find the answer] vs. giving a blatantly wrong answer [a problem we've been having with my 3rd grader's catechist]. I recently picked up a 7th grade religious ed class and I'm astounded by the lack of questions from the students. This week I finally got a question I couldn't answer with absolute certainty and I simply let the girl know that I'd do my homework over the next week and see what I could find for her.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12746127431922685446 JD Curtis

    I wasnt required to read Catcher in the Rye. My brother who attended a Jesuit HS was and I borrowed it after he was done to see what the hub-bub was about.Holden's problem is that he can't learn how to live in the adult world with it's implicit compromise, hypocrisy, cant and corruption. His ideals are being challenged.Hmmm. I guess.Too often Catholic catechists have suppressed the questions or been unable to answer them. The adolescent must be able to question his religion or he will never make it his own.Ding-ding-ding And vee have a VINNER!They SHOULD be allowed to question their own belief system. Fr Dwight, if I may interject, sometimes the BEST answers DON'T come from Catholic apologists but people more along the lines of Billy Graham, William Lane Craig, D. James Kennedy and Vox Day.Let them explore the options at their disposal, and if they wind up Eastern Orthodox or Free Methodist, let the darn chips fall where they may. At least they are honestly looking for answers in a world that really needs them. D' accord?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04446241126728692642 Paul Stilwell

    The trick is to affirm the adolescent in his questions while not letting those questions become his cudgel to simply reject religion at every turn.Yes, let him question. No, don't let it take him down any path.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06139323115107439253 Tom

    Father,As a member of C&L; and a high school theology teacher I can say Monsignor Giussani's approach is what we need in proposing the faith to all, young and old.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01562944653624224107 Adrienne

    There is one problem here (IMHO)The religious education of the very young is so poor that most adolescents aren't even able to form a question.I spent years in RE. When confronted with a young person that doesn't have a basic understanding of what the church teaches there is nothing to question. How can you have a discussion about the sacraments when they don't know what they are, or even how many, etc? True Presence? Not a clue. This, unfortunately, is the norm, not the exception, in most parishes. The lower grades in our area, including our Catholic school, are taught some watered down "Jesus loves you" carp.Until the church returns to some memorization of the basics of our faith in the lower grades, we will lose them. If a 15 year old can't spit out by rote, "a sacrament is an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace", there is no discussion and certainly no questions to be asked.I could spend an entire school year (or three), just on the theology contained in that one sentence. If his entire Catholic faith is based only on "Jesus loves me", well, Jesus can love him just as well at the local mega-church, which has the added benefit of a coffee stand in the lobby and a rock band. And that's exactly where our kids go.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr Longenecker

    Adrienne, you are correct in your assessment that the success of this approach relies on thorough and detailed catechesis in the early years. If the adolescent years are to be positive times of questioning then the pre adolescent years must be the time when the truth is presented by the 'authority' without much question. This is the time when the truth is packed into the backpack for life's journey. It is in adolescence that the backpack is unpacked and examined and double checked for reliability.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12187013947104536133 Faith

    I don't know about the memorization. My older sisters were all catechized in Catholic schools and had to memorize the Baltimore Catechism. Only one is still Catholic and she is not what I would call an orthodox one! I don't think she remembers anything. It was like cramming for a test, they didn't retain it. Nope, I think children need to internalize the faith. That may or may not happen with memorization. I am a catechist to some 7th grade girls right now. It is terribly sad how little they know. But then their parents are only nominally Catholic.I think to be a good teacher you have to meet that student where ever he is. If you have a 15 year old asking questions, just tell them what a sacrament is, instead of lamenting that they don't know it yet. Maybe it'll click now and be meaningful because an adult cared enough and respected their questions enough to really engage them. I think the whole system of RE in the US is terrible. I think we need to focus on family catechesis in parishes instead of the tired and ineffective system where we have volunteers teaching kids using a really lame classroom model. The parents are not well equipped to bring their children up in the faith. There are more poorly catechized Catholics out there than there are those who know their faith. We need to revitalize the whole family's faith life. Thank you, Father, for the review of Cather in the Rye. I loved that book and so related to how Holden felt. I've just been reading a lot about attachment parenting. That book really is about how lonely and painful growing up is when there is no security and no sense of being loved. You really pegged it when you said it was a book about bad parenting!