Today’s students, so aware of the world around them, remind Peter Meehan of the activism of 1968. Photo by Michael Swan

Beyond high school: Preparing for life’s next big step

By 
  • April 29, 2021

In May of 1968 student protesters in Paris put up signs that read, “Be realistic — demand the impossible.” Other signs read, “Life, quickly.” Meanwhile in the United States young people rose up in disgust over their government’s conduct of the Vietnam War and Canadian universities began filling up with American draft dodgers.

Today at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont., university president Peter Meehan sees the spirit of 1968 rising again, and he welcomes it.

“They’re invested in things,” he said of the incoming crop of students. “You saw it with Black Lives Matter last year…. This might as well be 1968. This is our own 1968 right now. I see a lot of similarities.”

Catholic education at all levels has to be ready to meet the ideals and concerns of young people, Meehan said.

“The way we respond to it — we have to respect where they are and not hold it against them when they react adversely to things that quite frankly they should (react to). These are big issues,” he told The Catholic Register.

From climate change crippling the planet to racism baked into how society functions, from the injustice of income inequality to all the sexual and political issues wrapped up in what campus administrators have taken to calling EDI — equity, inclusion and diversity — students are looking around at the world they’re inheriting and don’t like what they see.

In part that youthful clash between ideals and the world is natural to every generation moving from high school to the university campus, said Meehan, who also heads up the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities of Canada.

“It’s that time in your life where you’re not a kid anymore, but you are not a fully invested adult and you start to get passionate about things — causes and issues,” he said.

None of this is necessarily what parents are looking for in a university experience for their graduating sons and daughters. While parents are thinking about a career path, students in the transition between high school and university are reacting to the world around them.

“I would try to start the conversation with parents, trying to get them to understand what it is that university is really about,” said Meehan. “If we can get them past the focus on jobs — which I understand, I don’t want to be cavalier, it’s a worry. They want their kids to be happy. They equate happiness with jobs. So (they’ve) got to get them into a good program that gets them a good job.”

But students aren’t ready for career building before they’ve finished the process of human formation, which Meehan believes is at the heart of Catholic education.

“Cardinal Newman said that the role of the university — and he wasn’t talking about Catholic universities per se — he said that the role of the university is to prepare students of the world for the world. So it hits them with the big questions.”

Students coming out of the Catholic school system aren’t necessarily primed for the big questions, but Meehan doesn’t blame the high school teachers.

“There are a lot of what I would call religiously indifferent people who send their kids to Catholic schools,” Meehan notes. “If you expect the Catholic school to make up for what also needs to be reinforced in the home,  you’re expecting too much from a Catholic school.”

But Catholic universities in Canada know the job ahead of them, according to Meehan.

“We’re trying to pick up the conversation in a way that meets them (students) where they are as young adults,” he said. “That’s a different conversation than you present between 14 and 18.”

Meehan began his career teaching in high schools then went on to a PhD focused on the history of Catholic education in Canada.

“It’s the oldest issue in Canada proper — Section 93 of the BNA Act,” he said.

Section 93 guaranteed Catholic education rights outside of Quebec and Protestant education rights inside Quebec. It was the key to uniting Upper and Lower Canada in 1867. Back then, education was a political issue in which communities demanded the right to form the next generation and preserve their communal identity.

Meehan warns that today we’ve fallen into a consumerist mentality, treating education as if it were a commodity.

“Parents are buying this for their kids, like they might buy something else,” he lamented. “But real educators should know what the purpose of education is. It’s got this broad set of goals — to educate and form individuals.”

The idea of teaching as a vocation should insulate Catholic education from consumerism.

“Catholic teachers then have to be educated and formed themselves, otherwise they’re just accidental Catholic teachers. Do you want a teacher who is Catholic or a Catholic teacher?”

Under those conditions, if students are idealistic then they’re ready for Catholic education.

“Catholic education has always been so important to the Church because we just don’t think that public idea of education — while the quality of academic instruction might be fine — encompasses enough of that whole-person approach that we take. That’s always been so important,” he said. “We see education and formation of the human person as part of the same exercise.”

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