The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next.
What is shaping the environment in which our children are growing up? I am sure many ‘things’ come to mind.
We may get a clue about one of the “things” that contribute to the problem from the comment above, attributed to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.
The philosophy of the classroom today, in government schools in particular, is grounded in a secular, non-religious philosophy of life that views the wellbeing of our children as contingent upon research-based evidence.
Such evidence points to the need, for example, to increase the strength of the relationship between students and their teachers (World Health Organisation) and to improve students’ abilities to respond flexibly and appropriately to the opportunities and demands in their environment, through focused learning on their social and emotional development (Durlak et al).
However, what any of us regards as important is influenced by our philosophy or set of values. Our education system is committed to secular humanism; which can be understood as a belief system that disregards the existence of anything beyond the physical here and now and supports an ethical system based on consequences, rather than on a set of principles as part of an external belief system (Flynn). This framework influences how relevant research is referenced.
For example, a recent report published by Theos, an English academic think tank, notes that evidence from nearly 140 academic studies, conducted over the last three decades, of the relationship between religion and wellbeing in a wide range of countries and contexts, suggests that overall, holding a religious worldview contributes positively to a person’s wellbeing (Spencer et al). This position is also supported from research by the World Health Organisation.
An extensive research report from the Commission on Children at Risk, a panel of 33 leading children’s doctors, research scientists and youth service professionals in the U.S., suggests new strategies to reduce the high numbers of American children who are suffering from emotional and behavioural problems such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit, conduct disorders, and thoughts of suicide.
Despite a decade of economic growth that resulted in fewer children living in poverty, large and growing numbers of American children and adolescents are suffering from mental health problems. Scholars at the National Research Council in 2002 estimated that at least one of every four adolescents in the United States is at serious risk of not achieving productive adulthood. Twenty-one per cent of U.S. children aged nine to 17 have a diagnosable mental disorder or addiction; 8 per cent of high school students suffer from clinical depression; and 20 per cent of students report having seriously considered suicide in the past year.
The report noted: “To date the influence of religion on U.S. young people has been `grossly understudied’, according to Byron Johnson of the University of Pennsylvania. However, existing research is highly suggestive. For adolescents, religiosity is significantly associated with a reduced likelihood of both unintentional and intentional injury (both of which are leading causes of death for teenagers. Homicides, suicides and accidents account for 85 per cent of all deaths among early to late adolescents).
“Religious teenagers are safer drivers and are more likely to wear seatbelts than their less religious peers. They are less likely to become juvenile delinquents or adult criminals. They are less prone to substance abuse. They are less likely to endorse engaging in high-risk behaviour or the idea of enjoying danger.
“On the positive side of the coin, religiously committed teenagers are more likely to volunteer in the community, to participate in sports and student government, to have high self-esteem and more positive attitudes about life. Much of this research is based on large national studies.
“One religious quality that appears to be especially beneficial to mental health and lifestyle, is what some scholars call personal devotion, or the young person’s sense of participating in a ‘direct personal relationship with the Divine’. Personal devotion among adolescents is associated with reduced risk-taking, more effectively resolving feelings of loneliness, greater regard for self and for others, and a stronger sense that life has meaning and purpose.
“These protective effects of personal devotion are twice as great for adolescents as they are for adults. This last finding clearly reinforces the idea, found in many cross-national studies, that adolescence is a time of particularly intense searching for, and openness to, the transcendent. Here is how Lisa Miller of Columbia University puts it: ‘A search for spiritual relationship with the Creator may be an inherent developmental process in adolescence.’
“For this reason, the Commission on Children at Risk is recommending that … youth advocates and youth service professionals in particular, pay greater attention to this aspect of youth development. This task will not be easy, the commission warns, because we are a philosophically diverse and religiously plural society; many of our youth-serving programs and social environments for young people will need to find ways respectfully to reflect that diversity and pluralism.” (Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities)
A report on the Australian situation only confirms what is obvious to many involved with children and families in our society.
Professor Patrick Parkinson AM in his report, For Kid’s Sake: Repairing the Social Environment for Australian Children and Young People, presented in 2011, makes this point: “Rightly we are thinking about what legacy we are going to leave our children, and their children, in terms of the natural world on which we all depend.”
Professor Parkinson also notes: “Little attention has been paid to the social environment in which our children are growing up, and the dangers that the deterioration of this environment presents for the future. Indeed, many of us may not even be aware of how bad things are becoming.”
This is demonstrated in the “canary in the coalmine” data found in the Parkinson report, that show that from 1997 to 2009 the total number of children in out-of-home care had more than doubled, from 15,674 to 35,895 and was increasing at an ever greater rate.
The dramatic increase in child abuse and neglect is only part of the overall deterioration of the wellbeing of our children. More than 25 per cent of young people aged 16–24 have a mental disorder. A further 24 per cent of young people, who have never experienced a mental disorder, are experiencing moderate to severe psychological distress.
The psychological distress is reflected in the 66 per cent increase in the number of 12–14-year-old children hospitalised because of intentional self-harm from 1996 to 2006. In the same period there was a 90 per cent rise in hospitalisation of girls of 15 to 17 years of age due to self-harm.
Other manifestations of psychological distress include binge drinking and sexual promiscuity. The rate of hospitalisation due to alcohol intoxication in young women 15–24 years of age more than doubled between 1998 and 2006.
In the last 10 years there was a four-fold increase in chlamydia infections in the 10–14-year age group. Girls reporting unwanted sex increased from 28 to 38 per cent from 2002 to 2008.
What is contributing to this deteriorating social environment? Might the loss of recognition of the positive contribution of Christianity be a factor in this?
One group that answered this question was the Minnesota Correction Centre, albeit working with adults. In partnership with a Christian organisation, Prison Fellowship of U.S.A., they introduced the inmates to the teachings of Christianity. One of the measurable outcomes was a saving of $US3 million over the first six years of the program, due to the decreased incidence of crime (Johnson).
Another report, based on research conducted by Rosemary Aird, indicated a positive correlation between traditional religion and mental health.
Aird, an agnostic, conducted a survey of the effects of spiritual thoughts and behaviours, with more than 3,000 21 year olds looking at two different belief systems: belief in God as associated with traditional religions; and new spiritualties with no recognition of God. Aird’s research demonstrated that the newer non-traditional beliefs were linked to higher rates of “anxiety, depression, disturbed and suspicious ways of thinking and anti-social behaviour”.
Why? Aird says: “Traditional religion tends to promote the idea of social responsibility and thinking of others’ interests, whereas the New Age movement pushes the idea that we can transform the world by changing ourselves.”
Aird concluded that individualism was the common thread in the shift away from traditional religious thoughts to non-religious spirituality and that popular culture “has fed this trend toward non-traditional beliefs with the popularisation of spirituality.”
The research indicates that the wellbeing of our children depends at least in part on them developing a healthy, other-focused spirituality, a spiritualty that has been traditionally found in communities of faith. For Australia, many of these have been Christian communities of faith.
Maybe it’s time to take note of what the broader research is saying and consider the important place that Christianity has played and might continue to play in shaping the social environment in which our children are growing up.
Graham McDonald is Executive Officer of the DIDUNO Network, www.diduno.info.
Aird, R.L. “Religion, spirituality, and mental health and social behaviour in young adulthood: A longitudinal study” (Doctoral Thesis, 2007). School of Population Health, the University of Queensland.
Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D. & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). “The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions”, Child Development, 82(1), pp405–432.
Flynn, T. “Secular humanism defined”. www.secularhumanism.org. Accessed 13/07/2016.
Johnson, B.R. (2011). More God Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How It Could Matter More.
Parkinson, P. (2011). For Kids Sake: Repairing the Social Environment for Australian Children and Young People.
Spencer, N., Madden, G., Purtill, C., and Ewing, J. (2016). Religion and Wellbeing: Assessing the Evidence. London: Theos.
The Commission for Children at Risk. (2003). Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities.
World Health Organisation, (2002). Broadening the Horizon: Balancing Protection and Risk for Adolescents.