I was speaking to a friend recently, in the presence of his wise wife, and the topic of conversation turned to the successes or failures of our high school education. We went to the same Jesuit school, and complaining about Jesuits is a traditional theme for learned conversation. My friend lambasted the education he received. “John, our education was tainted irremediably by teleology,” he said. (He does in fact talk that way.) He went on to complain specifically about his junior-year theology teacher, who had published many books and suffered from the theologian’s disease of believing he had all the answers. “My teenage mind labored under that man’s certitudes,” my friend continued. “I’m not certain it wasn’t permanently stunted, particularly – ironically – in the area of religion. I don’t know if I’m capable of a religious life anymore after having to deal with that one man’s brutalizing reductionism.”
“I’ll admit, Fr. DiGiacomo was like that,” I said. “But he wasn’t the only teacher there. Freshman year I had Dr. Judge-Russo, who didn’t believe in hell and told us so. Sophomore year I had Mr. Hannon –”
“–Mr. Hannon was great,” he admitted.
“Senior year I had Mr. Conti for ‘Peace Studies’ and we read Martin Luther King and Gandhi and I thought it was fabulous.”
“Yes, senior year I did a Kierkegaard independent study which was very good.”
I looked at my friend’s wife. She had gone to a public high school in New Jersey. I asked her, “Did you get to do a Kierkegaard independent study senior year at Edison High School?”
“Yeah Matt,” she said, smiling warmly at her husband, “I think you wrecked your argument when you brought up the Kierkegaard independent study.” He looked at her, and then at me, and then all three of us started laughing the most mirthful, accepting laugh there ever was, the laughter Homer ascribes to the gods. When we were done laughing, I accepted his whole argument, noting that the quality of the teaching was not as good as it could have been, particularly, I felt, when it came to communicating the real life-value of the Christian message, which had been obscured by overrationalization and theological rigidity.
I found myself thinking about this moment in the weeks that followed. The Jesuit school we both attended had a powerful tradition of debate, and topics like this – “Does Regis provide a good or bad education?” – could provoke impassioned, occasionally subtly hostile, multiple-hour debates between friends, in school and for years afterward. Had Matt and I been younger, we might have drifted into such a debate, and I might have matched his resentment of one teacher’s vice with a passionate attachment to another’s virtue, and we would have left without understanding each other. I would have been Affirmative, he Negative; I would have been unable to comprehend why he didn’t see the gift he had been given in going to a school where a knowledgeable teacher was willing to supervise his Kierkegaard reading, and he would have been unable to comprehend why I didn’t think it was at the very least counterproductive to give 17-year-old boys forty-minute tests with questions like “List the” – yes, the – “eleven reasons why premarital sex is wrong under all circumstances and discuss why the counterarguments are incorrect.” And we would have each believed that to accept the other’s argument would be to lose our own. It would have been all or nothing.
Instead some maturation had happened to both of us. And its presence was particularly indicated by laughter. Laughter is utterly mysterious and an object of intense fascination for me, but in this instance its function was clear enough. The meaning of this laughter was the restoration of true proportion. While his resentment exaggerated the defects of his high-school education, I had felt bound to check it; but when laughter had reduced it to its proper proportion, I was able to accept it for what it was, see the truth in it, and we left feeling that we understood each other.