By Dr Kania
Most societies throughout the course of human history have incorporated into their cultural structures and identities some form of Rites of Passage that indicate that children have now successfully passed through a deliberate and educative process and have become worthy of taking their place in society as adults.
These have been developed in order for a particular society to ensure its future security; where there is no responsibility among members who comprise a community, there can be no order and no development.
Different demands were placed on the sexes according to what a society believed were the most pivotal skills that each sex could bring to their community.
Hence, men were often taught to hunt and to defend; and women, how to cook, sew and rear children.
For fear of shame, or bringing shame on the name of their families, both boys and girls strove to be considered by their peers and elders as men and women.
On being deemed worthy of adult status, public ceremonies were performed so that the children could be affirmed by significant others.
The critical message that Rites of Passage sought to affirm was that, by gender, an individual was either male or female, but it was by way of the choices that an individual made, that they became men or women.
Furthermore, people looked for future partners in life according to the particular skill sets that a prospective husband or wife could bring to the marital union, and to the formation of a prospective family.
In such societies, no father would wish his daughter married to a rake; no mother her son married to a woman of ill repute.
Integral to the Rites of Passage, was a strong element of religion, for each needed to understand their place not only in the context of their society, but also in the cosmos.
Big questions also needed to be asked and answered – questions such as why we die, and what happens to us after we are dead; as well as why the world was created, and who created the world.
Whether one considers Rites of Passage an outdated social phenomenon or not, rites helped societies articulate what a community held to be worthy of esteem.
But what has replaced these Rites of Passage in modern, western society, and what do these such rites tell us what we most value today?
Take, for instance, the School Ball. What themes pervade this experience?
As a teacher with over two decades of experience of attending school balls, I have witnessed generations of students come and go, fashions change, and musical forms veer in various directions.
But a number of factors have remained constant.
First, the expense of clothing keeps rising; the most expensive dress that I can recall was one that a young lady’s family had paid (in 1995) $5000 for – the rule of thumb being that the more money one pays, the less material in the actual garment.
What does such expenditure say about the impotence of our Catholic education system, with its expressed preferential option for the poor, if this profound message is so often bypassed by parents and students alike?
Second, alcohol. The culture that derives from it is too often visible at school balls, whether the students have had access prior, during or after the ball. In many cases, parents have supplied alcohol at arranged parties; with a variety of intentions. What message does this send?
On one occasion, at the very beginning of my career, a ‘thoughtful’ parent hired a bus to take a few dozen, half-intoxicated students from their before-party to the ball. When the bus arrived, the teachers had to deal with verbal abuse and unruly behaviour.
The teachers were the villains on this occasion and those who supplied the alcohol, the parents, the heroes.
These parents were ‘cool’ – and those who did not go along with the ‘befores’, felt the sting of being ostracised for doing the right thing.
The pressure that some parents are put under for doing good can be immense.
Third: once, dancing was a social skill to be learned; today, at the school ball, it relies mainly on the ability to free oneself of any inhibition and gyrate to the rhythm.
If you sit back and watch the ‘dance moves’, the more suggestive one becomes on the dance floor, the more one is considered to be a good dancer.
The music itself does not allow for any form of traditional dance; so if dancing lessons have been provided – for want of appropriate music – a young man and woman cannot actually dance together.
Most students jump up and down either on one leg or two, while shaking their head. The only law of modern dance seems to be: do almost anything you like, as long as you have someone opposite you.
Fourth: students seek more and more to emulate movie stars by arriving in expensive limousines.
Hundreds of dollars are thrown away in an inane show of pretentiousness.
Who is paying for this? In the past, parents would deliver and pick up their children from the ball; today, our children ‘ape’ the trashy rich.
Aside from the general level of fun that may be had at the school ball, the standards that dominate the evening run contrary to the Gospel message that the school teaches throughout the year. How can this be addressed?
The school and parents must show leadership: children will seek the easier path if that is the only path offered to them.
One must also question the notion of many of our ‘Schoolies’ celebrations; for how can 12 years of schooling in our society find its culmination in antics so disengaged from good education?
Can it really be that the recompense to society for academic attainment are the actions of drunken louts, who may have an entry pass into university but have not learned kindness, patience, temperance or self-control.
Had these ‘schoolies’ not gone to school at all, would their behaviour have been any more or less savage and unruly?
Youth will follow if they see the message as authentic and consistent.
They are also the best judges of hypocrisy; they know when the person standing in front of them actually ‘walks the talk’, and is alive with the message.
I can recall a young woman telling me about her descent into a life of promiscuity, the catalyst for which was a singular action and comment from her mother.
Brought up by her parents to place a value on chastity, her mother gave her the gift of a condom on her 16th birthday and told her to be sure to use it when the need arose.
From that moment on, the young lady in question had no doubt in her mind that all the moral education she had received from her parents up until then was sheer bunk; mere lip-service for what a child must be taught to believe, but which an adult expediently rejects.
With so much brokenness and disconnectedness in families, our children are starving for example.
Perhaps it is time for us to return to emphasising values through Rites of Passage – by ensuring that these are both a celebration and educative – that these rites uphold values we want our children to uphold and not merely echo the choir of hedonism which lulls the conscience and soul into thinking that all there is to being an adult is a ‘good time’, materialism, intoxication and the objectification of the human person.
Why not invent a gap year for students where young men and women volunteer their gifts to society on service learning projects?
Should not society emphasise the other, and not merely what we can have? Can we not entertain the possibility of having our youth celebrate major milestones without the need to be intoxicated?
Why not conduct projects where fathers and mothers, or significant others, show, by example, community concern and witness?
Resounding down through the centuries, St John Chrysostom offers us a reminder of how to educate the next generation, talking and speaking about the most critical life-lessons:
“Bring our children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Don’t surround them with the external safeguards of wealth and fame, for when these fail — and they will fail — our children will stand naked and defenceless, having gained no profit from their prosperity, but only injury, since when those artificial protections that shielded them from the winds are removed, they will be blown to the ground in a moment.” (Homily 21)
Dr Kania is the Director of Spirituality at Aquinas College in Manning