By David Amirsadri
If you’re involved in philosophy club, ASAPP, or are simply a member of the EGHS community, then Mr. Robert Houghtaling is likely a familiar figure to you. With his jovial smile, his avuncular manner, and his reams of wisdom, Mr. Houghtaling is justifiably among the most valuable and beloved figures of the EGHS community. Recently, I sat down with Mr. Houghtaling to discuss his views on life, his profession, and the students he serves.
Mr. Houghtaling started his career at East Greenwich High School in 1983. Previously, he had worked as an outpatient clinician, a consultant, and ran a halfway house. “In 1983 when Todd Morsili, a student who lived just over the line in Warwick, was killed by an East Greenwich High School student during the February vacation, she was intoxicated, the community started asking for local people to come in and do presentations,” he recalls. Working alongside parents, local officials, and students, the East Greenwich drug program– a first of its kind– was born. “If you can stop a problem before it begins, or stop a problem at its earliest point, your chances for success are better,” he told me.
Our discussion then shifted to the nature of today’s high schoolers. In his view, life’s variables– not students themselves– have changed. “The pace of life is quicker, and I think young people are confronted with some really big decisions at an early age,” he said. “I think that kids today are very bright. Kids today are very committed. Your generation is a group of people that are really aware and socially conscious, and don’t have some of the same taboos about sexuality and acceptance that previous generations had,” he notes approvingly. Despite all this, Houghtaling remains concerned about the decline in students’ interpersonal skills. Problem solving, understanding nuance, and social discourse are on the decline. Critical thinking, logic, and the ability to question one’s biases are equally imperiled. “Aristotle referred to man as a social animal. That means that we’re in commune with each other. You get that pat on the back, you get that affirmation, you end up getting that human interplay,” he notes.
Our topic then shifted to the nature of Houghtaling’s career. Mental health issues, like anxiety and depression have come into the foreground, as has prescription drug abuse and vaping. “Human beings are always going to be experimenting, self-medicating, or coping with substances,” he notes wistfully. On the topic of opioid abuse, I inquired as to the nature and causes of the epidemic. Was it doctors’ recklessness in their prescribing practices, companies blinded by pursuit of the almighty dollar, or something else? “I’m not a big blamer,” said Houghtaling. Most to blame, he notes, is the human lust for conformity or compliance. Condensing the entirety of self improvement into the process of taking a pill has its seductive allure. “I think medical advances without counseling to support the human element is simply reducing yourself. If taking a pill along with counseling creates behavioural changes and an arena for success, then that’s awesome. If you’re going to blame anything, then blame the human condition– money, avarice, greed, the shortcut.”
Our topic shifted once more– this time to teachers Houghtaling works with. An admirer of the bond educators share with their students, he feels that teachers impart to their students a means of acquiring knowledge. He feels that they are role models, in addition to experts in their subject areas. Testing, the need to be omnipresent, and mental health concerns all act to make teaching an exceptionally difficult pursuit today.
“A school is more than the sum of its parts, a school has a spirit to it. That spirit includes the kids the teachers, the community, and to be part of that, to be creating capable citizens is something we do a good job at. I’ve got the best job on the planet, and the kids keep me alive,” he notes with a smile.