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It’s Time to Take Back the Education of Our Children

The primacy of parents’ responsibility for the education of their children has never been as important as in this moment

Like a provident father, God chastises those whom he loves, and the worst fate that can befall a man or a nation is that God should abandon them utterly to their empty imaginations and say to them, with dreadful finality, Your will be done.

So when the Jews were carried off to captivity in Babylon, they saw the chastising hand of God; and insofar as they submitted to it and acknowledged their sins, they grew in wisdom and virtue. By the waters of Babylon they sat and wept, but they returned to Judea rejoicing, like reapers bringing in the sheaves. And the priest Ezra read to them from the Law they had forgotten, and they wept again—not bitter tears of hatred for their captors, but tears of repentance, gratitude, and determination to live as the sacred Law demanded.

Let us then consider the epidemic of this year as a new captivity, chastisement for a flabby and indifferently faithful Church—or rather as an invitation to clear the eyes and the mind and see that we have been captives for all too long, and to take the opportunity, which may well be snatched from us by the dictates of an immensely ambitious and fundamentally lawless government, to reestablish the Christian family and to resume our sacred duty to educate our children in truth, goodness, beauty, and genuine love of God and neighbor.

I cannot say that only now have the enemies of the family tipped their hands. It has been several decades since schoolteachers—and here I do not distinguish between public, private, and most parochial schools—understood that all their authority is as delegated to them by the parents of the children they teach; that the scope of their work is limited to the subjects they teach, which are usually humble though necessary; and that they contribute most to the moral instruction of children by the virtues they manifest: modesty and honesty in speech, equity in judgment, fidelity in their family lives if they are married, and chastity if they are not.

But now we see teachers saying outright that “outsiders,” by which they mean parents, will be in their way, looking over a child’s shoulder as he receives instruction online rather than in the many-walled fortress of the school (see sidebar p. 12). They worry that the outsiders will balk when their children are instructed in licentiousness, perversion, or contempt for their country. Should these teachers worry? Do most parents care? Do most Catholic parents care?

Pope Leo XIII, in Sapientiae Christianae (1890), on the duties of the Christian citizen in nations that had made the self-destructive turn toward secularism, gives us no room for indifference. “Propugnare pro Christo nolle,” he wrote, “oppugnare est”: “To refrain from doing battle for Jesus Christ amounts to fighting against him.” In our time, we are called to fight for Jesus by fighting for such natural rights of the family as even the pagans acknowledged.

I will give here three reasons why we should take back the education of our children:

  1. To protect and promote the family and therefore the nation whose health rests upon the health of the family;
  2. To form the natural imaginations of our children, understanding that ideas of good and evil remain merely notional and inert without the power of passions ordered by right reason;
  3. To direct their souls and ours, individually and in community, toward their source and end in Christ.

The bedrock of social reality

We have been long lulled into taking for granted that education must be given over to the “experts,” so that the child’s first step through the door of the school is his first step beyond the family, even against the family. In our national mythology, the farm boy or girl, with the brave assistance of a wise schoolmistress, breaks away from the ignorance of his parents—sometimes a violent and brutish ignorance—and enters a land of knowledge whose vistas are as broad as the skies.

The myth may have clipped an edge of reality a hundred years ago. It is nonsense now. Our teachers now have been educated into ignorance: they rarely read good old books, and they have been taught to pervert or slander the ones they do read. This is so not because they are teachers but because they are graduates of our schools and colleges, such as they are.

They are mostly ignorant of the arts. They stumble over numbers. They know little history, almost nothing of grammar, and worse than nothing about religion because so much of what they “know” is false. Nor should it be costly to teach children these things. Good books have never been cheaper or more easily available.

These reasons are utilitarian in a private sense: they apply to the individual. There are more powerful reasons still. Pope Leo, as always, is instructive. The family is “the society of a man’s house [societas domestica]—a society very small, one must admit, but nonetheless a true society, and one older than any State. Consequently, it has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the State” (Rerum Novarum 12).

Therefore, to say that “the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error” (RN 14). This the government does by means of the school, by professed intention. But, says Leo, “the family may be regarded as the cradle of civil society, and it is in great measure within the circle of family life that the destiny of the State is fostered,” so that if children “find within the walls of their homes the rule of an upright life and the discipline of Christian virtues, the future welfare of the State will in great measure be guaranteed” (SC 42).

To that end, parents must “strain every nerve” to protect children from a godless education that itself is an outrage against the family, and “to hold exclusive authority to direct the education of their children, as is fitting, in a Christian manner; and first and foremost to keep them away from schools where there is risk of their drinking in the poison of impiety” (SC 42). Here I will note that we are no longer talking about risk. It is a certainty, and by design.

Even so, we are still talking about the family as for something secular that is greater than itself. But we forget the ends for which civil society is established at all. One of those ends is the good of the family. How strange would it be if a man went to the gymnasium to lose his strength there and ruin his health!

The founding myths of ancient Rome, where the family was certainly honored, nevertheless include an act of fratricide, as St. Augustine well observed: the murder of Remus by his brother, Romulus. The Roman family subserved the state. The founding myths of ancient Greece tell of how Zeus supplanted his father Cronus and used his political cunning to bring to his side some of the Titans from Cronus’s generation.

Nature gives birth to politics. We see no such thing in Genesis. There is, in the story of Adam and Eve, no gesture at all toward Jerusalem, kingship, war, alliances, territory, and so forth. God says of Adam, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”

But modern life has taken from the family most of its work and, with that work, most of its substantial being. We still have not reckoned fully with the harm done to the family by economic structures that first removed the father from the home and then mended matters by removing the mother also. What is left for the family to do? What is left for the family to be?

As is often the case, people who are present at the onset of trouble see things more clearly than those who come later and who must try hard to imagine that conditions could ever be otherwise. The Rev. Samuel W. Dike, founder of the Divorce Reform League—meant to make divorce less common and harder to get—wrote that even so innocent a thing as the Sunday School movement treated the family as a “beggar, with self-respect lost, waiting for the dole others may condescend to give it. We have had too much of this sort of treatment of the home. We have made it helpless by the methods of our charity long enough” (“Problems of the Family,” The Century Magazine, January 1890).

Social changes, not wholly harmful, had caused the family to surrender “one after another of its functions to the institutions above it and to the individual members of itself. The family is still continually yielding something to the boarding house, the factory, the school, the church, and that multitudinous combination we call society.” It is a “disintegrating process,” he says, fueled by the law of industry and capital “or property in accumulation, to get things done at the smallest cost to itself.”

But why should we tamely consent to the great machine? If we work for the well-being of our families, would it not be absurd to sacrifice the essence of family life for the sake of that work? So, we should not simply say that teaching children at home is better for the teaching—though it surely is that. We should add that teaching them at home is better for the home.

It is not good for the child to be alone and largely anonymous among many hundreds in a great building far from home in more ways than one. It is good for the child and for the home that, if it is feasible, he should be among those who love him, and that they should act together for things of great importance.

Imagine looking back upon your education many years later and being able, like Rose Hawthorne Lathrop (Mother Mary Alphonsa), to recall when your father and mother sat with the children by the fireside in the evening and read aloud to them from great works of literature, such as Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. The effect was less to inspire them with love of literature, though it surely did that, than to have the literature and its goodness bind them the more closely together as a family.

Building the soul

If the family is the foundation of society, what is the binding force that makes a society a true society rather than a mere agglomeration of people? The parallel question is: what makes a nation a nation rather than a political mechanism governing within arbitrary geographical boundaries?

I have long urged my fellow Christians to keep in mind that men are united only by what is above, never by what is below. That is, they come together as one when they acknowledge together the debts of gratitude they owe to their forebears—the natural virtue once known as piety. They come together as one in their love for works of beauty and truth and goodness, a love that participates in piety and that actuates such virtues as humility and gratitude.

They come together, they forget all differences of class, race, sex, and so forth, when they behold such works and desire in their excitement simply to share them with others. They cry out, “Come and see!”—not that the thing they look at is useful, though it may well be, but that it simply is what it is, and that it is at all. And that thrills with the virtue of wonder.

It hardly needs saying that none of these virtues is inculcated in our schools, and that neglect is both a symptom and a cause of what the schools teach and omit to teach, and how it is taught. So again do the strange circumstances we face give us an opportunity to recall what we have lost. In this case I am talking about arts and letters and what they are for.

The poet and raconteur Louis Untermeyer, in The Paths of Poetry (1966), a collection of works from twenty-five great English poets compiled just when the great abandonment of poetry and the other arts was about to become the rule in American schools, tells a simple story that would be incomprehensible now but that touches upon what kind of recovery we should aim for.

His collection is meant for young people, and so he meets an objection at the beginning: isn’t poetry effeminate? After he describes the vigorous lives of a few of our poetic giants, he brings the matter home in a deeply personal way.

One day, he says, the students in a high school English class were called on to recite a poem from memory, after which the teacher asked another of the students to comment upon the recitation. One boy chose Thomas Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” in whose 100 lines the poet looks down upon the fields where he too was once a youth and remembers the games, the fights, the friendships, the hopes, the joys; and then, from his vantage as a grown man, he casts the prospect with the gloom of the sins that the children have yet to commit and the sufferings they must endure when they are men, sufferings they know nothing of while they are playing ball or chasing linnets in the woods. The end is quiet and devastating:

Yet ah! Why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
’Tis folly to be wise.

The teacher then turned to a big fellow, a linebacker on the football team. What did he think of the recitation? He was at a loss for words. “It was very fine,” he said at last. “I can’t say any more. It is my favorite poem in the world.” And, deeply moved, he fell silent.

How fine a thing it is to build up your own soul and the souls of your children by encounter with the works of those who have thought and felt most deeply about this sad and glorious and mysterious life of ours and who do not reduce that life to slogans—who do not drag piety, humility, gratitude, and wonder from their proper seats of authority to replace them with utility or political advantage!

If this world is, as the poet John Keats said, a “vale of soul-making,” not a mart for money-making or an arena for governor-making, then of course we should remember in our education the building up of the soul. And we do that most powerfully not by the ideations of philosophy, which can show us what is true but move us not one inch toward loving the truth and putting it into action. The soul as well as the body needs blood: the blood of stories, of song, of art.

Imagine again the Hawthorne family, with the wise and kindly father Nathaniel, himself a literary giant, and his devoted and soulful wife, the well-named Sophia, and their three children, one of whom was Rose, one day to become a Roman Catholic and then the foundress of an order of sisters devoted to the care of people dying of incurable cancer. Imagine them in the evening, reading poetry to one another—and of all things, Edmund Spenser’s rollicking Christian allegory, The Faerie Queene.

Love, like all things good, is diffusive of itself. It sheds its radiant glow on all that it touches. Here, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop could say not only that she loved her mother and father, and that she loved English poetry, but that the one love flowed over into the other love, and that she loved the poetry all the more because it was her mother and father who brought it to her. She was not ignorant of beauty; she was not a spiritual amputee.

The soul returning to God

And perhaps it is no coincidence that our schools abandoned the great poetry and art of our heritage just when they shed their last slight attachment to the honor that we owe to God. The habit of beholding in wonder must either be rooted in worship and come to flower and fruit in worship or it must wither, like a sapling gone sick in soil too thin. The great Russian novel shriveled up under the Soviets. American films are now, for all their computerized choreography and fireworks, gray—relentlessly and hopelessly gray.

We do not want gray children with gray souls. Here too the opportunity given to us, fairly thrust upon us, is great. The fundamental attitude of the born teacher is that of a child who finds something rich and strange, and runs off to cry to his friends, “Come and see what I’ve found!” That applies to arts and letters, as I have said. But it is also the attitude of the born disciple, or of the man reborn in Christ. Think now of the amiable Andrew, running to find his brother Peter to say, “We have met the anointed one! Come and see.”

I do not imply that the family must always be focused upon worship, or that the arts and letters to which we introduce our children must be like shells that enclose some kernel of religion, shells to break open and to toss away. Grace builds upon nature and perfects it. Hymns are not the only songs, but the singing of good songs can build up the soul for hymns, as hymns clear a wide space in turn for those good and innocent songs.

I think that the guardian angel smiles upon a child reading a good book for its own sake; and Treasure Island, telling truths about honor, courage, and loyalty, is no bad preparation for, or confirmation of, the Lord’s saying about the treasure a man found in a field and the kingdom of heaven. A sweet and natural song of a man’s love for a good woman, a song like “The Rose of Tralee,” best thrills in the veins of someone ready to say, with the psalmist:

One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the Lord, and to meditate in his temple.

If they seem too flimsy to us, these filaments whereby God in his grace binds nature to what is beyond nature, perhaps it is simply because we have not attended to them. “These things,” says the poet Hopkins, “these things were here and but the beholder / Wanting.”

What alternative do we have? If we do not form the imaginations of our children, they will be formed or deformed by the engines of mass entertainment and mass politics all about us, engines of noise, wrath, ingratitude, selfishness, and obscenity. Then the powerful horse will go wayward, and reason, soft in the chest and spindly of leg and arm, will not restrain it.

Rather, he will change his mind and decide, conveniently enough, that noise, wrath, ingratitude, selfishness, and obscenity are good and enlightened things after all, and that he is galloping along to earthly paradise indeed. That is what will happen. Make no mistake. Do not take lightly the power of the enemy.

And it is all the more a shame to us, because we have the good songs and the good stories. Bach and Mozart are ours. Milton and Dickens are ours. All good gifts come from God above, and if we take them into our souls and let them do what work they can do, they can lead us back to God.

So, here is our chance. The family gathers because it is good to do so. It turns to songs and stories, and those bless the family as the family blesses them. But whatever goodness those things possess can turn us to the giver, to God. And so, education, which in our schools is at best parceled out in small pieces, the broken spars and beams of cultural and institutional disintegration, can become itself again, and one. Let it be so.

Sidebar 1: What has been Lost

From my more than thirty years of observing and questioning college freshmen—thousands of them—I can assert these two things with confidence:

Almost all English literature written before 1900 is neglected. Poetry, in particular, has been almost wholly abandoned. Students will hardly ever recognize the names of most of the greatest English poets: Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth, Pope.

The arts have been neglected. Such literature as is taught is chosen not for its intrinsic greatness or for its beauty but for its relevance to current political questions. Thus, George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is taught in English classes, or To Kill a Mockingbird, mainly for political reasons. They are good novels, not great.

Sidebar 2: Escaping the Classroom’s ‘Secure Barriers’

As the Covid-19 crisis continued into the summer of 2020, and it became apparent that public education was not going to resume as normal in the fall, students and parents across the country were forced to adapt to online learning.

But families weren’t the only ones who were unhappy. Educators, their traditional classrooms a thing of the past, worried that parents would get in the way of their children’s “education.” A Philadelphia public schoolteacher in August tweeted the above thread. He deleted it quickly after coming under criticism, but his lamentation pulled the curtain away from the men and women who pull the levers of public education.

And it wasn’t an isolated incident. The Tennessee Star ran an article a week later headlined, “Rutherford County Schools Tell Parents Not to Monitor Their Child’s Virtual Classrooms.”

Catholic parents must be aware that their public-school children to a large degree are being indoctrinated with values antithetical to their Faith.

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