Ultimately, the two catecheses – of our Faith and of our civilization – should go hand in hand. This is how it has always been: the West has informed our Faith, and our Faith has indelibly shaped the West. If we are to both survive, and perhaps thrive in America, our children will need the intellectual and cultural tools and imagination that a true classical education can provide.
A friend of mine recently told me that he and his wife (devout Catholics) decided to cancel their Disney+ subscription for their school-aged children. Some Disney content, they found, dealt with menstrual cycles or featured transgender characters, which parents rightly determined was not appropriate for their pre-pubescent children.
It’s commendable that moms and dads act more confidently about what their children see, hear or read. But as we approach another school year, I would say that as parents we need to do a lot more. To put it bluntly, we should not expect others, no matter how professional, to train our children intellectually.
No, that’s not another exhortation to homeschool your children (although admittedly my wife and I are soon starting our third year of homeschooling and have found it better suited than the parochial school that our eldest daughter previously attended). The option of home schooling, for various personal, professional or financial reasons, may not be feasible for you or your children. There are good Catholic schools and even, in some parts of the country, decent public schools that have not capitulated to a woke, anti-Catholic sexual and racial ideology. Nor is it a rallying cry for parents to become more invested in what schools teach their children, although that too is a noble undertaking and increasingly necessary.
On the contrary, my call has a much broader and deeper scope. As parents, we must see ourselves not only as those who bear the primary responsibility of catechizing our children in the truths of the Catholic faith, but also of providing our children with a sound moral and intellectual vision of the good life. We must make a good-faith effort to impart to our children the wonder and splendor of the intellectual and cultural heritage of the West, which will provide them not only with an all-Catholic education, but also with an all-human education that shapes the how they perceive themselves and the world.
It might sound a bit daunting – and maybe it should be. The Western tradition, which spans thousands of years, multiple continents, and hundreds of unique but related cultures, is no small feat. My many years spent in public education have certainly not given me a vigorous, coherent and complete conception of Western culture. But in a way, the fact that such a project seems like an impossible challenge is the point.
Western civilization, from Socrates to Schubert to Stevenson and Seurat, is a remarkable achievement whose scope and character would be impossible to fully ingest even in one lifetime. But Catholicism is also, if not more so, since our Faith is transcendent and oriented towards the eternal. Does the complexity of the Incarnation or the Trinity prevent us from teaching them to our children? If something is good and true, we should expect it to be marvelous in its grandeur.
Perhaps an explanation is in order. Why, you might ask, is such a great company even worth sucking up to? Because, I would say, our communities, our nation, and even our Church need people who have a sense of an understanding of the richness of our Western civilization and apply that incalculable richness to every activity they do. Who do you want to design the buildings of the future – someone trained in the overwhelming pragmatism and minimalism of modern architecture, or someone who wants to replicate the old Penn Station or Thomas Jefferson’s “college village” in University of Virginia? What kind of scientists and doctors do you want — those whose ethics are as muddled and permeable as CDC advice, or those inspired by Hippocrates, Mendel, and Gianna Molla?
In other words, the more we drink of the beauty and goodness of our Western tradition, the more we are able to create communities and even nations that respect human dignity and direct our hearts to life-giving transcendent truths. Everything, including the books we read, the music we listen to, the furniture we sit on and the clothes we wear, either contributes to human flourishing or, even imperceptibly, undermines it. It’s the difference between a world full of churches like Santa Maria del Fiore or the monstrosity of a Niemeyer cathedral in Brasilia.
“Very well”, you will say, “all other things being equal, I’d rather my children know Rembrandt better than paw patrol, or Bach rather than Taylor Swift. But damn it, I can’t even tell Mozart from Chopin. How could I teach my children? Here is my answer: in many ways, I am in the same situation. To their great credit, my parents exposed me to more literary titans, such as Homer and Shakespeare, than my peers, but there were (and still are) many holes in my own upbringing, which even the colleges and graduate schools haven’t done much to fill.
So, in our family, we learn together. We print copies of large works of art, often depicting biblical scenes, and place them in frames around the house. We put classical music radio station or search symphonies on youtube. We find children’s versions of classics that expose our kids to some of the greatest stories ever told, and we try to read the full-length adult versions ourselves (or watch movie renditions of them after the kids have gone to bed ). Our home, and our family, is a school for everybody. And it’s funespecially when you’re referencing a great work of literature and even the kids know what you’re talking about.
I won’t deny that if you try to implement this approach after years of gorging yourself Dora the Explorer or the computer-generated graphic bric-a-brac that passes for children’s books, it could very well be a chore, at least for a while. Addictions are hard to break, and the entertainment-focused education addiction is one that many of us have succumbed to. But let me tell you, the gains are huge. Those few, but increasingly, times when my nine-year-old daughter correctly identifies a piece of classical music on the radio, or accurately remembers the characters and plot of a Shakespearean play, my heart skips a beat. . Of course, it’s also a good day when she describes the life of a saint she’s read about, or correctly answers my questions about a Gospel story.
In the end, the two catecheses, of our faith and of our civilization, should go hand in hand. It has always been so: the West has informed our Faith (just look at the doctrine of the Trinity and its appropriation of Greek philosophical concepts, or Rome’s influence on canon law), and our Faith has shaped the West indelibly. If we are to both survive, and perhaps thrive in an America that tires of its meaningless, garish regime, our children will need the intellectual and cultural tools (and imagination) that a true classical education can provide. And we shouldn’t wait for someone else, be it a teacher or a CCD instructor, to do it for us. Otherwise, that moment may never come. So ditch Disney and introduce Da Vinci and Dickens. You will not regret it.
Republished with kind permission from Crisis Magazine (August 2022).
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