Monday, January 07, 2008

A Personal Reflection on "Catholic" Education (Part 2)

I was mentally preparing my next post when I read this:

John Paul II's remarkable rapport with young people began in the "John Paul, Superstar" phase of his pontificate... As the pontificate unfolded, it was no longer possible to view this simply as a variant on the adulation lavished on pop celebrities. Age, Agca's bullet, and the effects of illness made it necessary to think of the Pope as something more than a rock star in a white cassock. Why did this rapport with the young continue, even intensify? Several reasons suggest themselves. The Pope took young people seriously as persons, paying them the compliment of seeing them as people struggling with the meaning of life. When speaking with the young, he did not take the edge off a Christian message he clearly lived himself. Perhaps most importantly, he didn't pander to young people, challenging them to settle for nothing less than moral grandeur. At a time in Western history when virtually no other world figure was calling young people to bear burdens and make sacrifices, John Paul touched the youthful thirst for the heroic and related it to the human search for God. It made for a potent style of evangelization. - George Weigel, Witness to Hope, p. 494

I couldn't pass up a chance to comment on this. But first, I highly recommend Weigel's book; some of the man's foreign policy ideas that are a bit sketchy, but his biography of John Paul II is superb. The book is long--almost nine hundred pages, plus footnotes--like the pontificate which it describes in detail, but Weigel doesn't linger: he carries the narrative effortlessly. It's also the sort of book that should appeal to non-Catholics as well. John Paul II was a 20th century giant, and anyone who wishes to understand that century would do well to study the man who became John Paul II.

If you were expecting me to explain how Pope John Paul II held a tremendous appeal for me as a young person, you'll have to beg me to write fiction; it just wasn't so. I knew who the Pope was; that he was rather old; that he spoke quite a few languages. I knew that many people thought that he was tremendously holy and wonderful; and that many others thought he had gone senile and should step down. I also knew he opposed the War in Iraq. Being a good Republican at the time, this last point stuck with me; whatever esteem I had for the Pope promptly dissipated. I dismissed him and his wise words by offering the rhetorical question: What on earth did the old man in Rome know about terrorism and Saddam Hussein?

Seeing how the Polish priest lived under Nazi and Communist occupation, the answer is: quite a lot.

We'll have to get back to the Iraq business later; believe it or not, it is fairly important in all this. Keep in mind, for the present, that I was a rather clueless Catholic, indeed, clueless generally. This is fairly common in the teenage years, caused, most likely, by acne and aggressive repression of feelings toward the fairer sex. It's as plausible as anything.

Worse, I had no idea that I was so clueless. For all my faults, and there were many, I followed politics intensely. Grown men, with nationally syndicated talk shows, were offering the same platitudinal nonsense that I was. If you regularly listen to talk radio, my condolences, you'll find that they still are.

As an aside, I like talk radio, but it should be listened to sparingly. Talking points are no substitute for reading real books. If you want to be convinced that you're right about things, find a host who agrees with you; if, on the other hand, it is truth that you seek, you're going to have to hit the books.

At this point, you might ask why I quoted Weigel if I'm not going to do anything but recommend his book. I would thereupon inform you that the challenges of which he speaks did not apply to the religion classes in which I enrolled. Now, generally speaking, high school was a bit boring. I rarely studied for a test, and if I did, it was for half an hour, tops, so it would be dishonest for me to suggest that I was always challenged in high school. Yet, often the reason I didn't study had more to do with my arrogance that with my intelligence. In any event, the teachers didn't pander to us in most of my classes.

The same could not be said for religion class. The teachers were, I regret to say, only a bit more sane than those who taught English, and, in general, very, very... let's go with dull. I truthfully can recall little to nothing that I learned from religion class. We were either taught things that we had learned in second grade; or we focused on something that had nothing to do with Catholicism--you know, like watching the Matrix; or we took a nap, I mean, meditated.

This isn't a dig against meditation, but attempting to get a class of tired high school students to find something spiritually edifying out of the endeavor is to engage in an exercise in futility.

I pause for two hypothetical interjections which I shall provide. First, isn't it unreasonable to expect high school religion teachers to meet the standards of the Pope? And second, so what if the material used in religion class isn't intellectually challenging?

The first question can be answered fairly easily. While it is unreasonable to expect everyone to possess the qualities of someone like John Paul II, as Catholics, we are all called to holiness. Dante puts some Bishops in Hell, and there have been lay saints; it is very possible for an ordinary person to be more holy than a Pope, even, I daresay, a Pope as holy as John Paul II.

More importantly, though, the teachers I had weren't even vaguely like the Pope in their methodology. Looking back, I'm not sure how many of them really understood what the Faith was all about--or fervently believed in it. I can count one of seven teachers who may have had the Faith. He was a soft-spoken guy who taught to the lowest common denominator. I don't know if he was overwhelmed by the apathy and ignorance with which he was presented, or if he just wasn't cut out for teaching.

As to the second question, religion should be intellectually challenging for a variety of reasons.

First, if something is simple, it's going to be regulated below anything which is more complex. I'm not certain this is fair, but it's the way things work. No one who has taken a calculus course is going to be fired up about pre-algebra. The Jesus-Loves-You children's books are likewise little esteemed once you've stumbled upon Chesterton. On a cross-disciplinary note, math and science were more important to me because they required me to use my mind in a way religion didn't. Even those who would have had a fairly open mind toward Catholicism, such as myself--you'll remember that I would have considered myself a Catholic at the time; I was a bad one, but I didn't know it--quickly tuned out the rambling

Second, it's dishonest. To present the Catholic Faith as less intellectually fulfilling than--heaven forbid--physics, is ridiculous. I'm not saying that esoteric lectures are the way to go, but neither is reading from a text better suited to eight year-olds. Religion seeks to satisfy man's deepest desires, and to answer his most probing questions. I can't speak for all faiths, but Catholicism's answers are deeply challenging, not only to understand, but to act on--thankfully. And the satisfaction one gets from the answer of Jesus Christ--for all of the Church's answers stem from the mystery of the Incarnation--is a tremendous thing. It's unfortunate that my instructors lacked this satisfaction; or were perhaps so thrilled with the eight year-old version that they couldn't imagine a higher wisdom.

Third, it leaves a wayward Catholic searching for a way back nothing to work with. I regained my faith because of the Grace of God, working, in part, through my mom's purchase of a delightful little tome called Orthodoxy by the aforesaid Chesterton. I hadn't heard of the man until I read his book. In four years of high school religion classes, we read a mediocre piece of historical fiction about Mary. Props for recognizing the Incarnation as important; negative points for trying to make it seem "cool" by couching it in poor fiction.

Aside from that... nothing. Some of the English classes read Dante's Inferno, and a few people read Flannery O'Connor. I'm not about to lambast either of them. In four years, some of the classes read part of the greatest poem ever written, and a few people read a short story or two by one of the masters of the twentieth century, but that's it? Even if a lot of the stuff went over our heads, at least we would have known it was there if we needed it. Instead, I knew about the Catechism and the Bible, and that was about it.

Fourth--because there's no way it's last, but I'm running out of steam--the challenges posed by religion should be the toughest because they're the most important. Being able to integrate a function is nice, but it's utterly inessential. Being able to love one's neighbor is not only much harder than calculus, it's much more important. I don't want to imply that I worshiped math and science during high school: I didn't; and in truth, I'm a somewhat reluctant computer engineer. What I did do, partially because of my own flaws, and partially because I was poorly served in my education, was elevate all of the other disciplines in relation to religion. That's precisely backwards.

I'm going to stop here for now. If Doom and Gazoombo want to add to my list, I'd appreciate it. This is turning out to be far less polished than I'd like, but it's going reasonably well.

Next time, unless something else distracts me, I want to talk about how religion should cover all disciplines in ways I thought it couldn't, and how its failure led me to see a substitute for a more total discipline in an unfortunate place.


hoosiertoo said...

First, may I say I'm pleased that you're keeping up the blog.

Second, and as I am a catechist, reading this series is hard.

I teach Jrs and Srs, and I like to think I'm challenging them with my material, but mostly I think I'm boring them - highly possible; the good teacher didn't volunteer. I did.

This year, I've been using JPII's Theology of the Body as my base text and working in as much of the Church's social agenda as possible in between lessons in basic theology - natural law, etc.

Since CCD is basically a 32 hr course spread over 9 months, maintaining any kind of continuity is a bitch. My parish does not have a Catholic parochial school, so I am teaching public school students who are next to clueless about anything but what they've been exposed to in CCD.

Please keep up the good work. If you don't mind, I may forward a couple of links to articles and a book recommendation or two.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

I'm trying not to be too hard on my teachers, but it's something I've been thinking about for literally years.

I applaud you for trying, and I'll say a prayer for you and your students tonight.

Eventually, I'd like to come up with some answers, but I'm not sure how one goes about teaching Catholicism to people who might not want it. My frustrations are because I think--but what do I know?--that I would have been receptive to it had it been shown to me.

This year, I've been using JPII's Theology of the Body as my base text and working in as much of the Church's social agenda as possible in between lessons in basic theology - natural law, etc.

Are you using Christopher West's book? The Theology of the Body talks are amazing. I'm going to have to re-read his book sometime soon.

I think you're offering the students something that is both intellectually stimulating and applicable. I wish we would have covered any of JPII's talks.

Feel free to drop links and recommendations any time. I'm living the single life right now, so one of my priorities is to further that Catholic education I never really received.

Donny said...

Having lived with the author of this blog for a few years at college, I have shared in some of these learnings of his, unfortunately not from all the great books he wants me to read, but from him grudgingly trying to wrap up something like Aquinas' The Summa in a few sentences.

One of the biggest religious changes in my life was when I found the Theology of the Body in college. I did the 10 cd's (three times) and have learned a lot. Of course, none of this would have been a big deal to me while in high school, (I too grew up as a "practicing" Catholic, attending church once a week with the family.)

I didn't start to 'need' my faith until half way through college, and I wouldn't think that it's too uncommon.

The important thing was this background that I had learned about. Not that I learned it then, but that I knew it was there, and where to turn when things got ugly.

I was one of the many kids who didn't really know that Catholicism was as deep and complex as it is, despite my mom's amazing faith. I too thought that it was there to make you feel good and be a part of the community. Had I been challenged earlier on to argue parts of the faith, or dive into some of the mysteries that are hard for even the priests to explain, who knows, things may have been different. I just thank God for finding Him when I did.

hoosiertoo said...

I'm using the "TOB for Teens" from Ascension Press.

Last year, I used An Introduction to Theology of the Body DVD version, which was a pretty crappy video of a Christopher West seminar and more suitable for a quick introduction for adult formation.

Doom said...

Oh, 5th, simply because it is challenging. Though, without a little guidance, interest, and that spark, it might be too challenging. Ask the average high school student to do calculus, they might easily say it is boring. What they mean is that it is beyond them. When they red-line their brain, it seems like boredom.

With out good guidance which leads up to one's own exploration of this, it is too much for anyone. You say you received a decent math and science education. My question is, do you believe it would have been a better education 20, 40, even 60 years ago? What has been lost from education seems to have been lost throughout the system of education. I wonder if what is lost is a cohesion of education through connectedness of systems of morality and ethics tied to logic, reason, and application, intertwined between subjects as well. That is gone, I think.


All you can do is make the attempt. I really think you, and the students you attempt to work with, have been undercut. Still, I think the Holy Spirit fulfills our needs, oddly, by fulfilling it's own. The thought sure makes me think. As well, who do you think picked you to teach, default? hehe

A Wiser Man Than I said...

My question is, do you believe it would have been a better education 20, 40, even 60 years ago?

Hard to say. I honestly think I received a pretty solid education in math and science. When I took Calc II first semester of college, I had little trouble, and I read Churchill's memoirs during physics lectures and managed to pull our an AB--or was it a B? In both cases, my high school teachers deserve credit.

Doom said...

There are many possibilities. Of course, your high school instructors may have been exceptional. Perhaps you are exceptional. However, grade inflation is not an invisible problem, nor is a general trend to adjust the upper education system to that of the lower system to allow anyone to graduate. It would be difficult to know, without a bit of serious study.

Hmm, well, back to homework. Oh, you are done! Maybe you could advise me? Just teasing, but it is bed time. Homework will have to wait. Have you found a job or are you in recovery for a bit?

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Have you found a job or are you in recovery for a bit?

I'm working for an insurance company in central Wisconsin. I just started, but it's going well enough so far.

Doom said...

Good, good! Have you figured anything out yet? *laughs* I only laugh because I always feel so confused in school, sort of. And, I am hoping that in the end, I will have something if not beyond the confusion, then at least beside it alone. All of that, sort of... with a healthy dose of salt... and a side of tongue in cheek...

A Wiser Man Than I said...

I don't really understand very much, but that's to be expected. I'm sure I'll start picking things up eventually.

I too was often confused in school, --especially when I looked up from the books I was reading.

Joe Mauer said...

I think one of the greatest challenges in teaching Catholicism to teenagers is getting them excited about it. This is sort of a Catch-22 in that the teachers may be excited due to some stunning intellectual experience or text that would only bore the students, whereas the students may only be interested in the type of Catechesis that has been described as the norm. One thing I felt was lacking in my parochial education was some notion of the numinous. While you cannot force a mystical or edifying experience on someone, especially a disinterested someone, you can at least try.

The currently incorporated aspect of parochial education that falls very short in this respect is the "retreat". One such experience I had post high school occurred at Eremo delle Carceri in Assisi. There, in broken English, a humble friar explained to us that for them, "retreat" means to go into oneself so as to find silence so one can listen, hence "prison" in the name. The retreats of high school were the epitome of this eight year old style religion, mean to make us feel good about ourselves rather than have an encounter with God, in fact, no retreat involved mass. For a teenager, to have a numinous experience can create wonder and anticipation about what his Church is. The result: eagerness for intellectual study!

A second such experience involved the aforementioned "rock star". The scene: Easter Sunday, 2005, Piazza San Pietro, grey, cloudy, beginning to rain, 20 minutes before mass. It began to rain heavily without relief on any horizon. The square quickly emptied as the faithful went in search of a street vendor with an over priced umbrella. With not more than a few minutes remaining before mass, the rain ceases, the clouds disappear entirely, and the Papal banner rolls out of the Apostolic Apartment window with hundreds of thousands of people all around. One week later, I would find myself back in the same place listening to the tolling bells all over the city.

Obviously, this experience cannot be recreated each time a student needs some encounter with the holy, but there are ways to bring the holy to the students. A listening to Fr. Corapi's witness story, anything by Christopher West, anything that says "I doubted, I was looking, I might have stopped looking, but I eventually met God and it was good. I now seek closer encounters and I find those through the Church and here's how."

I encountered the Theology of the Body by going to a conference by West, then promptly bought the Cd's. Part of his thesis is that the misunderstanding of human sexuality is far and away one of the greatest crises of modern times. If we can't love ourselves, how can we love God? Now, it isn't about positive self-images and acceptance of shortcomings. It's about this is how God made man to love and be loved (hint: in His image and likeness). Once an appreciation is gained for that, one can't help but to go "I love loving like this and I love being loved like this, where can I get more" Enter: God and His Church.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

Thanks for the thoughts, Joe. Good luck this season.