Thursday, July 5, 2007

Catholic Talk in Textbooks?

I have been enjoying a discussion here about the notion of "Catholic Talk" in the textbooks and materials one uses in one's homeschool. It seems that all the discussion's participants do agree that if we are Catholic homeschoolers, it is important to use Catholic materials; yet there's some disagreement about the extent to which Catholicism should be incorporated into the materials we use for education, and the type of texts which blend Catholic themes and ideas into diverse subject areas in a natural and pleasing manner, as opposed to some other materials which seem less successful in undertaking this worthy object.

Several people seem to think there's a difference between the way some of the older Catholic textbooks add elements of the faith to such subjects as grammar and history and the way some of the newer textbooks try to do so. In pondering this a bit, I started thinking that perhaps some of the difference has more to do with the different times than we might realize. The materials written and used when Catholic schools were flourishing and the faith, at least here in America, seemed to be strong and vital are more matter-of-fact about religion and religious themes than the materials written today, which often make zealous but misguided attempts to see not only God's creative power, but actual tenets of Catholicism, reflected in the natural world.

What's wrong with that? you might ask. Nothing at all, if it is true. But if observing, say, a particular type of creature in its natural habitat doesn't somehow reveal the necessity of Trinitarian baptism then it's much better not to say that it does; both honesty and free will are at stake. We may be motivated by our love for our beautiful faith when we make such extravagant claims about how self-evident we think it is; but in a way we insult God, too, by attempting to cover up for His refusal to make the doctrines of Catholicism observable in nature.

And if the fact that verbs can be either transitive, or intransitive, or both transitive and intransitive is not a grammatical reflection of the way that some creatures can be physical, some spiritual, and some (man) both physical and spiritual, then no matter how much good we would like to do by claiming that God orders grammar exactly as He orders creation, we are only going to embarrass ourselves, especially when we learn that in some simpler languages the relationship between verbs and their objects isn't necessarily so clear-cut.

By and large, the authors of Catholic textbooks written between 1900 and 1950 or so in America seemed to know this intuitively, that no matter how much we'd like to claim that Catholicism is startlingly in evidence in subjects ranging from algebra to geography to zoology, this simply isn't true--because if it were true, then faith would not be a matter of free will, and would not matter at all.

Now, this doesn't mean that we can't, like St. Patrick and the shamrock, use elements of the natural world to come to a deeper understanding of God and His revealed truths, but the very fact that He went to so much trouble to reveal them means that they're not just lurking in shamrock fields waiting to be discovered. Put another way, a pagan in Ireland could have meditated upon the pleasing shape of the shamrock daily without having any insights on the Trinity; it took St. Patrick, himself taught the revealed truths, to aid the Irish pagans to make that leap of faith.

The old books knew this, and told about St. Patrick in well-written paragraphs to aid in the study of both the well-written paragraph and St. Patrick; they gave children, in penmanship workbooks, sentences about the Trinity to copy out neatly on the grounds that if children are going to be copying out sentences, they might as well be copying out true ones. But they did not claim that good penmanship is next to godliness, for in addition to being demonstrably untrue in the case of several modern saints who left us copies of their handwriting, such an idea would also cause unnecessary consternation to the children of Catholic doctors.

The point of all of this is that Catholic-themed books and materials can be very good, when they are committed to being as honest about Catholicism as they are about deponent verbs, spelling principles, mixed numbers, the battle of Hastings, cumulus clouds and Edgar Allen Poe. But they can be less good when they see all of the above as material to be twisted, stretched, altered or co-opted and then used to bolster the claims of God's Church and His Kingdom; a pious lie is still a lie, after all.


AnnonyMouse said...

We use all the Seton books so far becaue we are soo new to the homeschooling.
We are all enjoying the Catholic history/stories from the books and rely on trips to the library to fill in the rest.
PLUS, those books are so well written. Some of the ones from the public school they were using just stank to high heaven!
Sorry about your paper in high school.
I had the Dept Head teach me freshman english in college and on my very first paper I got a C-. No errors. Nothing. her reasoning was that she didn't like the topic. "we" knew she was weeding out the class.

For now, we have to stick with the boxed curriculum.
This is a very interesting discussion.

Paula in MN said...

Bravo -- well said.