Topping: To those families that scorn crass popular culture – embrace your bubble

18 September 2018

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Sometime between a child’s eighth or 10th year, most parents will begin to share their work with others.

This is the season when catechism classes begin, when soccer means more than kicking a ball against the fence, when kindergarten turns decidedly into elementary then junior high, and homeschooling requires more than just keeping your kid at home.

With our own children, I often feel that this transition creeps upon me. One day a child is not riding his bike, the next day, he is trying to pass me on mine; one day he is drawing in the pew at Mass, the next day, he wants to know proofs for God; one day he thinks I’m clever, the next day that I’m definitely not.

In our first essay in this segment, we took up the development of the child in the Garden, and saw that the chief aim should be to help the child, through music and sport, imitate the good; here we see what truth and what beauty is to be found in the Desk and then the Village.

As the child skips towards his teen years no longer is he or she fully immersed in his or her senses, although these continue to develop. Now intellect awakens. From chanting nonsense, and memorizing licence plates, to asking questions and dissecting your answers, the intellect emerges, as from a gentle slumber, into frenetic action.

Youth tests all. Instead of an endless passion for naming ‘cat,’ ‘horse,’ ‘girl,’ this young teen strains to see beyond the appearances of things, to grasp their ‘form’. He moves on from names to definitions and arguments. What are the differences between a boy and a girl, precisely? Could a donkey ever breed with a bird? Can you prove the soul? And why can’t I drink alcohol yet?

It is reported that parents often feel this time as a trial. The sweet child of 10 has very often at 14 turned sour, and as with a good wine, we do have to trust that the walking barrels of vintage presently occupying the rooms in our house just might get better with age! As parents we need patience. But youth needs more than time. Besides, prayer, constancy, forgiveness, encouragement, example, they need also the right ‘disciplines.’ Up until nearly yesterday, Christians were confident that these were encompassed by the seven liberal arts.

For hundreds of years, really until the 1960s, education in Europe and North America was informed by the classical liberal arts tradition. Liberal arts have nothing directly to do with politics, though democracy arguably can’t survive without them. They are called liberal inasmuch as they are the arts of freedom, liberal because they liberate from ignorance, lifting a boy or girl out from under slavery of opinions, to see and defend truth for themselves.

These arts divide between the trivium and the quadrivium. The first three arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric), you’ll notice all trade in words, whereas the second group of arts (music, geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy), trades in numbers. Where the trivium teaches us to grasp being under the aspect of quality, the quadrivium views things under the aspect of quantities: qualities and quantities, words and numbers.

At the time of the birth of the universities, Hugh of St. Victor, a master teacher, called these arts the “three-fold” and the “four-fold” roads to philosophy; though they yield knowledge, in medieval and renaissance and earlier 20th century curricula, they were used as the preparatory paths along which the mind would get its ‘legs’ so to speak, so that having learned to walk, the youth would later be fit to run more swiftly along the higher paths of disciplines like philosophy, law, medicine, or theology. Here is the point: while the arts lead the mind to know, their more important function is to teach students how to learn.

We retain a memory of the tradition. But that memory has long been fading. The Greeks first articulated it, medieval Christians perfected it, and since the French and Industrial Revolutions – when nation states needed mass-produced skills to manage mass-produced armies and factories – we’ve been gliding along downstream more or less upon the tradition’s scattered debris.

We sense a child ought to know something about reading, writing, and arithmetic. But modern secular schools don’t usually know why these things are good, beyond that they are useful for making a child, in the words of the U.S. Common Core curriculum, “college and career ready”.

Ready for what, and why? Maybe for citizenship? Maybe for getting a job? These are goods, but not of the highest sort goods. Questions about ends are questions about which the modern school, on the whole, refuses to answer. It’s not the principal’s fault. Most secular public schools can’t commit to more than vague and mushy ends because our society is not allowed, so we are told, to commit to more than vague and mushy ends.

Try to say more, and the courts will lock you out, as the Canadian Supreme Court did to Trinity Western University, this summer. To say more about “the good” than that you need to tolerate everyone else’s view would be, so many now say, oppressive – a social condition which Pope Benedict XVI described as the Dictatorship of Relativism.

This lack of a coherent account of the proximate and final goals of learning produces the chaotic results of secular public junior and high school curricula. Literature and arithmetic are still present, sort of, mostly, but so may be cooking, and courses on random cultures, and computer programing, and sex and hygiene and band and by-the-way-didn’t-you-know-bullying-is-bad.

These things may not be bad; but the student has no way of knowing why he should be forced to think this random configuration of subjects, is good. At its best, a typically modern curriculum prepares a child to get a job; at its least, a liberal arts curriculum prepares a child to live a good life. From the desk, we venture into the village.

In our post-Christian, post-truth culture, the village is looking more and more like a jungle; and yet even here, there are beautiful ideas and beautiful works and beautiful persons which the family alone cannot supply. The great strength that many tradition-loving families regularly enjoy is the sense of the fullness of family life.

Those families that scorn crass popular culture, that rarely plug into TV, the Internet, or video games, that share meals, that read books, that play, that work, and that pray together – such families often know such a fullness of their common life that it may become difficult to see what the outside world has to offer to their already very rich hours.

To such families, I say, embrace your bubble. And yet, even though we lock our doors at night, this is not to keep us inside all day. We also need the village. For the remainder, I’d like to walk with you through some of this village’s attractions, and what good these bring to our education. In swift order I want to consider what other benefits the village offers, in the store, the pub, the hall, and the church.

In this village we find a market. Man cannot live by bread alone; but as Our Lord well knew, he will perish without it. Our word ‘economics’ comes from the Greek ‘oikonomikos,’ which literally means ‘household management’. The ‘market’ comes into being whenever two households trade.

One day your son or daughter will enter into his or her own alliances. Their formation should therefore prepare them for that day when they marry and need jobs. Mostly, we assume other institutions, such as technological colleges and universities, will prepare them for success at work. Whichever route your children follow, without good character, they will fail, even here.

But life is for more than wealth, and from the market we stroll next to the pub. How can the family help prepare a child to flourish here? The pub is a gathering place for friends, of which Aristotle distinguished three kinds. The highest friendship is based upon virtue. With these sorts of friends your son or daughter will act as “iron shapes iron”.

Friendships based upon the common love of the good, the true and the beautiful are as rare as fine stones. The best way to prepare for such friendship is by helping them become the sort of boy or girl that a virtuous person would like to be with.

Good manners, pleasant speech, the cultivation of an inner life where silence does not frighten, and where sacrifice is not foreign, will help make more likely that your David will meet his Jonathan. Of course, not everyone we meet in the pub of our village can be our best friends, and we must learn also to settle for lower forms of friendship too, namely, those of pleasure and utility.

The ‘hall’ represents those civil associations regulated by law. Acreages have their charm, and the hermit his place, but let us Christians never be lulled into thinking we have done our duty if we rest content to leave the work of government to the hands of the unscrupulous. We dare not. The human family begins in a Garden, but it ends in a city, the New Jerusalem.

And so, lastly, we come to the Church. If the family is the foundation of civil society, the Church is its ultimate end. Even in this life, though, the Church brings to our Garden, our Desk, and our Village the sacraments, a vocation, and through her art, music, architecture, sculpture, philosophy and charity, a supernatural nobility.

If nothing is more characteristic of youth than changeability, nothing is more stable than the transcendental purposes of learning – the good, the true, and the beautiful. Each has its place in our curriculum from zero to 20: the Garden, where children learn best to imitate the good; the Desk, where truth is uncovered and defended; the Village, where a virtuous soul can delight in all things and all persons beautiful. Let us ask the Lord to help us lead our children well, through sport and music, through the liberal arts, and through the wonders of wealth, friendship, civility, and grace.

This is the second part of a column adapted from a talk originally given as the keynote address at an Aug. 10-11 conference on Catholic education in Saskatoon. Click here to see the first part.

Dr. Ryan N.S. Topping is vice-president and academic dean of Newman Theological College in Edmonton. His most recent book on education is The Case for Catholic Education. His forthcoming book is The Gift of the Church: How the Catholic Church Transformed the History and Soul of the West. This article was originally published on