A friend of mine recently told me that he and his wife (devout Catholics) had decided to cancel their Disney+ subscription for their elementary-school-aged children. Some Disney content, they found, discussed menstrual cycles or featured transgender characters, which, rightly, the parents determined was not appropriate for their pre-pubescent children.
It’s commendable whenever moms and dads act more assertively about what their children see, hear, or read. But as we approach another school year, I’d argue we as parents need to do much more. To put it bluntly, we shouldn’t wait for others, no matter how professional, to intellectually form our kids.
No, this isn’t another exhortation to homeschool your children (though, admittedly, my wife and I are soon starting our third year of homeschooling and have found it a better fit than the parochial school our eldest daughter previously attended). The homeschooling option, for various personal, professional, or financial reasons, may not be feasible for you or your kids. There are some good Catholic schools and even, in some parts of the country, decent public schools that haven’t capitulated to woke, anti-Catholic sexual and racial ideology. Nor is this a rallying cry for parents to become more invested in what schools are teaching their children—though that, too, is a noble and increasingly needed endeavor.
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Rather, my appeal is far broader and deeper in scope. We as parents need to view ourselves not only as those bearing primary responsibility for catechizing our children in the truths of the Catholic Faith but for providing our children a robust moral and intellectual vision of the good life. We need to make a good-faith effort to communicate to our kids the wonder and splendor of the West’s intellectual and cultural inheritance, one that will provide them not only a thoroughly Catholic upbringing but a thoroughly human one that shapes how they view themselves and the world.
That may sound a little daunting—and perhaps it should. The Western tradition, spanning thousands of years, multiple continents, and hundreds of unique but related cultures, is no small thing. I certainly wasn’t imparted a vigorous, coherent, and comprehensive conception of Western culture by my many years in public education. But in a sense, the fact that such a project appears an impossible challenge is the point.
Western civilization, from Socrates to Schubert to Stevenson to Seurat, is a remarkable achievement whose scope and character would be impossible to fully ingest, even in a lifetime. But so is Catholicism, if not more so, given that our Faith is transcendent and oriented toward the eternal. Does the complexity of the Incarnation or the Trinity stop us from teaching our children about them? If something is good and true, we should expect it to be marvelous in its grandiosity.
Perhaps some explanation is in order. Why, you might ask, is such a formidable undertaking even worth aspiring to? Because, I would argue, our communities, our nation, and even our Church need people who have some inkling of an understanding of the richness of our Western civilization and apply that incalculable wealth to every activity they perform. Who do you want designing the buildings of the future—someone schooled in the soul-crushing pragmatism and minimalism of modern architecture, or someone who wants to replicate the old Penn Station or Thomas Jefferson’s “academical village” at the University of Virginia? What kind of scientists and doctors do you want—those whose ethics are as confused and permeable as the CDC’s guidance, or those inspired by Hippocrates, Mendel, and Gianna Molla?
In other words, the deeper we drink of the beauty and goodness of our Western tradition, the more capable we are of creating communities and even nations that respect human dignity and orient 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, however imperceptibly, undermines it. It is the difference between a world filled with churches like Santa Maria del Fiore or Niemeyer’s monstrosity of a cathedral in Brasília.
“Fine,” you might say, “all things being equal, I’d rather my kids be more conversant in Rembrandt than Paw Patrol, or Bach rather than Taylor Swift. But heck, I can’t even tell Mozart from Chopin. How could I possibly teach my kids?” Here’s my answer: in many respects, I’m in the same position. 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 education, ones even college and grad school did little to fill.
So, in our family, we learn together. We print up copies of great works of art, often depicting biblical scenes, and put them in frames around the house. We put on the classical music radio station or search for symphonies on YouTube. We find children’s versions of the classics that expose our kids to some of the greatest stories ever told, and we try to read the unabridged, adult versions on our own (or watch cinematic portrayals of them after the kids go to bed). Our house, and our family, is a school for everyone. And it is fun, especially when you make a reference to some 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 on Dora the Explorer or the computer-generated graphical junk that passes for children’s books, it very well could be a slog, at least for a while. Addictions are hard to break, and the addiction of entertainment-focused education is one to which many of us have succumbed. But let me tell you, the payoffs are huge. Those few, but increasing times that my nine-year-old daughter correctly identifies a work of classical music on the radio, or accurately remembers the characters and plot from a Shakespearean play, my heart flutters. Of course, it’s also a good day when she describes the life of a saint about whom she’s been reading, or correctly answers my questions about a story from the Gospels.
Ultimately, the two catechesis, of our Faith and our civilization, should go hand-in-hand. That’s the way it’s always been: the West informed our Faith (just look at the doctrine of the Trinity and its appropriation of Greek philosophical concepts, or the influence of Rome on canon law), and our Faith has indelibly formed the West. If we want both to survive, and perhaps flourish in an America that tires of its diet of the vacuous and garish, 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 CCD instructor, to do it for us. Otherwise, that time may never come. So, drop Disney and introduce Da Vinci and Dickens. You won’t regret it.
For those interested, here are excellent, kid-friendly introductions to Shakespeare, Homer, Greek myths, Aesop’s Fables, and Beethoven.
[Photo Credit: Unsplash]