Anthology offers real substance for a Catholic philosophy of education
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
Aesop tells the story of “The Donkey and the Grasshopper,” which can be taken as a parable applicable to the state of Catholic education.
Once upon a time, there was a donkey. When the donkey heard the voice of the grasshopper, he took delight in its pleasant song. And so he asked the grasshopper a question.
“Nourished by what,” he said, “are you able to have such a sweet voice?”
The grasshopper replied to the donkey, “My nourishment is the air and the dew.”
And so the donkey, when he heard these words, decided to adopt that diet, in order to acquire the same kind of voice as the grasshopper.
Immediately he opened his mouth and drank in the air, so that he might receive the dew from it as his nourishment.
The donkey kept on doing this, until he died from starvation.
One interpretation of this story, passed down from antiquity, says it reveals how foolish it is to attempt the impossible. To adopt practices contrary to nature, in seeking to imitate someone who seems appealing, is foolishness.
Dr. Ryan N.S. Topping is a lover of wisdom who teaches at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of many fine books on education, including The Case for Catholic Education (Angelico Press, 2015).
Topping is also the editor of a superb new anthology of classical and Christian writings on education, Renewing the Mind: A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education, published just this year by Catholic University of America Press. The great merit of this anthology is how, in order to help us contemplate the renewal of education, it returns to the first principles of education.
As we learn from Aesop’s story of the donkey and the grasshopper, proper nourishment is required if we do not want to starve to death. But it is only first principles that will provide the real substance we need for a proper educational diet.
How is it then that an authentically Catholic philosophy of education can promise such a diet of substance? “No other living tradition has been thinking about thinking longer than the Catholic Church,” says the book blurb. “With carefully selected readings from classical, patristic, medieval, modern, and contemporary sources, Renewing the Mind proposes the Catholic tradition as the noblest and best hope for a recovery of humane learning in our time.”
Topping’s book includes important selections from Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Newman and Chesterton, Leo XIII and St. John XXIII, and St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. It also includes some real gems from Jacques Maritain, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Christopher Dawson, Michael O’Brien, and our very own Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, who takes his pedagogical place amidst some very good company.
Topping gives a brief introduction at the beginning of each one of his selections, supplying biographical information as well as explaining each excerpt’s significance and substance. At the end of each selection, Topping also provides four or five questions for review and discussion.
These features make the book a perfect volume for study groups of serious educators seeking professional development. The book is also clearly an ideal choice for university classroom use by educators who wish to provide their pupils with nourishment from the first principles of a Catholic philosophy of education.
Because the questions crafted by Topping are so thoughtful, the anthology in effect comes with built-in teacher lesson plans and student assignments. Students could simply be assigned some or all of the questions supplied at the end of each selection. Classroom lectures and seminars could also be devoted to some or all of the same topics.
There is thus no better toolkit available for educators seeking to renew minds. Packed with 38 selections, and with Topping’s introductory essay on the history and renewal of Catholic education, the paperback is over 400 pages thick, yet affordably priced. And because there is so much substance here to chew on, the volume provides content for even more than one course on the philosophy of education.
In fact, it could underpin four different courses, because Topping adopts a logical approach that flows from the first principles of Aristotelian causal analysis. He organizes his anthology with divisions corresponding to Aristotle’s classic teaching about the four causes (final, material, formal, and efficient).
His book thereby trains our minds on the essential characteristics that define all learning activity (its purpose or end), its form and content (or curriculum), and its method (or pedagogy). To address the present crisis in education, its concluding batch of selections considers how to implement renewal in a wide variety of Catholic educational contexts.
So who is the grasshopper with the sweet voice that the asses of the world are foolishly imitating?
In an interview with me, Topping explained the difference between authentically Catholic education and “progressive” models of education: “Most modern approaches to education find their inspiration in Rousseau,” he said, “while classical approaches find their support in Aristotle.”
“On matters pertaining to human development, I think Aristotle not only more compatible with the facts of how children learn,” said Topping, “but also more compatible with Christian revelation.”