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The Case for Catholic Education: Preface


"Ryan Topping is one of today’s most exciting and dynamic writers. In his latest book he tackles the crucial subject of education with a delightful lucidity which is both engaged and engaging." - Joseph Pearce

toppingcaseforIf you wish to bore, try to say everything.  In what follows I have said only a few things about the first things of education.  These reflections are offered to politicians and administrators, to professional teachers, and, above all, to parents. 

Catholic schools in North America have long contributed to the mission of the Church and to the flourishing of society.  During the last forty years, however, Catholic schools have suffered severe losses, both in their religious identity and in their ability to attract students.  In the previous decade alone, the number of students in American Catholic schools fell by almost twenty percent.  As the following pages show, students in Catholic schools these days are more likely to believe in God than public school students, and to be pro-life.  At the same time, they more often use marijuana and are, on average, more sexually active.  How did this happen?  And more importantly, how can we rebuild our schools and reinvigorate our pedagogy? 

The recent history of our schools is largely the record of a conflict of loyalties.  While many Catholic educators have remained faithful to the Church's vision for education, others have drunk deeply from the wells of secular philosophy.  Two generations ago the Catholic view of the human person was abandoned by many educators, and often unintentionally, in favor of alien anthropologies.  This turn in theory has led to confusion in practice.  In the Christian view, anthropology without theology is apostasy.  Forget Christ and dignity disappears.  Forget Christ and the solid moral and mental discipline that once characterized Catholic schools is bound to boil down into a soup of good intentions.  That broth no longer satisfies.  Increasingly, Catholics express a desire to recover a form of education consonant with our dignity.  This book aims to encourage that ambition.  What it proposes is a set of principles that might guide any genuine renewal of the Catholic culture in our homes and in our institutions.  The opening two chapters survey the history and present status of Catholic education in North America.  The remaining chapters name and defend principles that once animated our practice and, for the good of our children, should once more be reclaimed. 

These first principles are sometimes spoken of as the "causes" of education.  These may be divided according to their final, efficient, formal and material senses.  Final causes refer to the purposes of learning; efficient causes, to questions of pedagogy; formal and material causes, to the curriculum.  My discussion reflects this order.  After drawing on historical and sociological research, chapter three takes up the purposes of education; chapter four looks at the methods of the teacher; chapter five, at the liberal arts curriculum.  The final chapter points to signs of present renewal. 

In the midst of this discussion other important principles emerge.  Along the way, and against nationalized curricula, I argue for greater parental responsibility; I uncover the anti-Christian origins of "progressive" education; I show why virtue is more valuable to student learning than is "self- esteem"; I propose the liberal arts as the best foundation for a "common core" curriculum; I explain why traditional educators encourage imitation before creative self-expression.  In making my case for a retrieval of these principles, I draw from the greatest philosophers of the Christian tradition, from Church documents, as well as from statistical and anecdotal evidence. 

Two other features of this work are worth noting.  The first is that I have included questions and a research guide in two appendixes.  My hope is that this work might inspire curiosity and spur discussion.  The second is that this book is best read alongside another.  I have had the joy of editing a companion volume, Renewing the Mind: A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education, with a foreword by Don J. Briel (Catholic University of America Press, 2015); those wishing to delve further into the rich sources of the Catholic tradition of thinking about learning might find something of interest in those pages. 

The seeds of several chapters of this book first appeared in a series on Catholic education in Catholic Insight Magazine.  I am grateful to its editor, David Beresford, for permission to incorporate elements of those articles here.  My wife, Anna Topping, provided helpful criticisms of the text.  I thank Sr. John Mary Fleming for her gracious foreword and for her thoughtful comments on an earlier draft of this book.  Finally, I offer thanks to John Riess as well as the staff at Angelico Press, and to the parents, religious, and other educators who have shown support for this project. 

Jesus said we will always have the poor.  These days, the poverty that most afflicts us is of the heart and of the spirit.  This is where Catholic educators can serve the mission of the Church.  Pope Benedict XVI memorably said that before all else the school is "a place to encounter the living God."  This reflects a lofty ambition.  I dedicate these reflections to those teachers who would translate this promise into a living experience. 

Thomas More College,
New Hampshire Feast of St. Monica, 2015 



toppingRyan N.S. Topping. "Preface." The Case for Catholic Education (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2015): 9-11

Reprinted with permission of Angelico Press. 

The Author

toppingcaseforcoverRyan Topping earned a Doctorate in Theology from the University of Oxford. He is a Professor of Theology and serves as Vice-President and Academic Dean at Newman Theological College, Edmonton.  He is the author of The Case for Catholic Education: Why Parents, Teachers, and Politicians Should Reclaim the Principles of Catholic Pedagogy, The Gift of the Church: Volume 1 - How the Catholic Church Transformed the History and Soul of the West, Rebuilding Catholic Culture, The Elements of Rhetoric,  Renewing the Mind: A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education and Christmas Around the Fire: Poems, Stories, and Lessons for the Season of Christ’s Birth.

Copyright © 2015 Angelico Press
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