If education is the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another as G.K. Chesterton once said, then literature is the substance nourishing or corrupting that soul. With this sublime view, it’s no wonder literature now sits in the crosshairs of today’s culture wars as certain groups fight to remove classic works from school curricula and libraries in favor of new works that press false ideologies and political agendas. These often push secular materialist worldviews on even the youngest of children, effectively destroying and replacing the Catholic worldview.
For instance, Scholastic Book Club—which is often promoted to students in Catholic schools—sells books promoting both gender theory and critical race theory. The Moon Within concerns a young girl and notions of “gender fluidity.” Several books by Alex Gino introduce children to homosexuality and gender dysphoria. In Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, activist Ibram Kendi accuses Booker T. Washington, President Barack Obama, and other Black American leaders of being “assimilationists” guilty of implicit racism.
These themes have made even deeper inroads onto Catholic college campuses—and then back into Catholic schools. Loyola University Maryland’s Karson Institute, for instance, recently teamed up with Ms. Magazine to issue lesson plans and an annotated bibliography promoting critical race theory literature in K-12 schools.
An eternal response
Catholic school administrators should approach this challenge of literature selection as they do all challenges—through the light of their unique mission.
In the Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimum educationis), Pope Paul VI highlights how Catholic schools are to “order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation so that the knowledge the students gradually acquire of the world, life and man is illumined by faith.”
As Catholic educators strive to expand the knowledge, understanding, and humanity of their students, they should not make literature selections simply based on the fleeting fancies of what students want to read, what is politically correct or what is culturally in fashion. Instead, they should seek works of excellence that encompass aesthetic beauty and artistic merit; have stood the test of time and address perennial challenges of humanity. Literature that is outstanding and describes instances of human excellence and Christian virtue are solid, lasting choices.
CATHOLIC EDUCATION DOESN’T CANCEL CULTURE; IT SUPPORTS IT WHEREVER POSSIBLE, CRITIQUES IT WHEN NEEDED, AND IMPROVES IT WITH CHRISTIAN INSIGHT.
It is crucial to note, Catholic education does not simply mirror the common culture; nor does it uncritically pass it on. Catholic education doesn’t cancel culture; it supports it wherever possible, critiques it when needed, and improves it with Christian insight.
Antidote for pop culture
One powerful reason Catholic educators should select enduring works of literature is because literature has the potential to break students free from the culture and circumstances that may bind and/or blind them.
Make no mistake, the culture that has most students in its thrall is the current pop culture: it’s TikTok social media, academia, big tech, professional athletics, fashion, and popular music.
It is not yet Homer, Augustine, Mozart, Dante, Dostoyevsky, and Twain that have their hearts and attention. It’s Cardi B, the Kardashians, Lebron James, and whatever is trending on Instagram that grabs their attention and shapes their culture and worldview. That worldview is dominated by materialism, the sexual revolution, relativism, cynicism, and despair. It is saturated with quick fixes of drugs, divorce, and bodily reconstruction. It is not a worldview completely without virtue, but one where, as GK Chesterton noted, the virtues have come untethered from the truth and from each other and are capable of working against ultimate goods.
Therefore, a critical task of Catholic education is to unbind students from the chains of the present and reveal to them the depth and breadth of broad human experiences across all sorts of divisions. The key cultural divisions they need to breach are not just the highly touted and culturally celebrated racial groupings and other sympathetic marginalized groupings of 2022. Modern students are quite knowledgeable and constantly exposed to this culture. The cultures more likely to challenge them and expand their horizons are the cultures of 1822 AD, 1522 AD, 1022 AD, and 222 AD. Introducing students to the thoughts, values, and beliefs of humanity across the ages through literature and history is more likely to lead them into the great conversations of mankind and introduce them to ideas beyond the shallow limits of the “woke world” which surrounds and suffocates them.
Judging a book by its cover
You can’t judge a book by its cover is an idiomatic expression meaning you shouldn’t judge the content of something, or someone, based on appearances. This expression is true in both the negative and the positive, meaning one should not dismiss a work (negative) nor ascribe artistic or intellectual worthiness to it (positive) based on the author’s skin color, gender, personal habits, virtues, or vices. A work’s merit takes precedent over the faults of its author, just as a logical argument should not be dismissed as untrue simply because the truth was
FAITHFUL CATHOLIC EDUCATION TEACHES MORE, OFFERS MORE, AND BRINGS THE LIGHT OF CHRIST TO THE WORLD.
argued by someone distasteful to the hearer. Also, in a related point, literature should not be selected because it makes one feel righteous in fighting for a victim class; nor should victim status work like a golf handicap to elevate mediocre works of literature above truly great work. Despite pressure from activist groups, Catholic educators should refrain from tossing out literature because of guilt by association simply because it comes from a person or culture which has acted unjustly or advocated for a flawed worldview. This would leave slim pickings indeed, as all human beings are sinners and act unjustly and all cultures seek to perpetuate their values. All cultures are comprised of fallen people with fallen ideals or who have failed to live up to those ideals over time.
A compelling Catholic witness
Finally, Catholic educators should not determine literary merit only through the lens of one literary theory (and especially not critical race theory or LGBTQ+ theory). There are more than a dozen literary theories to draw from. Educators should introduce students to various modes of interpretation or theory as appropriate based upon age, emotional, and psychological development, but never neglect to provide a corrective Catholic worldview when issues of aesthetics, faith, and morals are present. Catholic educators need to show older students multiple examples of worldviews in conflict, and then make the case for the Christian worldview through reason, revelation, and through the cohesive and unwavering personal witness of the teacher. The teacher can provide living proof that a Christian worldview can resonate with the student’s personal and existential needs. Young people must remain free to test and accept the value of what is placed before them; there can be no compulsion of will, only compelling presentations of truth to be freely received.
Literature selections made by Catholic educators must, as with all else, serve the mission. If the booklists look the same as at non-Catholic schools, or the works are approached simply using the same secular common culture and lenses of interpretation and meaning, Catholic education will have lost its flavor and competitive advantage. Faithful Catholic education teaches more, offers more, and brings the light of Christ to the world.