Three Guiding Principles in Choosing Literature

 

It is clear, the cancel culture is bent on canceling the good, the true, and the beautiful. The latest area they seek to override is literature. Classic literature, which has been used in education for generations, is now deemed racist or sexist and needing to be replaced by more modern works. 

Amidst this tumult, parents and Catholic educators might find it difficult to discern exactly which literature is or is not good for their students to read. Therefore, the Cardinal Newman Society has assembled Policy Standards on Literature and the Arts in Catholic Education, recognizing that literature is an essential tool in the formation of a student’s mind, body, and spirit. 

The standards are rooted in three guiding principles:

1. Remember the mission

The first and foundational principle in choosing literature is to recall the mission of Catholic education, which brings students closer to Christ and helps them fulfill God’s calling in this world and to attain the eternal kingdom for which they were created. 

Literature can assist by providing a critical, systematic transmission of culture always guided by a Christian vision of reality. Works should be carefully chosen and analyzed from a Catholic perspective. Even if the work is not Catholic, educators and students should approach the text with a Catholic lens, which always increases rather than limits understanding.

LITERATURE IS AN ESSENTIAL TOOL IN THE FORMATION OF A STUDENT’S MIND, BODY, AND SPIRIT.

For example, students have long been reading ancient pagan Greek texts, such as The Odyssey. Catholics can (and should) still read this book, asking questions about virtue, how much Odysseus is influenced by good ends, and the role of free will. 

According to The Cardinal Newman Society’s Standards, “it is then the role of a Catholic educator to suggest and model a response to the critical questions being provoked in order to provide a coherent and consistent Catholic understanding.” 

Bringing everything back to the mission of Catholic education helps clarify choices and is a sure guide as new challenges arise.

2. Dare to be different

The literature chosen by Catholic educators may be very different from secular schools and colleges, because Catholic education teaches truths that are unknown or rejected elsewhere, and it forms young people for sainthood—much more than college or career. 

In Catholic education, the searching for truth begins with already knowing the fount of truth and seeing the unity between faith and reason. It orients students toward holiness and eternal salvation, while promoting the common good. 

Literature in Catholic education should never lead students into sin or despair, nor cause scandal. As the standards say, Catholic educators aim not to present uncritically all possible human thought and viewpoints, but to present the best literature and arts critically and in the context of a Catholic worldview.” Unlike secular education, which often has little to no orientation towards the truth, Catholic education exposes students to good, challenging literature within the context of truth. 

Some might think this approach opposes great secular literature, so let’s look at one example you might not think of—Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This book is recommended by The Cardinal Newman Society for grades 9-12, even though it peers into the mind of a murderer. The classic book provides opportunities for students to investigate the effects of sin and the power of forgiveness and redemption—all of which can be taught from a Catholic perspective. Still, the choice of literature should not acquiesce to the latest fad or impulse. Rather it should serve as an opportunity to show forth the distinguishing characteristics of a distinctively Catholic education, which is increasingly different from secular woke schools—Dare to be different!

3. Understanding human nature

Finally, literature as well as the arts should be oriented toward understanding human nature, and human experiences. Good literature teaches students about how people interact in the world, and how they improve. 

Reading literature is more than a utilitarian act where the reader is simply acquiring job skills. It is also about learning and evaluating “the knowledge, wisdom, creativity and insights of others,” explain The Cardinal Newman Society standards. 

The truth that students acquire can be oriented toward their own personal growth in holiness, as well as assisting the common good. A shining example of this is Aesop’s Fables recommended for K-4 students. Each of the short stories offers a moral or virtue to be acquired in the child-friendly format of stories about animals.

 

1. REMEMBER THE MISSION

2. DARE TO BE DIFFERENT

3. UNDERSTANDING HUMAN NATURE

 

Literature should prompt students to ask the “essential” questions, which revolve around the meaning of life, and their relationship to God, others, and the world. 

The “Great Books” which are now being assailed by activists are often ideal choices to prompt readers to ask these kinds of questions. They are considered the best that has been thought and said in Western civilization. The Cardinal Newman Society’s recommended reading list contains many of these works—Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, The Aeneid by Virgil, Beowulf, and Don Quixote by Cervantes, just to name a few.

Helping Catholic educators

Determining what books should be in the curriculum or library can be a daunting task. Appendix C of the Society’s literature standards is a “Holistic Rubric for Selecting Literature in a Catholic School.” This rubric offers a 1-4 rating scale (from poor choice to excellent choice) to help determine whether a book would be fitting for a Catholic curriculum or library. 

For example, a book that is considered a “poor choice” would be focused primarily on the current culture and politics, promotes a worldview that is anti-Christian, and confuses virtue and vice. A book that would be an excellent choice would be timeless, transcending the current culture and politics. It would allow for discussion of authentic truth within a Catholic worldview. It would be a well-crafted book, prompting strong intellectual engagement among the students. 

Our standards are designed to help Catholic educators select books that assist them in teaching a Catholic worldview. As the culture becomes increasingly anti-Christian, educators will face novel challenges designed to derail the authentic transmission of the Catholic faith. The choice of good literature can help offset this assault because it exposes students to good and evil, vice and virtue, escorted by great Catholic educators who incorporate enduring literature into their curriculums and libraries.

 

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