Dr. Ryan N.S. Topping has written for numerous publications on a variety of Catholic themes and figures, including St. Augustine, Dante, and G.K. Chesterton, and is the author of six books, including most recently Renewing the Mind: A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education (Catholic University of America Press) and The Case for Catholic Education: Why Parents, Teachers, and Politicians Should Reclaim the Principles of Catholic Pedagogy (Angelico Press). He is a fellow at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire.
He recently spoke with Christopher S. Morrissey for Catholic World Report.
CWR: You have written much on education, including interesting analyses of St. Augustine’s educational philosophy. Why did you write these two new books?
Ryan Topping: Because we have become forgetful. The Case for Catholic Education is a manifesto for parents, teachers, and administrators. It’s a short book, filled with anecdotes and statistics, the kind of book I hope principals will feel confident handing out to their teachers, and moms to their friends. From the beginning we wanted this book to be user-friendly. Everything from the elegant pictures used, from the bibliography, to the study questions, are aimed at interesting busy people with children to sit down for a few hours with this book. I hope this book can make an immediate influence upon those who pick it up. Renewing the Mind, on the other hand, aims to make a more long-term impact.
CWR: Renewing the Mind is an anthology with the subtitle A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education. How do you think will it have a long-term impact?
Topping: We also wanted this book to be accessible—and hence included study questions after every chapter; but it is aimed more directly at future teachers in education programs. Our hope is that, within the next few years, it will become a standard textbook in philosophy of education courses among Catholic colleges.
CWR: Why do we need a Catholic philosophy of education?
Topping: Catholic schools in North America have long contributed to the mission of the Church and to the flourishing of society. I myself was educated at one for a few years as a child. During the last forty years, however, Catholic schools in North America have suffered severe losses, both in their religious identity and in their capacity to attract students. In the previous decade alone, the number of students in American Catholic schools fell by almost 20 percent. Students in Catholic schools these days are more likely to believe in God than public school students, and 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? I wrote these two books both in an effort to understand what went wrong and in order to help, in some small way, contribute to the recovery of our own tradition.
CWR: Why is Catholic education so important to you personally?
Topping: Personally, my wife and I have always taken a passionate interest in education. I appreciate the theoretical questions of education, and began my own research at the origins of the classical tradition, with Plato and Augustine. But foremost it was the prospect of raising and, hence, educating our own children that first drove me to seek out the aims and methods of Catholic pedagogy. We’ve got seven sons now, so lots of young minds on which to experiment!
CWR: What does Catholicism contribute to a philosophy of education?
Topping: My hope is to evoke the memory of a tradition that we are in danger of forgetting. I am a college professor. Many of my students go on to be teachers, parents, and religious or clergy themselves. Often young Catholics know that there was something wrong with the secular high school education they received, but can’t put their finger on the problem. The reader, Renewing the Mind, along with its companion book, The Case for Catholic Education, aims to help believers know the difference between “progressive” models of education, for instance, and authentically “Catholic education.” On this point, most modern approaches to education find their inspiration in Rousseau, 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, but also more compatible with Christian revelation.
CWR: Can you give an example of this difference between Aristotle and Rousseau on education?
Topping: These two approaches differ on numerous topics. To take just one: you are likely to love or loathe the “self-esteem” movement depending on whether you take Rousseau or Aristotle to be the better teacher. Rousseau thinks authenticity is the greatest virtue; Aristotle thinks that virtue is what makes you authentic. In the first model, Johnny can decide what’s wrong and right for himself; in the second, law, reason, custom, revelation, and, yes, even parents and teachers, can help Johnny figure out who he was meant to become.
CWR: How do these new books of yours build on your previous work in the field of education?
Topping: I had earlier written a study on Augustine’s theory of education, and its reception. In preparing the Reader, it became obvious that Christians were in dialogue with each other across the centuries. There was debate, we might say, because there was unanimity. The nature of man and his end they held in common, which meant they were free to debate about details. After Rousseau, that agreement broke down and the dance turned into a duel to the death. While it is true that Augustine’s City of God adds much to Plato’s Republic, and St. Thomas’ Summa to the Ethics of Aristotle, the dramatic break, from the point of view of educational theory and practice, is not between pagans and Christians, but between the moderns and everybody else.
CWR: How are the ancients different from the moderns?
Topping: The ancients before Christ were like expectant virgins who found in the Bridegroom, we might say, the fulfillment of their fantasy. Contemporary agnostics, it has been observed, are more like people who’ve suffered a divorce. The ancients received the Gospel as a liberation for the future, while agnostics see faith as a chain to the past. With the modern era agreement dissolved, and the dance came to a halt.
CWR: How do your books address the problems of the modernist viewpoint?
Topping: More recently a lot of teachers and parents have rather uncritically accepted the recommendations coming out of the “common core” project. And why shouldn’t they? Without a grounding in how the best minds of the Church have thought about what makes a “core” curriculum, they really have no defense. These books offer principles for determining what is essential to know, and what is not.
CWR: What is different in the approach of each book?
Topping: In the Renewing the Mind I aim to reintroduce students to the West’s long conversation about what it means to be an educated human being. In The Case for Catholic Education I engage more directly with where we are today. This forced me to do a great deal of sociological research, and to outline the consequences of progressive education upon our students.
CWR: Can you give an example?
Topping: To take just one example, it is commonly thought that self-esteem is a necessary ingredient to success as a student. Well, no doubt one must have a proper conception of one’s own dignity as a child of God. The problem is, modern educators often separate dignity from duties—as though we always kept the first even if we trample on the second. This seems to me a dangerous separation. It also appears not to correspond with reality. In the book I provide statistical evidence from international studies that suggests, surprisingly, a correlation between enhanced self-esteem and decreased success in school. American students on average register very healthy “self-esteem.” Seventy-seven percent of American students thought they earned “good grades in mathematics” (that is up from 72 percent about a decade previously). This compared to 58 percent of Finns, and 33 percent of the kids from Hong Kong. And how well do they know their numbers? Among the world’s 15-year-olds, students from Hong Kong placed third while those from the United States ranked 36th.
CWR: What is the future of Catholic education?
Topping: The future belongs, in my view, to those high schools and colleges that can offer students a genuinely liberal education. A liberal education, in the classical sense, is an education which allows you to discover and reason about your own good. This contrasts with servile education, which concerns merely means. A liberal education can teach you to reason about friendship, God, and death. A servile education merely teaches you how to make money. Let me add, even on that front, that a liberal education scores higher points. A lot of successful business people will tell you this. Common sense, I think, suggests the same. Given that the typical young person today will have on average some four different careers, an education that can teach you to use your reason to its fullest capacities is better than one that provides only one specific skill.
CWR: Is a Catholic education best offered by small liberal arts colleges?
Topping: Size, of course, doesn’t guarantee substance. Yet small high schools and colleges are more responsive in two senses. First, they are more responsive to students because of the opportunities for friendships that they provide. Jails might be able to house thousands of inmates effectively; but schools are intended to foster a community of scholars. Smaller high schools are more responsive in a second sense: they can better answer to the wishes of parents. When layers of bureaucracy separate a parent from his child, the parent effectively loses control of their child’s education, as we see all around us today.
CWR: Who will lead the efforts at renewing Catholic education? Will it be clergy, religious, or laity?
Topping: As Vatican II beautifully expressed it, all members of the Church are called to contribute to her mission. Certainly, religious and clergy can serve. But, according to the Church, the first responsibility falls upon the parents. In countless documents, the message of the Church to parents is: if the school isn’t educating your child, fix it, or move them elsewhere.