Interview With Dr. Ryan Topping: Making the Case for Faithful Catholic Education

The Cardinal Newman Society is grateful for our many partners in promoting and defending faithful Catholic education. Dr. Ryan Topping, author of Renewing the Mind and The Case for Catholic Education, is especially passionate about this work. We recently asked him to share his insights about the ongoing renewal, our Catholic Curriculum Standards, and the growth of classical education.

Newman Society: Dr. Topping, you have been a compelling advocate for Catholic education — but not the status quo. Your work seems to begin with the same conviction that underlies the mission of The Cardinal Newman Society: that something has been amiss in Catholic education, but the challenges can be overcome. Let’s start with the challenges. What do you see as the greatest priorities for reform and renewal in Catholic education today?

Dr. Topping: As you learn at an AA meeting, the first step toward recovery is to admit to a problem. We’ve come a long way. There’s a new generation of parents and students who’ve embraced a joyful orthodoxy. Enthusiasm is spreading.

Dr. Ryan Topping
Dr. Ryan Topping

Still, there’s work to be done. We continue to suffer through the consequences of two generations of failed catechesis. Catholic schools in the United States educate about two million souls. Nationally, both in quantity and quality, our schools are in a terminal decline.

Each year, about 50,000 desks become vacated. Last year 88 schools closed (27 opened — a figure I’ll return to later). A regional study recently found that 68 percent of Catholic school teachers think the primary purpose of the Mass is to “celebrate community and diversity.” Another study suggests that only 1 out of 10 Catholic teens think Church teaching is correct on sex. Clearly, if we Catholics hope to keep our schools open and our kids beyond graduation, we cannot float along as though it were business as usual.

Newman Society: The secular culture can be very attractive to students and parents, and it is increasingly hostile to faithful Catholic schools and colleges. Are Catholic educators simply overwhelmed by the secular culture, or are we partially responsible for the present difficulties you mention?

Dr. Topping: It is true that American culture has become more hostile. But the deeper causes for the crisis of education are intellectual and moral. Too often we have censured ourselves. Many Catholics simply lost confidence in the world-transforming character of our creed. We assumed an intellectual inferiority complex, a false posture of humility. When we put away our rosaries and cassocks and covered up our statues so that no one need feel offended, we stripped our schools of the signs that made visible our vocation: to preach the Good News of Jesus.

Well, I don’t think Catholics need to go out of their way to offend. But neither should we be ashamed. I was once associated with a Catholic school that seemed to want to make everyone comfortable except for Catholics. At opening events, prayer was absent, though meat was sure to be served on Friday; as students toured the school, administrators made a special point of plastering a small rainbow symbol outside of their doors. The message was clear: Catholics should keep quiet. But we can’t keep quiet. As a matter of both justice and mercy, we owe it to our students to offer to them the richness of the Catholic tradition, and to provide a full-body immersion in Catholic culture.

Newman Society: The Newman Society has argued that Catholic education is a key solution to overcoming secularism. Why is it so important that we renew faithful education?

Dr. Topping: In an address to American bishops, Saint John Paul II once named what he thought was the greatest gift that our schools could offer to America. More than redistributing wealth, or eliminating bullying, or encouraging tolerance — however important these may be — he explained that our best gift was to restore to American culture the conviction that humans can “grasp the truth of things.” Culture collapses without confidence in truth. Skepticism poisons the wells; it breeds conformists, and it launches young people into the sea of life without a rudder. We need to renew faithful education because we want our children to make it safely to port.

Newman Society: Your book published last year, The Case for Catholic Education, is a call to “reclaim the principles of Catholic pedagogy.” It’s an outstanding book, one that every Catholic educator and parent should have on their shelf. But why the focus on pedagogy? Is that where you see the greatest hope for renewal?

Dr. Topping: That little book is the sister to a larger book, Renewing the Mind: A Reader in the Catholic Philosophy of Education. The big book we aimed at students in college. We put together The Case for Catholic Education for busy parents and teachers.

By “pedagogy” I refer simply to the first principles of the craft of teaching. This seemed to me the best strategy for getting at the essentials. Drawing upon Catholic philosophy, Church documents, the social sciences, as well as anecdotal observations, my goal was to distill for parents the principles of teaching.

The principles come down to answers to three questions: Why do we teach? What do we teach? And how do we teach?

The first names our goals, the second our curriculum, the third our methods. If we can glean wisdom from the Church on these three questions, secondary concerns — matters of finance, of fundraising and of retention — are more likely to be approached from a principled point of view and in the right spirit. First things first.

Newman Society: Lately, the Newman Society has been focused on educational standards — both the inadequacy of the Common Core and the need for genuine Catholic standards that indicate appropriate objectives of Catholic education. We recently released our Catholic Curriculum Standards, for which you were a great help to us as a consultant and contributor. How do you think such standards can help renew our Catholic schools?

Dr. Topping: It was an honor to make a small contribution. The Cardinal Newman Society’s project will be a success insofar as these standards will spur thoughtful reflection among Catholic educators. I believe they are doing just that.

catholic-standards-coverTalk of “standards” gives most teachers the heebiejeebies. And understandably. Government agencies want to measure success by mechanical measures — and so tend to overemphasize standards. On the other hand, without any standards how do you know you’ve accomplished your goals? So the question is not whether schools need standards. The question is what kind of standards will serve their aims.

Standards help you translate your mission into metrics. I was recently speaking to a teacher who was asking how it is that we could study mathematics in a “Catholic mode.” Are there any insights about God that a student might gain from seeing order within the multiplication table? Might mathematics foster habits that carry over into moral reflection? Or how about “literature” from a Catholic point of view? These are great questions. These are also questions to which every school or co-op should have answers, or at least the beginning of answers.

Intelligently framed, standards should not feel like an imposition. Rather, stated well, they can offer to students and teachers “flag posts” for measuring progress during the course of a long pilgrimage; when you are hiking to the top of a great mountain you need encouragement along the way, markers that will assure you that you’re not straying into the wilds, and that the rocks you’re struggling to mount will eventually lead you to the summit. By marking incremental progress, good metrics serve a school’s Catholic mission.

Newman Society: Your latest book, The Elements of Rhetoric: How to Write and Speak Clearly and Persuasively, is another exciting contribution to education, because it focuses on disciplines that are largely absent from today’s schools: logic and rhetoric. These were the highest priorities of a classical education. What do you think of the recent interest in classical education, and should more Catholic schools embrace it?

Dr. Topping: I mentioned earlier the 27 new schools that opened last year. All over the country, schools are being re-founded or newly established on the basis of a “classical” vision of education. Do I think more schools should embrace such a vision? By all means, yes!

“Classical” education is not elitist. It is simply another way of speaking about how for 1,900 years Catholics explained what it means to be an educated human being. Actually, it is only in the last 50 years or less that Catholics have stepped out of their own tradition to embrace an alien one.

To my mind, we have no choice. There are really only two dominant models of educational philosophy. One comes from Aristotle, and was taken up by the Catholic Church, nourished and developed by the Benedictines, Dominicans and then Jesuits; the other stems from Rousseau, and was picked up by John Dewey and the “progressive” movement in education during the 1960s. “Classical” education takes as its starting premise that there is such a thing as a human nature —  and that human nature can be made objectively better or worse. “Progressive” education sets out by denying that affirmation.

Rousseau thinks authenticity a virtue; Aristotle thinks virtue makes you authentic. In progressive education, the child knows best, because there are no objective standards. Progressive educators end up denying, among other things, original sin. Our tolerance for the lack of dress codes, for coarse music, and for endless opinions about what a 15-year-old might study stem from this way of thinking. For Aristotle, by contrast, human beings can become better or worse, objectively. I think Aristotle not only better describes the facts of what make children flourish; he is also more compatible with the Bible.

Newman Society: You teach at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, one of the faithful colleges recommended in our Newman Guide. That’s a great place to explore the best of Catholic education, but most other Catholic colleges are substantially secularized. What are some of the pressing challenges that you see in Catholic higher education, and how might they be addressed?

Dr. Topping: Thomas More College is a great place to study and teach! And, thankfully, parents have many more options now for where to send their children than they did a generation ago. Of course, a credible Catholic college needs to have a curriculum that is ordered to truth, enjoys adequate funding, good leadership, and the rest. But what distinguishes Newman Guide colleges from other Catholic colleges is that these colleges consistently hire for mission.

In my view, the single greatest failure in leadership in Catholic higher education beginning 30 years ago is that most colleges stopped hiring for mission. The problem with this practice is not difficult to see. Imagine you own a roofing company. Then imagine you start hiring electricians, and sooner or later one of two things will happen to your company: either you’ll start building leaky roofs, or your company will become another sort of company altogether.

In short, when you stop hiring for mission, either you will pursue your mission badly, or you will take on a new mission. Among the 200 or so Catholic colleges and universities in America, we witness both outcomes. In the first, the project of providing a Catholic formation is distorted — social justice becomes reduced to recycling; in the second, Catholic identity is abandoned altogether, statutes get re-written and the crucifixes come off the walls.

What can be done? This is a question of prudence. At the least, at the highest levels of governance, board members and college presidents can insist that only candidates who affirm the Catholic mission can be considered for employment. But it is not as though we should look only to the top. Influence can also be exerted from “below.” I know of many faculty members who put on lectures, start reading groups or start clubs as a means of gathering community. Eventually, you need the administration on your side; but the administration also needs to feel they’re not alone in the fight.

Those outside the institution can help too. Donors, parents and bishops often fail to realize how much administrators pay attention to the cues outside members send. So let us send them! Ultimately, the battle over Catholic education is a fight for the soul of the institution, and for the students who will be formed within its walls.

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