Catholic Activity: Instilling a Love of Learning
Parents should always strive to cultivate both a love for learning and a deep respect for education in their children.
The Job of Learning
The virtue of hope helps us to know that God wants us eternally happy with Him in Heaven, and will help us get there. What has this to do with school?
All the things God gives us, or permits to happen to us, are the means by which we work out our salvation. Going to school is part of it. When we teach our children that Heaven, not just a diploma, is the end of going to school, with the help of hope they can keep their gaze fixed on the end and work harder in school because it is a means. Whether they learn easily or with difficulty, hope says, Do not be discouraged. The ease or difficulty is part of the way to Heaven.
One of our children had great difficulty learning to read. By the end of the year, it was recommended that he repeat the second grade. He did not seem to be unintelligent, was able to keep pace with the other children in other things, but his reading was only a little short of hopeless. We tried to prepare him gradually so that he would not be too hurt to discover he would not pass, but in the end it was a terrible shock and he despaired of ever holding his head up in public again. His only comfort was little enough, for him, but it was leaning very hard on hope. Somehow, if we all prayed hard enough, surely God would help him to accept it and send him the grace to learn, and whatever it cost him in embarrassment he could use to help him get to Heaven.
We tugged mightily at hope all summer, and before school began again part of the answer came. We discovered with the help of a child guidance clinic that he had a remedial problem. He was left-handed and right-eyed and had been trying to read from right to left. The rest of the answer came the first day of school. Armed with hope, he marched himself off to school and there in front of all his friends, went once more back into the second grade. I think no one could reckon the cost of this to a small boy. When he got home that night, he was beaming when he said: "Gee — nobody even cared." Then we could show him the beauty of the virtue of hope. He had prayed so hard just to hope that the disgrace of repeating wouldn't destroy him, and now what looked like an unbearable cross had worked so much good. It had revealed his remedial problem, and we knew how to help him. Better than that, he had learned a little bit about trusting that God knows what He is doing when He lets hard things happen to us. He uses the everyday kind of things to draw miniatures of what the way to Heaven will be like. Hard work, obstacles, and always spells of walking blindly and making yourself pray for hope, because with hope you won't despair, and with hope you can always wait just a little longer until God works things out the way He wants.
Even the child who is retarded, who will be a poor student always, and will be passed from grade to grade merely to keep pace socially with his fellows, must not be permitted to despair. Hope says that both he and his parents may find serenity even in his failures, because he was not created just to get good grades in school. This is not a sentimental substitute for scholastic brilliance. It is the essence of hope. And hope, on the other hand, keeps the self-sufficiency of a good student in check, reminding him that this is not his final end, but only a means; that he must beware of pride, which easily substitutes a successful scholastic career for eternal happiness as the end of going to school.
St. Paul says that charity is greater than either faith or hope, and without charity we have nothing. Charity is the fire that warms faith and sustains hope, because charity is love. It has the most obvious relation to school life.
Charity is patient, is kind; charity envieth not, dealeth not perversely; is not puffed up; is not ambitious, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger; thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Charity is the virtue by which we are able to love God above all things, and our neighbor as ourself. And from the first moment of starting to school, we are riding, sitting, walking, learning, talking, eating, and playing with new neighbors.
Whether or not we may talk faith, hope, and charity in complicated terms to our first-graders does not matter. We can talk them in their own terms. What is important is that we understand them and use them as our rule for seeing the years of going to school in relation to the purpose of life. Without this understanding, we will be fooled into thinking that the purpose of education is merely to accumulate knowledge. There is a difference between an educated man and a knowledgeable man. The first knows why he is here and uses knowledge to discover his relation to God. The second does not know why he is here and uses knowledge as the end itself.
We have an obligation to teach our children a right respect for education and to rejoice that they live in a land where it is available to everyone. Going to school is so commonplace in America that not many people remember to rejoice about it. It is a privilege that is so much taken for granted that for some it is not even a privilege, but a burden, and they drop out as soon as the law allows. Homework can be an opportunity to practice and explore what has already been learned; yet often parents and children alike consider it only an odious burden heaped on helpless victims by teachers who have (they are sure) forgotten what it means to be young. On the other side of the world Korean children are sitting on crates by the bank of a river gleefully happy because once more they can go to school. African children walk ten miles barefoot to get to mission schools where they can learn to write their names, read the communications of other men, add, subtract, multiply, analyze the soil of their farm lands, master the principle of self-government, and learn about God.
Our own attitudes will color the way our children look at school. It can be a dismal prison, an automatic baby-sitter, or the opportunity to discover the gifts that are in us and the ways to use them, depending on which of these attitudes a child absorbs from his parents. Granted, there is lack of space and teachers. There are antiquated buildings. There is confusion in many quarters as to whether the end should be purely scholastic, "practical," or merely social adjustment. In spite of all these, we still have schools. If there are improvements to be desired, it is our burden to work for them. If there are dangers to beware of, it is our burden to beware of them. But it is a blessing to have schools. And if we teach our children that the knowledge they accumulate in school will help them discover God-given vocations, we must also teach them to be grateful that they may go to school.
Instilling a Love of Learning
The plaint of educators everywhere is that children seem to lack eagerness and enthusiasm about learning. This zest is the hallmark of the beginner, but somewhere between first grade and high school it dries up. Parents can do much to help a child sustain his eagerness by participating with him in the things he learns. This is not to imply that all parents do not; yet often our contribution amounts to no more than a constant admonition. "You buckle down and get to work, learn while you have the chance. You'll be sorry later you didn't take advantage of school."
A routine assignment for a geography class, for instance, can become exciting when we discover its contact with our own daily life. One child was supposed to collect pictures of five agricultural products grown in Mississippi, but the pantry cupboard produced the products themselves, so her display consisted of little plastic bags filled with corn meal, oatmeal, whole-wheat cereal, a string of peanuts in their shells, and a wad of cotton. A child who needs practice in addition learns how necessary it is to daily life when he adds up the check-out slip accompanying the grocery order. Fractions seem to have some reason for being when they are the means of tripling a cake recipe; a youngster who hates fractions but loves to cook will discover that they aren't quite so inscrutable or hateful as she thought. Applying phonetics to reading new words is fun when a child is handed a letter from Grandma or Aunt Martha and told that he may read it to the family. We do not have to be professional teachers to interest our children in what they learn in school. Our role is stimulating their interest by tying knowledge in with family and civic life. Encouraging self-control in the matter of radio and TV programs, those thieves of time and enemies of concentration, is easier if we plan constructive projects to correlate with homework. It is surprising how easily children can be weaned from too much radio and TV if they are given something more interesting to do instead.
Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961