On textbooks, the academic process, and things that last

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 28, 2020

It was a dark and stormy night (but only in my mind). I was suddenly thirty years younger and working on a textbook project to be printed on demand from a PDF file for seventh grade reading, at the Catholic school where my wife chairs the English Department. The school needed the first batch of texts printed ASAP, and I am on call for whatever involves computers in our household. That explains why I was up until 5:30 am and then awake again three hours later. It made me think of my younger days, but only because of the strain of not being “younger” any more!

My private little war is emblematic of the enormous number of difficulties which afflict sound Catholic education today. In many subjects, the newer textbooks are offensive to faith or morals, but the better older materials are now so long out of print that it is difficult even to get enough used books to go around. In recent days, I’ve learned how to take old books apart so that the pages can be photocopied using an automatic document feeder with decent output quality. Most scanning projects involve photographic images; any effort to convert them to text using optical character recognition adds way too many errors, and so far too much labor, to the project.

In last night’s challenge, however, we had PDF and Microsoft Word files which had been created (as seemed obvious from the types of errors encountered) through some combination of typing, optical character recognition, and reading aloud into a program which captures text that way. It was wonderful to have these files (which I did nothing to create), but the generation process meant they were rife with errors, first because of faulty input, second because I did not always instinctively choose the best path to resolve problems, and third because the various forms of cross-platform file corruption created formatting artifacts which one or another piece of software was unable to modify.

This is par for the course in shifting among file types unless the textual patterns are very straightforward. Add to that the need to keep the pagination in the final editable file the same as that in the original book, because teachers had page references already in their class materials from past use.

Ideological education

Appropriately, I received an email today from someone who is developing a textbook in the social sciences which is intended for Catholic home-school use. My correspondent was wondering about options for publishing and distributing the material once it is complete. This is too audience-specific for Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org, but the timing could not have been better from the “I feel your pain” point of view.

Anyone who works on putting together outstanding materials under various course headings for homeschooling families and authentically Catholic schools provides a signal service to the Church. Catholics, both parents and teachers, need to work far harder than their secular counterparts, not only to find resources that can help them in the education of their young students, but even to afford them. As little as two generations ago, this was nothing like the problem it is today. As I mentioned, not only were morally sound materials still being prepared and published, but their availability on the used market was still fairly strong well into the last generation. Accessibility has dropped off dramatically over the past ten-plus years.

The problem with contemporary materials from major publishers is that they tend to be ideologically driven. This is true not only in the sex-and-gender area but with respect to many other intellectual, social and religious problems which are rapidly destroying modern culture. Indeed, Western culture is pretty much in an unbridled rebellion against both God and nature. That was already beginning to be obvious in classroom materials at the college level as early as the 1960s; it is now a near-universal scourge. I still recall a Zoology textbook I was required to purchase in my freshman year of college (1966-67) in which the author explained that there were so many animal species in the world as to be far beyond the creative power of even the most powerful God.

Can you spell “infinity”? Such incredibly ignorant assumptions (call them prejudices, which is what they are) dominate the publishing world today, and their influence on textbook publishing is even stronger than in more popular writing. The difficulty of accessing really good educational material is just one more reason it is so hard for Catholics to educate and form their children in a world bent on disabusing them of all those old superstitions about God, the natural law, and the givenness of our human nature—not to mention merely learning how to think clearly.

Impossible without grace

Educating our children is impossible without prayer and grace on the part of teachers, students and their families. But only deeply committed Catholic families and Catholic schools will make the extra effort and go to the extra expense to achieve that goal, and it really does require harder work and financial sacrifice. The rest drift along with superficial Catholic references, as if the seed can be successfully sown without diligently preparing the ground—or without living a consistently Catholic life.

A cohesive Catholic life is essential to everyone involved. Even from a purely academic point of view, prayer and grace, good example and reformation of morals lie at the heart of Catholic education. We live in a society in which the dominant culture militates constantly against a genuine understanding of even the most basic realities of human life and love. One of the chief results is to bog students down in sin.

The result for both students and teachers is that, if we are not extraordinarily careful, we are already steeped in sin from our youth. That must be combated intentionally, and not only by diagnosing errors but by grounding students in Him who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. This can be done only through a lived spirituality, which maximizes the students’ ability to grasp Truth and make it their own.

In other words, the textbook issue is just the tip of a gargantuan iceberg. Still, the key question is a simple one, though it is not always easy to answer. In a society which consigns children to carefully-orchestrated educational programs for most of the first twenty to twenty-five years of their lives, how will we increase the likelihood that this will really be an education for Life. Our all but endless education today is far too extended to be pursued without keeping clearly in mind both the things that last, and the Last Things.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 31, 2020 12:04 AM ET USA

    If I may continue, in order to adequately prepare the 5th-grade students for my class, I convinced a colleague to teach that class. He understood that I taught a rigorous course with homework, project-based and peer learning, and experiential applications. As a well-prepared Catholic, my colleague helped me reform the aspects of the CCD curriculum that we were allowed to control. The effort was much appreciated by the students and parents. The nuns in charge did not want to argue with success.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 30, 2020 11:52 PM ET USA

    Like Phil, when I was in graduate school I learned the importance of teaching the _subject_ itself, rather than merely restricting myself to teaching a given textbook, someone else's curriculum, or how to outwit the tests. So when I started teaching 6th-grade CCD, like Doughlousek below, I developed my own course and used the textbook as a guide to topics to be covered. I bought and handed out to each of 25 students the CCC, a pre-1995 NAB, a concordance, and Fr. Hardon's Catholic dictionary.

  • Posted by: doughlousek7433 - Jul. 29, 2020 1:41 PM ET USA

    Having taught 6th grade CCD, I concur. The material was so bad that I made up my own lesson plans, bought Bibles & handed them out. My students loved reading from the Bible instead of the lesson book. Often a student would ask a question about how what we were discussing related to a Bible reading we did. After 2 years the Parish finally supplied Bibles! We need old time Catechism!

  • Posted by: orapronobis8785 - Jul. 29, 2020 10:54 AM ET USA

    As a homeschooling mother of four, I have noticed a dearth of good, solidly Catholic materials especially for the high school level. Why has no one tried to publish good, new materials for all ages that are faithfully Catholic? One would assume that they would be in high demand considering the current culture.