Recovering a Catholic Philosophy of Elementary Education - Book Review


Recovering a Catholic Philosophy of Elementary Education. Curtis L. Hancock, with a foreword by Peter A. Redpath. Pennsylvania: Newman House Press, 2005. 142 pp.

Reviewed by Tim Weldon, Ph.D. chair of the Department of Philosophy and Theology at University of St. Francis, Joliet, IL

        It is rare to find a book that at once entertains and enlightens. Exceptional is any book willing to criticize the contemporary state of Catholic elementary education and be accurate in its criticism-not to mention convincing in its prescribed remedy. Written with wisdom and resolve, Curtis Hancock’s book is that rare and exceptional work, one that is helpful to understanding the immeasurable value of a Catholic education informed by faith and reason.

        From Peter Redpath’s articulate and convincing foreword, we learn that contemporary Catholic elementary education is in danger of losing the very philosophical underpinnings that once grounded it. The consequences are dire: ignorant of our philosophical tradition, students and teachers are no longer able to reason to the absolutes upon which our faith is centered, let alone defend them from corrosive trends such as relativism. Challenged as such, it is incumbent upon the Catholic educator, and I would add parents and those involved in any pastoral positions, to recover the Catholic philosophical tradition of education. As Redpath explains:

To develop a philosophy of education as Catholics, we must realize that Catholic faith must illumine such a philosophy.We must build it upon a Catholic understanding of the human person, the supernatural ends of the human person, and the means to achieve these ends.

        Throughout the book the theme of educating the whole person, body and soul, resounds at an inspired pace. Hancock’s penchant for clear, concise writing draws the reader into the timeless conversation of how we should teach and learn with excellence and charity as objectives. Of special interest to the reader is Hancock’s very accessible treatment of the history of Catholic education.

        From the noble efforts of St. Clement (150-219) and his establishment of the first Catholic school in Alexandria, Egypt (founded upon the motto, “I believe in order to understand”), the successes of French and Spanish missionaries, the achievements of the first American Bishop John Carroll and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, to the miracle that is the availability of Catholic education today, we come to understand the author’s conviction that “the history of Catholic Education is an adventure in relating faith and reason.”

        Exercising faith and reason, Hancock is especially perceptive in his criticism of relativism or the vogue falsehood that all views are equally true and valid. Relativism is especially worrisome for Catholic educators as, under the often oppressive umbrella of political correctness, absolute truth or belief in God is deemed exclusive, making the believer guilty of the social offense of intolerance. Yet, simple reasoning holds that if each of us has a separate truth, there is no truth. This truth-less position is just the position of the “tolerant” relativist.

        Hancock sees this. “Relativism is the flimsiest of worldviews,” he writes. “Relativists are clearly confused: on the one hand, they want to promote tolerance as an absolute value; on the other, they cannot promote it, because they do not believe in absolutes!” How right the author is to cite the words of Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton: “tolerance is the refuge of the person who does not believe anything.”

        Hancock’s eloquent defense of the faith is not limited to criticism. His last chapters provide an outline for a return to the Catholic philosophical tradition in the classroom. A commitment to philosophically habituate the student through an education in moral virtue is the feasible and necessary remedy. “Philosophy is everyone’s business,” wrote the philosopher Mortimer Adler. Hancock makes it so in the most enjoyable and enlightening way.