Monday, November 5, 2007

Catholic Schools & the Smoke of Dragons

I think we can all agree that our world is a complicated one in which discerning Right from Wrong is almost never easy. There is an ongoing Spiritual Battle between Good and Evil. We live in a world of seductions that are... well, extremely seductive. Once seduced, one cannot see the Wrong of it without the Grace of God. On the other hand, the pull of a Puritanical response to everything modern is strong since one does not have to discern in that direction either. Neither response, everything is Wrong or everything is Right, is discernment and both are seductions of the Evil One.

As parents, we have it even harder, since we have to discern for little ones without knowing exactly what they'll get, what they'll think, what they'll understand or how any of it will affect their choices towards or away from God and His Church. There has been much discussion on many blogs recently about the Harry Potter series and The Golden Compass. Where should Catholic parents (and "Catholic" schools) stand on these neo-pagan fantasy books? Are they a good thing because kids should be introduced to even the bad things in our culture? Are they just good, clean fun? Are they EVIL and to be avoided by every respectable Catholic?

These are huge topics in the Catholic and secular media. I think most parents will have the chance to decide for themselves about these books. I know I've made my own decisions. This post is about the smaller, unknown influences at one particular Catholic school in the Heartland. This true story is only ONE of MANY reasons why I made the decision to homeschool.

Every year, our K-8 school had a book fair to raise money for the school. Every year, I saw more and more books with storylines about magic and occultism, which I have to admit are very seductive topics. None of these books were screened by the parish priest or principal. Trust me, I asked and received that blank WTH-are-you-talking-about look with which Catholic "trouble-making" parents are all familiar. It was just assumed that Scholastic books must be OK for Catholic kiddos to read. It's not just Harry Potter and the Golden Compass we have to worry about.

During the last year (2nd grade) that my oldest was in Catholic schools, a Scholastic brand book called "Horrible Harry and the Dragon War" was assigned to the entire class. The kids were then asked to either write a book report or make a poster and give a presentation before the class. I love this type of project because the kids learn so many things (reading, comprehension, analysis, outlining, writing, public speaking) and are able to take pride in a final tangible accomplishment.

After reading the book, I wrote her teacher an e-mail saying that the book had some problems. What did she think about them? She wrote that the kids argue in the beginning of the book and that's pretty nasty but they resolve the disagreement by the end of the book, so she thought it was OK. This teacher (and 2 of the 3 others my daughter had at "Catholic" school) was protestant. I'm not saying that every Catholic (even THIS Catholic) has perfect discernment, but it would help if the teachers in a Catholic school were... you know, Catholic.

This story by Suzy Kline is about a classroom where two people who have very different conceptions of dragons meet. The boy ("Horrible Harry") is clearly white and Christian. He wants to be a knight and slay dragons and save the maidens from the clutches of dragons. The girl is Korean and secular or pagan or indeterminate. She loves dragons because they are wise and friendly. She thinks Harry is mean and tells him outright that she doesn't need to be saved. Once it has been established that Harry is rude and wrong, the adult reader thinks tolerance is the lesson. But then the Korean girl's dragon displays a supernatural ability that seems to say that the neo-pagan love of dragons has a basis in REALITY.

This is the e-mail I wrote her. Sorry for the length:
Listen, first I want you to know that [DAUGHTER #1] is reading and outlining the book and will do her project on the book. I'm probably going to "direct" her towards including some other stuff, just because I want HER to understand a little more. I'm gonna explain in this e-mail exactly what bothers me about this book, but don't get me wrong. I fully realize that she does NOT understand the book this way. She's too young, is in the "parrot" stage, doesn't analyze yet, etc. But, I do believe that we get fuzzy, hazy understandings from grammar school that stay with us precisely because we didn't and couldn't analyze them. With an older child, I wouldn't worry much about this type of book since we would be able to talk about what the author is trying to say. Although, there are people who argue that 7 and 8 year olds can be critical thinkers, I disagree. I agree with the Trivium/Classical method of education. They are sponges right now and if they are saturated with the right stuff, they will become critical thinkers later when they are developmentally ready.
Now, about the book... Actually, I agree with you that Suzy Kline demonstrates how grade school kids should NOT act to each other and she has Harry apologize for his rude behavior. I really don't think anyone would want to imitate Harry because she does such a good job of showing how one hateful word can really hurt. This is a lesson [DAUGHTER #1] could read more about any time.
No, I was more worried that [DAUGHTER #1] would so dislike Harry (which she does) that she would reject a whole group of people to which Harry and she belong. Before I explain, let me first say that I gave the book to a friend and my husband to read just to check if I was misreading it. The same main points that had bothered me, bothered them.

  1. Although Suzy Kline doesn't fully explain Harry's dragon, she explains quite a bit about the Korean dragon (which incidentally has nothing to do with "My Father's Dragon"). Harry gets his conception of the dragon from Margaret Hodges re-telling of the story of "Saint George and the Dragon". Saint George (patron of England) was a real guy and he was really martyred and he is really in the liturgical calendar. It's a classic Catholic tale about a good, persevering, self-sacrificing knight who frees a people from a terrible dragon. It's a great story. What bothered me here was that although Kline's little story has Harry being "intolerant", ironically it's Harry's (i.e., the Christian) viewpoint that is "silenced".

  2. The Dragon has traditionally been a symbol of evil (devouring people and hording treasure) ALL OVER THE WORLD (see Michael O'Brien's "A Landscape with Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind"). In the Christian world (in Scripture - see Genesis and Revelation), the dragon/serpent has always been the Devil. Even the Pearl Dragon in Chinese folklore is not a "nice" dragon. Bringing luck is not the same as nice or good. "Eastern" dragons are absolutley NOT "beautiful, friendly, and wise" (p. 41). I love learning about other cultures (my background is in anthropology), but it seems that Kline is really only using cultural sensitivity to say that all cultures are OK except Catholic culture, which only produces bigots. In fact, Kline could not be more obvious when she has Harry offer to be Sir Harry and "save" Song Lee from the dragon (p. 12). Song Lee responds, "I don't need to be saved. I love dragons! They bring good luck!" Are most 2nd grade girls aware of male chauvinism? Is THAT Kline's point? I doubt it. On the contrary, what Song Lee says makes most Christians cringe.

  3. Then, there's the issue of the "indoor rainbow". So, at this point, it's pretty clear that Kline probably doesn't believe there is Truth, but that we are all free to have or make up our own personal truth. The only Truth is that we should be nice and get along, no matter what. The assumption of this way of thinking is that no one religion is correct and the world is strictly material. That's not an uncommon belief in our society.:) But, then Kline has a "magical" (not miraculous) INDOOR rainbow appear directly above Song Lee's dragon which "proves" that dragons bring good luck. Harry, in his very inarticulate way, tries to say that rainbows don't have anything to do with luck. Could he be on the verge of explaining the natural phenomenon of the various wavelengths of light being separated as they pass through water molecules? Or maybe he was thinking of sharing his own cultural view that they are a sign of the promise between God and His people that the world will never be destroyed by flood again? Nope, I guess not.

  4. Then, there's the minor point of logical inconsistency about Harry's team BEING the dragons against Song Lee's dragons. If Harry had really read "Saint George and the Dragon" he would most definitely NOT want to be THAT dragon. He would only want to be Sir George and kill dragons. That's the whole point, really. But, then how could everyone be a member of the peaceful brotherhood of world dragons.:)

  5. And, of course, the book ends with a parade led by the "two different kinds of dragons" proving that peace can only happen in our world when believing, intolerant nuts like Horrible Harry forget about their beliefs and embrace ALL worldviews (washed clean of those pesky claims of absolute Truth) and infused with a touch of magic.
Anyway, enough about such a small book. I was just surprised that [DAUGHTER #1] brought this type of book home from her Catholic school. I'm pretty selective about what goes into her head at this stage. You probably wouldn't believe it, but 5 years ago I would have applauded Kline. I'm a convert (from atheism). So, I know a thing or two about the camp of the Enemy and I absolutely hold the Truths of our Faith dear.
Do you know what happened after this e-mail? You guessed it -- NOTHING. The teacher supposedly talked to the principal, who was supposed to get back to me. Daughter #1 turned in her poster about Dragons and Good and Evil and gave her presentation. She got an A and that's that. It was most likely one more piece of evidence to many folks at my parish that I was a nutcase. While I like a good fight every once in a while, after our life-altering wreck, I was too tired to keep up this good fight without my husband and we left, both school and parish. We now homeschool and are blessed to be members of a parish with the traditional mass, sacraments and catechism AND no school.


ignorant redneck said...

I'v noticed this "inversion" of the dragon symbolism in fiction for adults, (if you consider fantasy fiction for adults!). It reminds me of the passage in the New Testament where it talks of people calling evil good and good evil. It's supposed to be one of the signs of the "End Times". (I prefer the term parousia!)

I'v also noticed that relativism infests even Catholic Education. Partly that's the effect of the schools of education in the various universities. It's actually part of the curriiculum.

I shudder as I contemplate my Grandchildrens coming school years.

Pilgrim said...

My advice would be to look now at the Catholic schools in your area because most of them are YUCK! Ask to look at the religious ed curriculum and ask about protestant teachers.
If they're yucky, arm yourself with good stats about homeschooling and start talking to your children now. Convince them that it really is best physically, spiritually, AND academically... and costs much, much less, AND you'll help. My mother helps out a little but I would love more, really. Grandparents should play a major role in the lives of their grandchildren. My children love being with my parents.
I'm not going to kid anyone. Homeschooling is not easy and is boring for the average adult from time to time. But, the kids (and their behavior) are the real testimony that it is usually the right choice for most families.

Shelly said...

Good for you for confronting and questioning the *catholic* school.
My oldest goes to catholic h.s. - the rest are homeschooled, anyway - Unbelievable some of the stuff that goes on in a *catholic* school.
From another nut in the mixed nut can!!

Pilgrim said...

Thanks. Us nuts gotta stick together.:) How is high school working for your oldest? Was she homeschooled before?

Therese said...

Great post Pilgrim.

I have been concerned for a while about our children's "Catholic" School and what they are teaching them. Next year only three of our children will be going there. I will homeschool the younger two and our eldest girl is in public school now. At least if they tell her something that is wrong I can say to her well they are not Catholic and that is why they say things like that.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately if you send your child to an Archdiocese Catholic School, most likely you will encounter these problems. I went to a "Catholic" High School after 8years of public grade school and being a "good practicing" Catholic was a minority. If you pay the big bucks, know that it is usually only for the education not the Catholicism. We have 5 children and send our kids to a wonderful small private independent Catholic School that is very parent involved. Because we are independent from the Archidiocese, we choose the curriculum that is taught. We are a member of NAPCIS (National Association of Private and Catholic Independent Schools)I highly recommend checking out their website at and researching schools in your area. We are truly blessed to have such a school near us. We drive 35 minutes each way to take our kids to school there. OUTSTANDING Traditional Catholic curriculum and over the top advanced education provided!