Book Review: The School of the Family

Chantal Howard’s The School of the Family makes a much-needed attempt to apply theological treatises on family spirituality—such as Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Families and Fulton Sheen’s Three to Get Married—to the often murky, often maddening, reality of everyday family life. For instance, it’s all well and good for Pope John Paul II to praise marriage as a “total gift of self,” but what does that really mean when we’re married to a nonbeliever (as her grandmother was), or we’re healing from a broken past (as her parents were), or we’ve got multiple kids pawing at us and whining just as we wanted to sneak out the door for adoration? Mrs. Howard’s book is full of charming anecdotes that show us just what we can do in such situations. For instance, Mrs. Howard’s father taught her the Jesus Prayer when he was fed up with her six-year-old’s prattle and wanted to encourage her to be quiet. Her grandmother used to jot down thoughts about Imitation of Christ on the back of her grocery lists. Mrs. Howard has created a “rule” for her own family—the details of which you can read in the book–to keep them spiritually centered even when life gets chaotic.

Unfortunately, the book’s greatest strength can at times be a weakness. I found the story of Mrs. Howard’s family to be highly instructive whenever it resonated with something in my own life—but then, there were parts I found less compelling (such as her life as a teenage athlete), simply because I couldn’t identify them with any of the struggles I myself experience. I think that the book’s appeal may vary based on the reader’s own experiences.

Another downside to the book—which I think is a more serious one—is that, while its approach to spiritual formation is mostly sound, it urges a haphazard approach to academic education. The book criticizes public education and advocates homeschooling—a noble cause, though her silence on the subject of Catholic schools and her simplified public-school-versus-homeschool dichotomy is a disservice to the reader. Moreover, her vision of homeschooling seems to lack academic content. Howard, who was homeschooled, admits that “there were certainly areas of my education that fell through the cracks” because her mother was too busy running a business to pay much attention to her schoolwork (55). Now a homeschooling mother herself, she seems to have little interest in attending college. She breezily dismisses the idea that parents should first learn the subjects that they want to teach their own children: “we don’t know the classics, let alone how to pronounce many of the names of the great minds into which we wish our children to delve” (64). As a former college instructor (now housewife), I can attest to the fact that such a method would never have worked for me. I didn’t feel ready to teach my own field until I had studied it for years. Some may argue that teacher and pupil can learn together—that both teacher and student can ask questions and research the answers as a team. However, without a base level of knowledge, the teacher probably won’t know the best resources to answer those questions—or even know the right questions to ask. The easiest way to attain this base level of knowledge is through earning a postsecondary degree. Cognitive psychologists have shown that people retain information best when they are tested on it, when they discuss it with others, and when they put it into their own words—which is exactly what people do in the college classroom (take exams, engage in class discussions, and write papers). It is difficult to replicate this experience simply by reading books on one’s own, without direction and community.

Of course, not everybody is in a position to obtain a quality college education. Many universities nowadays are woefully inadequate—or even actively hostile—to the task of transmitting the Western heritage. But there are still some genuine opportunities for learning. Some Catholic colleges such as Franciscan University pride themselves on actually teaching students instead of indoctrinating them into moral relativism and intellectual mediocrity. If a person cannot obtain scholarships to these colleges, he or she may still be able to get a debt-free degree at a community college. I took community college classes in high school, and I think they’re a fine alternative to universities. In some ways, they are less rigorous—I certainly didn’t write any 15-page research papers in community college—but, in other ways, they are more rigorous. Take a look at many universities’ humanities courses, and you’ll see a lot of fluff: Literature and the Occult, Deconstructing the Comic Book, etc. In contrast, my community college offered two “upper-level” humanities courses: Western Humanities I and Western Humanities II. In those classes, we learned only the basics; but many university students won’t learn even that.

This is not to say that a person can’t homeschool effectively without a college degree—only that it will be more difficult. We should find ways to support homeschooling mothers who need to attend college, not actively discourage them or belittle their concern for academic rigor.

I may seem to have gone off on a tangent, but since the book is called The School of the Family, I had high expectations for its educational philosophy. (Its title is pretty hard to forget, since the editors have annoyingly bolded the phrase “the school of the family” wherever it appears in the text.)

Ultimately, The School of the Family excels at its most important task: offering spiritual guidance to families through telling of one family’s example. While I object to some of its statements on academic formation, I think its teachings on spiritual formation are definitely sound.