Saturday, June 21, 2014

Apologia for Catholic Education

1953: the Good Old Days
     Fellow Catholic blogger RAnn at This That and the Other Thing recently published a post called “Catholic Schools – Should We Have Them?” [here].  She raises some interesting points, and asks a number of questions well worth asking, in particular “whether we as a church should be investing so many resources in our schools”.  Let me say at the outset that I have a lot of experience in this area: I have taught in Catholic High Schools for the past twenty-seven years; at the same time, I attended both Catholic and public schools (I graduated from a public high school), and my own children are home-schooled, so I’m drawing on a wide range of experience. While there are definitely things that Catholic schools can and should do better, I would argue that they are more important than ever.
     I’d like to start with a point on which I respectfully disagree with RAnn.  She had been reviewing a book on the integration of segregated schools in the 1950’s and 60’s, and points out that the first black students in the previously all-white schools had a very hard time of it: she ties that to the question of whether to send her children to public or to Catholic schools. “In both cases”, she says, “I think there is a choice that is right for society and a different choice that may be right for individual kids.”   I don’t think the analogy holds.  In the case of integration, black students had been unjustly deprived of choice of schools, and forced to attend inferior ones; integration really did put them into better schools, despite the hardships and indignities suffered by the first black students to integrate; superior schools at least potentially gave them more and better options later in life, and of course paved the way for a much better educational outcome for those who followed them.  The temporary disadvantages were for the sake of future benefit not just for society as a whole, but for those children themselves. 
     The question of whether to choose a public or private school for your children today is very different.  As I argue below, putting them into a public rather than a Catholic school may in fact be to the detriment of society as a whole, and very often means putting them into a worse school, rather than a better. Catholic schools have always out-performed public schools in every measurable academic category, as long such categories have been measured (see here and here).  My own experience backs this up: I’ve taught Latin and English in three different high schools in three different states, all of which they all draw students from a wide area and from a wide number of grammar and middle schools, and I have consistently found the Catholic school students much more prepared for high school level language study than the students from the public schools.   
     Also, in light of the integration issue, it’s worth noting that minority students derive particular benefit from Catholic schools: they are much more likely to graduate from high school than their peers in public schools, and two and one half times more likely to attend college (here). Catholic schools, in fact, have long been recognized as an unparalleled path to success for minority students, and their closure has a more profound impact on these students than on other students (here).  So, if we’re talking about Catholic schools in the context of the civil rights era integration of the public schools, we might point out that Catholic schools, by effectively preparing African American and other minority students to participate successfully in society as adults, do an excellent job of accomplishing what was the primary purpose of school integration in the first place.  In this regard, supporting Catholic schools is good for both the individual students and society as a whole.
     What is true for minority students is true for all other students as well: the purpose of education is to prepare them for adulthood.  From society’s point of view, the end of education is that children are good and productive citizens.  We Catholics want the same, but we also have a higher aim: we want our children to be formed into moral and faith-filled adults.  This is even more important than intellectual excellence; it is better to be illiterate before the Throne of God than to be the smartest man in Hell. Happily, as we saw above, Catholic education in fact does a superior job of training the intellect, but its primary purpose is to point the students under its care in the direction of sainthood.


     If we remember that we’re talking about formation and not simply instruction, the case for specifically Catholic schools becomes even clearer.  We are corporeal beings, unlike the Angels (see here), and as students we are formed by the entire school environment as much as we are by the content of the curriculum.  When I last attended public schools three and a half decades ago they were already committed to a secularist worldview, and had already abandoned any effort to teach the natural virtues.  Today’s public schools have gone beyond that, and beyond where they were even twenty or fifteen years ago to the point where many of them have Planned Parenthood, the world’s largest abortion provider and a zealous fornication promoter (take a look here get a feel for their agenda) providing “health” instruction; an increasing number are instituting mandatory “diversity” classes. The courts in some states have ruled there is no right to exempt your children from objectionable classes.  Add on top of that an environment that crushes any dissent on various leftist enthusiasms from global warming (or is it now “climate change”?) to gay marriage.  That's before we even start to talk about the whole Common Core fiasco.  We’re kidding ourselves if we think that our children will absorb the good things and somehow be immune to the bad things. I’ve heard the argument that “we went to public schools and we came out all right.”  First of all, as I pointed out above, these are not your father’s public schools, or even your children’s father’s public schools; also, quite frankly, not all of us do come out all right: I know plenty of people who didn’t, and speaking for myself, there were experiences and hard-to-shed habits I picked up in my public high school that I could have done without.
     One might counter that Catholic schools have their imperfections as well: there may well be administrators and teachers who undermine the Faith; as a practical matter, a school of any size will need to hire people who are not practicing Catholics to fill some positions, and as is the case in any school, the peer group will exercise a powerful formative influence, and many, probably most, students will be there not from religious devotion, but in order to benefit from the safer environment and the superior academic rigor.  It was partly for these reasons (we wanted our children to model themselves on us rather than their peers), but also because we wanted to have more control over the process, that my lovely bride and I decided to home school our children.  Most people are not going to go that route, however, and for all their unavoidable imperfections, good Catholic schools provide an environment where Christ is at the center, the Catholic faith is both taught and lived out, and moral excellence is promoted. 
     I don’t think it’s fair, reasonable or, frankly, even safe to send our not-fully-formed children into the public school system and expect them to appreciably improve the environment there in the face of a peer culture that is hostile to religious faith and a system that ever more aggressively proselytizes for extreme secularism; all but the most heroic are more likely to be converted themselves.  They have a better chance to be successful evangelizers as well-formed adult Catholics.  Also, a good Catholic school will not only bring some at least of the Catholic students from lukewarm families into a closer relationship with Christ and his Church, but will also convert some of its non-Catholic students.  In the school where I currently teach we typically see several of these students receive the Sacraments of Initiation and enter the Church at the last school Mass of the year. Even those not converted will at least be "levened" by the experience, a levening they will bring with them throughout life.

     There’s a lot more that can be said on this topic, and this is already a long post, so here’s my final point: it might well be the case that the traditional model of the parish school is no longer viable, but that’s no reason to abandon Catholic Education itself in a culture that is rapidly shedding its Christian heritage.  We need to find structures that fit the times.  Already a growing number of homeschooling families are participating in a wide variety  of groups and organizations; some families in my area have actually created their own school, independent of any official Church body; and it may well be that the new ecclesial movements that are doing so much to energize other parts of the Body of Christ will have something to contribute here.  We need to be open to the Holy Spirit and, as Saint John Paul II often said (and as it says many times in scripture), be not afraid.  This is not the time to abandon Catholic education.