Catholic Education Should Be the Model

Real education treats the whole person -- spiritually, academically, socially, culturally

“Celebrate Catholic Schools Week,” an initiative of the National Catholic Educational Association, is observed January 28-February 3. Parishes with schools traditionally have a special student Mass on Sunday and at least one open house during the week. In that sense, “Celebrate Catholic Schools Week” seems a kind of recruitment tool for students. But — important as that is — it certainly should not be limited to that!

I’ll admit the argument I develop is not the usual warm fluffies often heard during our week of celebrations of Catholic Schools. But perhaps we actually do need to think a little harder about why we bother to celebrate this week, why parishes struggle to keep schools open, and why parents make the sacrifices they do to put a child in a Catholic school.

What is, or should be, distinctive about Catholic education? Mind you, my experience is mostly from Catholic higher education, which has a unique subset of issues. That said, there is a common thread that should run through all levels of Catholic education: the truth of the human person.

I’m also going to make a blunt claim: Catholic schools are the model for what a school should be.

And I’ll assert a corollary to that: Public schools are incomplete schools.

Those are three bold declarations, controversial to the larger society but hopefully not to Catholics. That I suspect they may also challenge Catholics is why we need to look more deeply into this question.

As I noted last week in marking “National School Choice Week,” education is ultimately not about schools but about students. Education is for students and schools are the tools by which that education is delivered. But a proper understanding of the purpose of education first presupposes a proper understanding of the human person. The human person is a bodily-spiritual being, created and loved by God as an end in himself, destined for an eternal life which, based on man’s free choices, is either beatitude or damnation. That is the being that education is supposed to educate.

A Catholic education should be the model for what education is because a Catholic education should address the whole person, spiritually, academically, socially, and culturally. A Catholic education recognizes that the student has an eternal destiny and that his faith, as much as his reason, is essential to being “educated.” A genuine Catholic education, therefore, inculcates spiritual knowledge and good spiritual habits alongside temporal knowledge and good academic habits. It recognizes that the person is not a “split-level” personality but one being, in whom all these dimensions of the human person should be seamlessly joined.

Public education does not do that and is, therefore, incomplete, because it refuses to address the complete person. It feigns agnosticism about a student’s spiritual life and destiny, pretending these are somehow outside the purview of “education,” at least the “education” with which a school should bother. Those issues may be deemed opinion, magic, or cultural baggage, but they are not “educational” material in the sense that the school considers them necessary to teach in order to provide a “well-rounded” education.

So, when we “Celebrate Catholic Schools” we need to ask ourselves: How do we understand what Catholic schools do that public schools don’t? Is what Catholic schools teach (that public schools don’t) essential to education, so that its absence in the public school is an educational deficiency? Or do we think that the public school’s truncated curriculum (based on a truncated view of the human person) is the “norm” and that all Catholic schools do is add some “topper” or “optional extra”? That’s really the issue: Is an education that speaks to the spiritual dimension of the student “icing on the cake” or “meat and potatoes”? It ultimately comes down to whether we think education should address the whole student — which includes the student as spiritual subject — or can simply address parts of him.

Note, please, that the dichotomy is in some sense not as sharp as I am sketching it. The most cursory survey of U.S. public education today makes clear that it is very much roiled in controversies over curricula. When public schools promote reverse racism (masquerading as “critical race theory”) or sexual agendas at variance with how parents choose to raise their children (often consciously concealed from those same parents) the excuse for such practices is that the public school is promoting public “values.” In other words, those schools recognize they have a spiritual and axiological function; they cannot and don’t even want to escape the “values” question. They just don’t want your values and may even do their level best to undermine them, ostensibly in the name of “tolerance” and even “education.”

As Humpty Dumpty observed in Through the Looking Glass, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more or less. … The question is… which is to be the master — that’s all.” When public schools arrogate the claim to be parental “partners” (rather than servants) in education, what’s really at issue is “which is to be the master — that’s all.” And that fight is precisely being fought over parents and their rights vis-à-vis the values to be imported into the classroom.

So, the question is: Are those values to be the true, the good, and the beautiful, as Catholic schools seek to present them, or are they to be the agenda of the Zeitgeist and our secular elites, masquerading as “public” or “community values”? Is the norm to be found in public schools, with Catholic schools throwing in an optional “topper,” or in Catholic schools, with public schools offering a truncated curriculum and maybe some ersatz “values”?

Deciding that question should determine what we actually “celebrate” this “Catholic Schools Week.”


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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