I just went to a Young Catholic Professionals event in Denver, and at these events there are usually sponsors who set up tables to advertise their ministries. One table was for a Montessori school, and – being the education nerd that I am – I went right over to it because I know extremely little about Montessori and wanted to learn more.
One of the women at the table, after explaining some of the differences between typical American education and Montessori education, said something that stayed with me.
“We believe,” she said, “That all a child needs is already inside of him. So much of modern education reflects a top-down approach – from standards to curricula to teachers to students. But Montessori is really the opposite. We start with the child and go from there.”
Apart from being a very beautiful and simple summary of the Montessori philosophy, her statement is also a striking reminder that Montessori actually has a philosophy. It has a view of the human person, a view of the purpose of education, and a plan.
I think Catholic education in the United States does not.
Even though the Church itself has a beautiful vision of the human person, Catholic schools have failed to develop (or succeeded in completely losing) a view of the purpose of education and a plan.
Now I’m not about to “jump ship” and become a Montessori teacher – I am not sure exactly how well their methods would play out at the high school level, though I would be very interested to see that. And I don’t have any data about what effect Montessori schools have – or if they really are any better than your typical Catholic schools.
But at least they have a real definition of education.
Another caveat: a very few Catholic schools do have a philosophy of education that is grounded in Church teaching on the human person. But these are usually liberal arts colleges that nobody has ever heard of – and I bet you could count on one hand the number of secondary schools in this country who have such a vision.
MOST Catholic primary and secondary schools, in my experience of them, have no philosophy of education at all. They tend to do what the public schools do, just adding a little here and cutting out a little there. But there is no real sense that Catholic education is, or even ought to be, a qualitatively different thing.
Of course, many of us Catholic school people would protest. We like to say things like, “Oh, but a Catholic education involves the whole person [and public education involves what percent, exactly?].” Or, “But we are a school in the Jesuit Tradition and we educate the mind, the body and the soul […so you have typical academics, phys. ed. classes, and the occasional all-school Mass?]” Or “But we’re an authentically Catholic school because we have priests and even nuns!” Or even”The Cardinal Newman Guide loves us!”
But whatever we say, most of us (myself included) cannot articulate what really makes Catholic education different, or better.
So you get to talk about God in religion class. Is that really worth spending $12,000 per year on tuition when I could go to a decent public school, or better yet, a charter school and get the same classes minus religion? (And probably some more competent teachers who actually have teaching degrees?)
Even my education classes at Notre Dame were basically the same sort of fare you would get in any other education program. There were one or two about “teaching in a Catholic school,” but there was no sense at all that what we actually teach or how we actually teach it is fundamentally different. Toss in some talk of “values” and light spirituality and there you are – a Catholic education.
If we want to save Catholic primary and secondary schools in the United States, then we really need to step back and articulate a real philosophy of education. Only then can we make clear-headed decisions about curricula, solid teaching practices, and even the Common Core.
Of course, I teach in a Catholic school because I do believe they are fundamentally different – that they have something unique to offer, that they are special somehow. But like the farmer who, when asked about his religious beliefs, replied, “I believe whatever the Church teaches,” I too cannot yet fully explain to you the reasons why.