The Problem with Catholic Schools

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.

catholic schools(1)
From the google search “Catholic Education.” Standard Catholic school advertising. via

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.

10 thoughts on “The Problem with Catholic Schools

  1. I share your reservations about Montessori schools. I wonder what you think of charter schools like Great Hearts and Founders (which I also have reservations about). They definitely have a “philosophy”. Would their sort of thing be a good starting-point for Catholic schools?

    (You’re probably familiar with Great Hearts since a lot of UD grads teach there. But if not, so you don’t have to go looking for it, here’s their mission statement:

    “”Learning increases inborn worth, and righteous ways make strong the heart.” – Horace

    Great Hearts Academies is a non-profit network of public charter schools dedicated to improving education in the Phoenix metropolitan area by developing a network of excelling preparatory academies. The Great Hearts academies are proving that schools can do a superb job of educating students if they are smaller, more efficient, and set higher expectations for all students through a core, classical liberal arts curriculum. A Great Hearts academy prepares its graduates for success in the best colleges and universities in the nation and to be leaders in creating a more philosophical, humane and just society. Please view the videos above to learn more about the purpose, curriculum , and culture of our academies.”)

    1. Yes I have heard of Great Hearts, but not Founders. I do admire Great Hearts schools and think they do give Catholic schools an example of a strong educational philosophy. But simply imitating them isn’t enough either.

      As dedicated as I am to the classical liberal arts curriculum at the college level, I think it would have to be heavily modified in an age-appropriate way for the lower grades. I’m thinking of Dr. Crider’s Trivium class here where we read Dorothy Sayers’ The Lost Tools of Learning – I think that could possibly provide a starting point but more research ought to be done on that.

      I just don’t think that the current practice of Catholic schools – serving largely affluent (and increasingly secular) populations and imitating the trends of education of the public schools – is sustainable.

  2. Catholic education finds its goodness in the faith-filled teacher who evangelizes her students through her charitable and virtuous actions and example. Whether a teacher loves and serves God in the classroom makes all of the difference. So, if the teacher is allowed to bring the sweetness and care of God to her students, then the students absorb this “presence” into their beings, and it goes with them for life. In contrast, students in public schools may not have this exposure.

    1. Thanks Francis for your comment! I totally agree with your description of the Catholic teacher’s role. Of course Christian (and Catholic) teachers can set this sort of example in public and charter schools as well. I guess I am thinking that a deeper, systematic change may be necessary. Of course our teachers must live and reflect the Gospel – and in the end, that is probably the most important thing – but I think our schools can do a lot more to support them by espousing a sound philosophy of education.

  3. Catholic high schools and middle schools in the form we have them now are shaped by a history- their specific history is that in America and Ireland public schools taught Protestant theology, which meant to stay Catholic private schools were needed to teach Catholic theology (for America, read about it in Hamburger’s “Separation of Church and State” chpt 8; for Ireland, you can read about it in MacIntyre’s “God, Philosophy, and Universities” chpt 16).

    I’m of the opinion that getting to “talk about God in religion class” in a theologically accurate way is the entire point of a Catholic high school or middle school. That’s it! That’s the Catholic educational philosophy; and to my mind, that actually means quite alot and is worth great sacrifices of money if it is available. Isn’t the money required for toys, trips, and treats less important than you’re child’s soul? Sound catechesis at an early age, such that it is second nature later in life, is a great blessing that few Catholics now have. You don’t have to read all the “Great Books” by the time you reach College to do well I think but a sound approach to learning itself is important, which I think is engendered by a Catholic approach to theology and science.

    There are some special virtues engendered at Catholic schools that I just don’t see engendered to the same degree at excellent classical charter schools such as Great Hearts and Founders. In discussions I’ve had with a few teachers from those schools, the Catholic theological view of Humility is something that can be difficult to replace at secular classical schools. For Aristotle it’s the virtue of magnanimity instead of Aquinas’ virtue of humility after all. Just think of how important humility is as an intellectual virtue. It’s easy to become prideful having read great authors that others haven’t, and that’s something a Catholic high school theology class on humility can help guard against. I know of a book on the humility of the Founding Fathers such as George Washington written by a guy from Hillsdale (David J Bobb) that I’ve recommended to my friends at Founders, but even if everybody read that book I don’t think that would do it.

  4. Having said all that, I still think charter schools like Great Hearts and Founders are by far the best option in many circumstances. I was describing education for a Catholic youth in an ideal world, where 1) money isn’t a real barrier and 2) the theology taught at Catholic schools is orthodox. Neither is often or even usually the case, and it really is a prudential decision when money is an issue. That’s part of why I’m so in favor of Vouchers as a matter of policy (and as a Constitutional matter too, for other reasons). The issue is so stark in the fact situations you see in Supreme Court cases such as Zelman:

    1. Hi Chris,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. You gave me a lot to consider, and your point about the virtue of humility being particularly a Catholic school charism is very interesting.

      “Talking about God in theology class” is indeed wonderful, but I don’t think it is quite enough. One of the problems I have seen in Catholic schools is segregating God to theology class only, when it would be far better if all Catholic school teachers learned how to talk comfortably about God with their students in every class. Theology is the “Queen of the Sciences” and her influence should be felt everywhere, in every class. Maybe another thing Catholic schools could do would be to help all of their teachers with this task.

      I disagree with statements like, “Isn’t the money required for toys, trips, and treats less important than you’re child’s soul?” Maybe I’m oversimplifying your point here, but sound catechesis must come from the home first. Nothing we do in school can ever replace that. All too often I feel well-meaning parents send their kids to Catholic school hoping that the “religion” part of their education will be covered there. Even IF the school has a wonderful and orthodox religious program (as you mentioned, highly unlikely nowadays), that program cannot replace catechesis in the home.

      One of the things I think a strong Catholic school must do in this day and age is to emphasize that parents are the “primary educators” of our children. The family is the domestic Church and is (for better or worse) the place where a child’s soul is shaped the most. Catholic schools have a responsibility in supporting parents in this role and helping parents become more aware of that role.

      Anyway, I’m sort of rambling there. But thanks again for your comment. You have given me lots to think about.

  5. I found this thread Googling about Great Hearts and Catholic education, because many of the Catholic families in my area are now sending their children to Great Hearts. I think Maura and CJ Wolfe makes some excellent points. While I like classical education and try to implement it in our homeschooling curriculum (I am the primary educator in our family), classical education in itself is not a Catholic education, nor is it sufficient to give our children an authentically Catholic intellectual formation. Maura, as you pointed out, I believe the Faith must be infused in all subjects. That simply isn’t the case in a classical education, because even when it is emphasizing the importance of virtue, it is limited to *natural* virtue. Yet the Catholic Faith is *supernatural*, and what most distinguishes it from the values of the world is its supernatural values. This is essentially the same point that CJ Wolfe made about humility. Christian humility is much different than natural humility. The values of the Beatitudes, for example, cannot be arrived at simply by natural reason.

    Having attended seminary for a few years, I have experienced first hand the difference between a religious liberal arts education and a secular liberal arts education (I majored in English at a state-run college). The approach to history is an area where I saw stark contrast. In seminary, our view of history was viewed through the lens of salvation history. In teaching my daughter, for example, I have been able to contrast the pre-incarnation versus post-incarnation world, to illustrate how the incarnation changed the world and the values of the West. This is not something that would ever come through (at least not explicitly) in a secular classical model. Yet it is an important point for a Catholic to understand, because it gives one an appreciation of the power of the Faith in human history.

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