Catholic Schools Week, Personhood and Me


It’s Catholic Schools Week.

That time around the end of January, every year since I can remember,  we celebrate Catholic schools – by drawing pictures or writing middle school essays on “Why I Like Being in A Catholic School” or having special bulletin boards or signs put up in the hallways or extra cookies at lunch.

Strangely my school did not mention this annual celebration over the announcements today–or perhaps I was just distracted by Jake* who for some reason wanted to keep turning around to talk to Ben* during bell work–but at any rate I have been thinking about the meaning of this week and my place in it.

Yesterday at Mass I was somewhat surprised that our priest dedicated his whole homily to Catholic schools week, the history of Catholic education in America, and even a pitch to invite more families from his parish to join the elementary schools. He said something that struck me, though I have heard it many times before (usually in Jesuit contexts):

“Catholic schools are different because they educate the whole person–emotionally, physically, spiritually and of course academically.”

Whenever I hear this, I have to suppress my inner skeptic that says, “Huh. So public schools and charter schools only educate partial persons?”

I mean, oh all right. Yes. I get it. You can’t really talk about God in public schools, and you can’t pray unless you are very secretive about it. So they miss the whole “spiritual” dimension, narrowly defined.

But does that mean they don’t teach “the whole person”?

A secular version of the “whole person”.

My experience in various mediocre Catholic schools, which neglect different “parts” of the person just as much as non-Catholic schools do, makes me glance rather warily at Catholic Schools Week statements like these. My own Catholic high school that I attended did not do very much for me “spiritually”–unless you consider as nourishment the fact that most theology classes prompted me to go read and find out what the Church actually says about certain things rather than dumbly swallow the political propaganda we were all being fed.

And yet…

Being a teacher in a Catholic school has altered my perception of the whole enterprise. I am both more pessimistic and optimistic–which hopefully means I am more realistic.

There is something to the idea that Catholic schools, in a way not available to other types of schools, educate the whole human person more fully.

Different Catholic schools do this with varying degrees of success or consciousness, but I believe the inner principle does hold.

The reason for this may be because the Catholic Church itself remains the largest defender of personhood left in Western culture.

If you check out Wikipedia’s article on Personhood, and you only have to read to the second sentence when you bump into the word “controversial.”  Personhood, rather obviously, is at the center of most of our political, legal and moral debates. Abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, the death penalty, and immigration come to mind. In all of these instances, it is the Church who stubbornly insists on not reducing the human person to the sum of his parts, to his location, age, sexual orientation, or criminal status.

There are other defenders of personhood, but they are few.

Even the secular Education world (which I muddled through to earn my Master’s degree) does not look at students primarily as persons–but rather as contexts. Teachers are taught to approach students in terms of the demographics they represent: social, racial, cognitive, rural, urban, etc.  Standardized Tests tell us to approach students in terms of percentiles. Even Learning Services and Title One programs often tell us to take a great deal of care to look at our students in terms of accommodations.

I’m not saying these views do not have their uses. They do. Reading about the “factors” you have to take into account when considering student learning and achievement has been very helpful to me.

But Catholic schools, because they at least must claim to promote the spiritual dimension, in fact kind of do.

Really, the spiritual “dimension” is really all of the other dimensions. It’s not actually very theologically correct to divide the human person into pieces: his academic mind, his physical body, his psychological emotions, his outward behaviors–and then add his spiritual life as if it were another thing on the list.

All the other things–academics, physical growth, mental development, academic achievement–these are the spiritual life. The human person we educate negotiates all of these facets of life before God, whether she knows it or not.

And Catholic schools, even the worst of them, do know it at least in some vague way. The connectedness of the Church, the way Eucharist and Community and Jesus can’t really be separated from each other, or the way Tradition and Scripture and Magisterium can’t either, are all part of a sacramental view of reality whose fundamental metaphysics is personhood. God is Three Persons. The human being is a person designed by God to know him in relationship.

It’s not perfect. It’s often pretty bad, actually.

But there is something very holistic (holy?) about the Catholic approach to education and to students. They are not statistics or contexts or demographics–or even, as some Charter Schools would have it, a collection of virtues and vices.

They are persons.

And teaching persons is a mysterious and scary enterprise, involving you to present not your ideology, not your theory of learning, not your in-vogue instructional practices nor even how you were taught in school however many years ago. Teaching persons, as persons, demands that you present your own personhood as fully as you can.

*All names have been changed.

Also, this:

Catholic Education, the Common Core and the New Evangelization – an interview with Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming, the executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Catholic Education


Update – 1/31/14

Read this too:

Back when he was playing for the New York Jets, Damien Woody sent his children to St. Vincent’s even though his family wasn’t Catholic. At a Christmas concert, a fellow parent asked him why. He answered, “My wife and I believe that a school where they love God will love my children.”

(The New York Post – “Catholic School’s Secret: Love”)