Reflections of a Catholic School Teacher: Putting First Things First

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Many an orthodox Catholic has bemoaned the state of Catholic education in America, and there is no need to wonder why. The majority of Catholic schools have completely lost their Catholic identity and become little more than public schools with a religion class. We all have encountered people who have graduated from Catholic schools and have fallen away from the Faith or who seem to possess very little understanding of Church teaching, especially surrounding difficult topics.

The crux of the issue is that Catholic schools are often not really Catholic. So, the solution is simple, right? Just be more Catholic. 

It can be difficult, however, to determine exactly what “being more Catholic” should entail. The temptation is to do more Catholic things rather than actually to be more Catholic. Very well-meaning people see the state of Catholic education and try to solve the problem by adding more Catholic activities, such as sacraments, retreats, service activities, and so on. 

These things, especially frequent reception of the Eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation, are obviously important to the flourishing of a Catholic school, but they cannot bring about the deep conversion that our Catholic schools need. Adding these sorts of activities is like putting new wine in old wineskins. Just like a new convert cannot simply start going to church without changing his life, Catholic schools cannot simply be reformed by adding a few all-school retreats. Our Faith cannot be added on to our children’s education. Rather, it must be its source and foundation.

Almost every facet of our Catholic schools (educational, administrative, extracurricular, etc.)  functions the same way as its secular counterpart, except with less funding. This is a problem because nearly every aspect of modern education is founded on a secular materialism that is completely incompatible with a Catholic worldview. 

In an attempt to be “neutral,” the modern education system is founded on a materialist philosophy that assumes that students are no more than highly evolved monkeys. The purpose of this type of education, therefore, must be purely pragmatic: to prepare people for the workforce or for college and to create good, or at least “nice,” members of our democracy. There is no concept of learning for “Truth’s sake” because the underlying presupposition is that truth beyond our material world does not exist. 

This philosophy is foundational to modern education, and it influences nearly every aspect of it. One example of the fruits of this philosophy is the emphasis on studying physical reality seen in the obsession with STEM and the reduction of the humanities to subjective opinion. It can also be seen in the focus on self-expression and collaboration over acquiring personal virtue and seeking moral and philosophical truth.

The values that flow out of this philosophy are in competition with the values of our Catholic Faith. For example, the false egalitarianism that is so prevalent in our culture leads to a disdain for just authority in the classroom. The value of “progress,” which assumes newer is better, leads to our schools’ obsession with staying up to date on the newest technology and the newest innovations in the field of education, no matter the cost. An idolatrous obsession with regulation can be seen in the complete lack of subsidiarity and the bloated bureaucracy that runs our secular and Catholic school systems. There are many more examples. 

It is understandable that Catholic schools feel like they need to conform to modern educational practices. There is a lot of governmental, societal, and parental pressure to do so. To those working in Catholic schools, it can feel like a thousand concerns are competing with those of the Gospel. Funding, test scores, college-readiness, state standards, and difficult parents are just a few. But if we are truly to be followers of Jesus Christ, we must trust that if we are faithful to our Lord, He will take care of our every need. 

I converted to the Catholic Faith seven years ago. Looking back, my conversion has changed so much about my life that I could have never anticipated. That is not to say every aspect of my “pre-conversion self” had to be discarded, but I had to be willing to let go of everything. Every aspect of my life (my relationships, hobbies, material goods, future plans, finances, habits, etc.) was on trial awaiting the verdict of whether or not it fit into the new purpose of my life: to become a saint. Christian institutions, such as Catholic schools, need to convert in the same way. 

Perhaps not every aspect of the modern educational system needs to be discarded, but every feature of our schools needs to be consistent with the mission that should be at its core: to form the next generation of saints. To do this, Catholic schools need to stop thinking that they are simply schools that incorporate Catholic values and Catholic activities into their curriculum. 

If this is the mentality, then our children will be constantly pulled in two directions. Their religion teachers (hopefully) will be preaching the Gospel to them while the rest of their education will be giving credence to all of the philosophical errors that plague our modern world. This is not an authentically Catholic education. And, on a more practical level, who would want to pay several thousands of dollars a year for it? 

It is a lot easier to point out problems than to provide realistic solutions, and different situations might call for different reforms. Here are just a few ideas of changes that Catholic schools could consider:

  • Embrace an alternative model of education that has the pursuit of virtue and the reality of philosophical and religious Truth at its core, such as classical education.
  • Have a radically minimalist technology policy that prioritizes the hearts and souls of our students over technological “progress,” such as banning cell phones at school. 
  • Prioritize hiring teachers who are devout Catholics over hiring teachers who have a lot of training in standard education methods that are antithetical to a Catholic worldview.
  • Purchase science and history textbooks that do not have an anti-Catholic bias.
  • Have a required reading list different than that of a secular school and that highlights important Catholic works of literature throughout the centuries. 

These are just a few of the ways that our Catholic schools could convert and prioritize following Jesus Christ over keeping up with the educational norms of our time. Though some of these changes may seem scary and impossible to those working in Catholic schools, if we are truly faithful then we can trust that the Lord will provide what we need. In the words of C.S. Lewis: 

“Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.” It is time that Catholic schools put following our Lord Jesus Christ first and trust that every other good that is truly necessary will follow. 

[Image Credit: Unsplash]

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Grace Schmiesing is a convert to the Catholic faith. After studying International Studies, Spanish, and TESOL at Miami University, she spent four years teaching Spanish in a Catholic High School. She now teaches English to adult immigrants and refugees. She and her husband John, a Catholic High School teacher, live in Ohio.

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