THE CARDINAL NEWMAN SOCIETY is an organization that seeks to help strengthen Catholic identity in higher education. The other day they put out a list of the 50 top Catholic high schools in the U.S., which can be found here. In the Saint Louis area, these schools received special recognition:
- Marquette Catholic High School, in Alton, Illinois; for excellence in academics and civics education.
- Rosati-Kain High School in Saint Louis, Missouri; for excellence in academics.
- Saint John Vianney High School, in Kirkwood, Missouri; for excellence in academics.
Public schools were rare in the United States until Catholics started immigrating to this country in large numbers, bringing their parochial schools with them. To the existing American population this was a problem, because Catholics would soon make up the majority of people who were qualified for the jobs that did need a formal education, particularly in the professions. As Papists were seen as un-American, mandatory public school education for all was a necessity to avoid a demographic crisis, and without a doubt contemporary “reproductive health” is another demographic weapon. But this was nothing new: the Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate, started state funding of schools and hospitals for similar reasons. If you press most any strong supporter of the public schools for their honest opinion of Catholic education, you will quickly find out that little has changed.
The religious doctrine behind Catholic education is “instructing the ignorant,” which is one of the spiritual works of mercy. It is something that we must do because it derives from the commandment to love our neighbor. Philosophically, an education is desirable so that a child can grow in virtue: learning about and practicing what it takes to live a good life. An education ought to make a child a good person in themselves, and this is far more valuable than only knowing useful skills. Traditional Catholic education attempted to produce students who were good before all else, since education is a two-edged sword which can be wielded for good or for evil. These are good, positive things for education.
Modern public education is often negative: first and foremost, it must not be religious. One consequence of this is the negation of the principle that people have ontological worth, but rather, that they must be useful to have any worth. Another negative is the trend, prominently started with Dewey, of eliminating any metaphysical or higher philosophical basis for education: the stated intention was to make education more scientific, but this ended up instead making it more ideological, based on lower, false philosophy, for philosophy and metaphysics are inescapable. Another, newer negative, is the current emphasis on “teaching to the test,” where nearly all education is directed towards making students pass standardized tests: this is negative because it denies parents, schools, and teachers the liberty to teach according to the way that seems best for them and their students. Finally, the public school system seeks to become a monopoly, negating the natural rights of parents and of the Church.
It is perilous to base any system of thought on negatives, for negation is the basic principle of all evil: see Saint Boethius and Saint Thomas Aquinas for details.
I see no easy way out of the current educational crisis in our country, although a good start would be repeal of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and in the longer term, the restoration of funding to private and parochial schools. Increased vocations to the religious life will be needed for the Catholic schools, but that is a spiritual problem and not a relatively easy political problem.