The Facts of Life Series: Education
In our modern times, formal education is a fact of life, a compulsory reality and an economic essential for all children, adolescents and young adults. A necessity beyond debate. As we all know, education in schools and colleges is the primary path for acquiring life’s basic literacy skills and maturing them into functional and sophisticated abilities. It is our major method for knowledge acquisition and vocational and professional preparation. But, it is all that and much more.
And, that is the problem with modern secular education and the many threats it poses particularly to Catholics. For any formal education is first and foremost a matter of curriculum, about what is taught and what isn’t, about what is included and what is omitted, about what is emphasized and what is diminished, about what is valued and what is reviled, about what is right and what is wrong.
Secondly, education is a matter of institutions and institutional life and beliefs for the vast majority of students. Like it or not, modern secular and public educational institutions are no longer neutral, and haven’t been for decades. Now, most have formal and implicit philosophies that guide their curricula, their instructional methods, their institutional culture, as well as a wide range of policies and laws affecting what they promote and what they punish, what they tolerate and what they repudiate.
These influences compelled by law, bureaucracies and teacher training processes and certification standards infects our public K-12 school systems. The government’s influence through state bureaucracies and laws has gradually removed schools from local control and diminished parental influence even in individual classrooms. Public education of any type or level has long ceased to be a neutral educational venue because of the changes in laws, in the shifts in the wider culture and by the regulation of schools by state and federal agencies.
And, that is why education is not neutral, when it comes to religion and morality and all their accompanying effects. That is why education, at every level, is never a matter without implications directly affecting the very idea of truth and even the very truths themselves. Secular education affects our faith and philosophy, our beliefs and values, our politics and laws, our culture and economics. It affects our churches, the nature of family and marriage and now even race relations, gender and our freedom of speech.
So, what are parents to do, if they do not share or agree with what secular and public education believes and what it has become? And, what are Catholic parents to do, who do not share or agree with these institutions’ ideas about life’s meaning, purpose and priorities, about truth, morality and beauty, about the exclusion of religion from their children’s education?
Well, such facts and realities should warrant prompt parental action. But, this is often not the case. Many parents fail to understand the threat to their children’s thinking and values, their faith and character in public or secular schools and colleges. Or, they do not have the means to change their children’s enrollment in these schools and colleges.
Parents fail to understand the threat because they are used to thinking of secular education as a neutral endeavor, an educational process that teaches just the factual material in science and math, in history and in the language and fine arts. And, they are willing to exclude religion as a primary principle of secular education, public and private.
But, in recent memory, has education ever been a neutral endeavor? Has it been able to find common ground on any of life’s crucial questions? And, is a good education truly a good education, if it omits or avoids life’s most significant questions and truths? Just think about what happens in an average public school’s classroom, when the question of God comes up. Where is the neutral answer? The only neutral answer is a dogmatic assertion of relativism. Any and every public school teacher must, by law, assert that every student’s belief about God are individually true for them, but only for them.
Sound really even handed, non-judgmental, neutral? Not really. For the question of God is not a matter of personal belief as a simple lesson in logic demonstrates. The existence of God is first and finally a matter of fact. Either God is. Or, God is not. God’s existence can never be a matter of belief, of personal opinion. He is. Or, He is not. Belief cannot create God. In neutral classrooms, the same is also true about most moral questions with the exceptions of large-scale actions like genocide, which are reviled or with popular issues of sexuality, sexual identity and women’s rights to abortion, which are generally celebrated as decided moral goods and social triumphs, despite the alleged secular neutrality.
So, what the teacher actually teaches isn’t neutrality. It is “relativism” – a philosophy that asserts the absence of any objectively true metaphysical truths or moral truths with the possible exception of some fundamental laws of science. Does any of this sound even remotely neutral? And, is such neutrality something we should desire. For such relativism denies the possibility of any and every truth and substitutes the truth that there is no truth.
Not only does this idea of secular neutrality deny the existence of truth, but it also implicitly denies the power of reason and logic to prove the actual truth of things, tangible things and intangible things, moral things and theological things. It is a neutrality that is inherently irrational and implicitly biased against all truth claims. It is a neutrality that denies every truth claim, except for legal and cultural issues our elites have determined to be in inviolable.
Now compare this secular neutrality to what Catholic education could and should be. In Catholic schools and colleges your children should be taught the power and use of reason and logic and the many truths these skills reveal. The demonstrable rational truth about God’s existence and His nature. About the many reasoned truths about life and for living. About the nature and substance of true goodness and the many manifestations of tangible and intangible beauty. About the fullness of true love.
They should learn from the very beginning of their education, until its completion in high school or college, the rational and revealed truth, the facts and the proof of their faith’s content in detail. Then, they will be sure of its certainty and able to evangelize colleagues, friends, neighbors and eventually their own children. Then, they will truly be the salt and the light in the world they will inhabit, as adult disciples.
Implicitly, this means Catholic schools should be grounded in the Church’s orthodoxy, in its explicit teaching and in its implicit truths and their inescapable implications and conclusions. Catholic schools, if they are to be Catholic, must abandon pandering to the world and its errors and insidious influences. Catholic schools must strive, not fret, about enrollment, or popularity, about parental preferences or even its competitive athletic programs or other such worldly worries.
Their primary principle and encompassing goal should be the orthodoxy of its curricula, its classrooms and its culture. For the children in its care and the world they will enter as disciples and as witnesses needs such challenging clarity, such relentless rigor, such hopeful certainty. The world of such full-bodied love that dares to question modern comfort and complacency and offer it the promise of salvation and the proper path to purity. To knowing God personally and intimately in their present worldly lives.
Catholic schools must also be schools for everyone, not just prep schools for the well healed. For many parents, who desire such a Catholic education, cannot afford it. Or, they think they can’t. For some families, such an expense is all but impossible, without help through reduced tuition costs or without significant financial aid. For other families, such an expense may require scaling back on housing and lifestyle choices to ensure their children are not educated in public secular schools and all that that means.
Also, parishes need to understand Catholic schools are essential and integral to their mission. And, this should be reflected in parish budgets beyond the usual stipend. It should be an essential expenditure. And, it should replace other expenditures reflective of our inflated modern sense of necessity and comfort.
Catholic school administrators must be ever mindful that class size is an important factor, but the most crucial factor is the education level of mothers and the priority placed on education by them. This is not a universal certainty in all cases, but it is a research finding and a commonsense certainty that maternal values affect children. The point is, when mothers emphasize education, the more significant factor in academic success than the size of the class. And a prominent ancillary benefit is that larger class sizes will lower tuition costs due to the expanded enrollment. This will allow families of lesser means to enroll their children. And, Catholic schools will be “catholic,” more universal, more affordable.
So, Catholic schools need to enlarge their enrollment by enlarging class sizes, by reducing tuition and by incentivizing long term enrollment commitments. To make school more affordable, they should also resist adding extra programming, services and classes, as these are rarely applicable to all students and often, they are ancillary to the school’s core mission. The goal should be to provide the most students with the best basic education possible at a realistic cost for every family.
In keeping with these emphases, the local parish needs to remind parents of their duty to educate their children in Catholic schools. And parishes need to make that a prominent and essential budgetary priority. For Jesus gave us a challenging message about the need to safeguard the young from the world’s erroneous ideas and its insidious influences. He said to his disciples, “Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur. It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.”
For He knew how truly vulnerable the young and the naïve, the innocent and uneducated truly are. And, as adult disciples, we know, all too well, just how influential and seductive worldly philosophies and values can be. So, when it comes to education, parents and parishioners, principals and priests, should “be on your guard” lest any child be affected by this educational omission or distortion.
We also recommend Mr. Cronin’s latest book, The World According to God: The Whole Truth About Life and Living. It is available from your favorite bookstore and through Sophia Institute Press.