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Modern Education and Catholic Schools

May 4, AD2016

classroom, education


Education is the means by which the future of a nation is sown and cultivated. There is hardly anything more important to the civic order than how the community’s young are educated.  The education of one generation will determine the success or failure of the next.

If we took an honest look at our public schools and universities and compare them against an authentic standard of education, we would discover that our public schools have been doing a great disservice to this great land for generations. Tragically, our Catholic Schools haven’t done much better. Insofar as the Catholic schools have followed the trends and methods of the public schools, they have allowed the authentic character and nature of a Catholic education to be snuffed out by pedagogy wholly unsuited to the human person.

What is Wrong with Modern Education?

Practically everything! A brief historical overview will trace how reductionism replaced the classical liberal arts education, which had formed the greatest minds of West, with the markedly inferior “outcomes-based education

Education in the classical tradition began to disintegrate in the 14th century with the advent of nominalism , which began the process of disconnecting and isolating the individual from the universal, the part from the whole. Throughout the ensuing centuries, considerations of the universal nature of God and reality began to dissipate in the schools. Eventually, the matrix for all authentic learning, the Queen of the Sciences, Theology, had been excised from the educational program.

The Renaissance ushered in the Age of Reason; the Enlightenment dictum, “Man is the measure of all things,” began to drive educational changes. With the confluence of the scientific revolution, the rejection of transcendent authority, urbanization, industrialization, and immigration, the schools in 19th century eventually eliminated philosophy and began to be used as a practical tool to remediate new societal problems. By the beginning of the 20th century, schools had excised all theological considerations and nearly all philosophical considerations, and were beginning to adopt purely utilitarian and practical methods of education. Finally, in the 1970s, the material reduction of education was complete as skills-based learning dominated nearly every school in America.

The Proper Ends of Education

Modern schools have college- and career-ready graduates as their ends; most educators will tell you that the schools also intend to make good citizens. Being career- and college-ready are indeed fruits of a proper education; properly, however, they are secondary ends, not primary. C.S. Lewis explains “You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.” (“First and Second Things”, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, p. 280)

The first things of an education are the edification of the human soul by the cultivation of virtue, using the liberal arts to lead students from moral and intellectual darkness into the light of truth. If we miss these primary ends of education, we not only lose them, we lose the second things as well.

Skills in learning are also second things. Standards-based programs put second things first by putting the emphasis not on the development of the human person but on the acquisition of certain skills connoted by a long list of standards. The idea that, by a particular didactic teaching method known as “explicit direct instruction,” students are lead to the acquisition of skills is itself deeply flawed. For generations, teachers have been trying to teach a particular set of skills to students. What has really happened is not the acquisition of skills but a series of short term memory games, followed by tests that sustain the illusion of skills acquisition when in reality forgetfulness consumes the remnants of knowledge so poorly transmitted to students.

Development of the moral and intellectual habits of the child are the primary ends in an authentic education. These ends cannot be carried out without proper theology and her handmaiden philosophy. The popular conviction that Science somehow supersedes and stands apart from Philosophy is testimony to the rampant ignorance of science’s grounding in philosophical presuppositions, particularly realism and empiricism. The very fact that empirical science is the substance of curricular conveyance while theology and philosophy are completely ignored, insures that students will complete 17 years of modern education morally and intellectually empty, except for the good counter work some parents are able to do.

The Student

Perhaps the most glaring shortcoming of modern education is its notion of the student. In modern education, the student is treated as a cog in a machine. Other than false self-esteem building, students are treated as data entry points and data exit points. They are expected to sit in formation and are exposed to hours of direct explicit instruction. After skills are drilled nearly ad-nauseam, tests are administered and calibrations assigned to students who are better known for their test scores than their personalities. The methods used by modern schools are anti-human in and of themselves. They do not reflect the structures of reality or the way human learning actually takes place. They treat students, not as subjects, but as objects to be used for the greater ends of state and society.

All human persons are made in the image and likeness of God. That image takes the form of an intellect and will. An authentic education takes into account these two faculties of the soul and orients the intellect toward truth and the will towards the good. The modern school treats students as if simple apprehension by the five senses were the most important act of the mind, when it is merely the first.

Simple apprehension is where learning begins, but most certainly not where it ends. In an authentic education, apprehension is followed by a proper development of conception, whereby the human intellect is populated by clear notions of what things really are. This ought to be followed by the development of propositions, by discerning the relationships between things apprehended. This is followed by reasoning about the world as it actually is, reflected by the structures of reality imaged by the structures of thinking.

After a student knows what is true, he ought to be led to know what is good, by way of cultivating the virtues towards which the human person ought to strive. It is a first principle of education that the virtues edify the human soul and vices degrade him. Skills are good second things; but they are not edifying in an educational and liberating sense, but rather in a servile sense. Modern schooling treats the human person as if he were the raw material to be formed into a cog for a massive political machine— it sees the student as a means to a political end, while an authentic education must understand the human person as an end in himself.

The Catholic School

The educational tradition in the West found its fullest expression at the end of the High Middle Ages in the University. The Catholic Church took the best of the classical education from Greece and Rome and perfected them in a way similar to St. Thomas’ perfection of Aristotle’s perennial philosophy. In the history of human kind there has never been a more complete and profound education than that of an authentic Catholic education seen in the universities up through the 14th century. Unfortunately as goes philosophy, so go the schools.

The decline and eventual elimination of theology and philosophy in the universities is the root cause for what reduced the modern school to a mere shadow of its former self. Modern education began to diverge from a Catholic education perhaps before the Protestant Reformation. However, it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that dioceses in the United States began to adopt materially reduced secular curricula, in a misguided attempt to turn the water of secular education into the wine of Catholic education. Precisely the opposite ensued: the more modern pedagogy was allowed into the Catholic school, the more the wine of Catholic education was transformed into the water of modern education … water not suitable to quench human thirst, at that.

Today, we find that over 100 of our Catholic dioceses have adopted the dreadful Common Core in an effort to outscore the public schools. It is indeed true that Catholic schools get higher scores then secular schools on standardized tests, but as Christ said, “For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Matthew 16:26) Besides that, what a sad trade to give up an authentic education, a sacred parental duty, for a few points on a meaningless test.

Where Do We Go From Here?

These slow but drastic changes in education became increasingly popular in western societies because the original ends of edification by the contemplation of truth had been replaced by utilitarian concerns of preparing students for further study and careers. Truth-based aims were replaced by skills-based aims. Modern education has become anti-human because it reduces the human person to an ”information bucket”, a receptacle to receive and regurgitate information — not for the purposes of edification, but to be tested, weighed, measured and calibrated.

Education itself is a kind of sacred cow around the globe, and so its drastic shortcomings are less scrutinized than is prudent. Clearly, it shocks the numbed out sensibilities of the average citizen to hear the claim that the public schools have nearly no educational value; but it is true. Even worse, our Catholic schools in general have abandoned their Catholic identity and the true tenants of the best education possible, a Catholic education.

There are many things we ought to do, but where to begin? First off we must recover the certain truth that parents are and always will be a child’s first and most important teacher after Christ. A parent who turns his child over to the public schools to enact that sacred responsibility is still that child’s primary educator, but one who does not recognize his full responsibility in this regard and the lesson will never be lost on the child.

Perhaps, though, before we can reclaim our parental responsibility to God and neighbor to properly educate our children, we will have to rediscover that  education is that process by which the learned lead the unlearned out of the cave of ignorance and into the light of natural reason, where they can live as free citizens. Let us start where we can either by recognizing the bankruptcy in the modern school or by our own shortcomings as primary educators of our children. The stakes are increasingly high.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Catholic convert, husband, father, Catholic writer and speaker on matters of Faith, culture, and education. He teaches, theology, philosophy and Church history at Holy Spirit Prep in Atlanta. Steven is a member of the Teacher Advisory Board and writer of curriculum at the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a contributor to the Integrated Catholic Life, Crisis Magazine, The Civilized Reader, The Standard Bearers, The Imaginative Conservative and Catholic Exchange.

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  • adam aquinas

    Ah, yes….we should return to the dredges of pre-14th century education. And we should also realize that the literacy rate at that time was 5%; that only the very elite were privileged to have access to education; that education was based upon indoctrination rather than on the ability to think and reason; that those who actually thought about reality were subject to the series of inquisitions and witch hunts; that 95% of the population were serfs who had to do the biding of their masters; that the elite were educated using Church approved books, whether they contain truths or not. Only an elite can get a paying job with a liberal arts degree. Oh, and there were no special needs (14-17% of today’s population), especially severe special needs students to be educated with a free and appropriate education and forget the poor or the non-religious,the homeless and the starving, the abused and neglected. No need to educate those waifs. Oh, and if you did not get it right we had the stick, or the rack or the pillory or the insane asylum. Nostalgia is a sickness with respect to education because it discriminated against everyone except the church elite. Quite a bloviating essay you write, sir.
    I would rather my children, and I have great and loving children, read Hawking, Hitchens and Dawkins in school and learn to think and reflect and discern the world than Aquinas or Augustine. What distinguishes the human from other primates is the ability to reason, to think and discern and not simply to follow meaningless direction. Our other primate brothers and sisters can do the latter quite well.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Your comment reveals you have never actually read Aquinas or Augustine or even very much history. You have read the comic book versions, perhaps. You have no idea what the phrase “liberal education” means.

    • adam aquinas

      I have read and studied both extensively and do not always agree with their assumptions or premises. When you cannot respond rationally, always turn to sarcasm and ridicule … it doesn’t work, but it is a conversation ender,

    • Thomas Sharpe

      Your limiting of Catholic education to only those who can afford it, your refusing to recognize that so many cannot, and use of the phrase “all who want a Catholic education receive one” reveals that you sir have never truely read The Acts of the Apostles.

    • Steven Jonathan

      Adam you are clueless about education but I admire your tenacity and even though it frightens me a little, I believe you just might be sincere- This essay is not nostalgic and the real intellectual disease you demonstrate is progressivism- By all means have your children read Hawkins, Hitchens, Dawkins et al, but don’t try to pretend they will be educated. I will have my children read good and great books from good and great authors. It is ironic that your description of education is ideological and requires following meaningless directions even though it makes the opposite claims- I have been in the classroom as a professional teacher for 25 years and I have been trained in all the modern educational fads, I understand them philosophically and theologically and they are bankrupt in both regards- I also know what an authentic education is and authentic literacy is and it would surely surprise you to learn of our literacy rate today if such a thing were measurable, which it is not. Anyway, I am sorry to report that in the end a conversation between us on this topic is impossible because we don’t share definitions and do not possess a commensurate level of education and therefore there is no ground upon which we might have a meaningful conversation, so these comments are for spectators- Go in peace!

    • adam aquinas

      Well, I was a high school principal for 30 years, 5 in a catholic school. I spent 8 years as a member of a RC religious order; so that makes me more experienced than you and more trained in traditional theology …not to brag but make no assumptions about me. You can end conversations whenever you feel that you do not have a rational response.

    • Steven Jonathan

      Well then Adam, you prove the point of the article- it is stunning that you could spend that much time in education and say the absurd things you say- there can be no real rational discussion between us because your points are unreasonable- The sad truth is that most who spend their lives in modern education are clueless about education itself- and don’t get started on the Roman Catholic Church- you simply disagree and while that is your prerogative, it sets you outside the boundaries of truth and reasonability- You ought to look back at what Kevin Aldrich said, he didn’t ridicule you he reasonably stated that it is clear based on your comments that you haven’t read, with any kind of mature literacy anyway, Aquinas or Augustine and even if you have, your opinion about their assumptions and premises are singularly unimportant- so look back a try to come back to Kevin with something reasonable before you accuse him of ridiculing you, that is false victimhood-

    • Thomas Sharpe

      “Catholic” education has become more and more “private school for upper middle class with one or two children while on the pill”.

      Let’s get our own house which is really His House in order first please.
      Today is Assension Thursday; I’m pretty sure Christ’s Words were not “go and seek only upper middle class with one or two children….”.

    • Steven Jonathan

      Thomas, you must mean what the private Catholic schools are doing, but Catholic education remains what it has always been since the beginning, a training in truth. But you are surely right, this article is a plea for us to get our house in order, you will find no argument on that point. But look at Adam Aquinas’ comments about education, he claims he was a principal for 25 years before being a principal at a Catholic school, can you imagine the outcome at that poor school? Hitchens and Dawkins replacing the catechism, the Bible and Aquinas? The foolishness is unutterable. These are dark times and we as Catholics must turn away from ideology and back to Christ who came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets. Christ’s words were “pick up your cross and follow me.”

    • Thomas Sharpe

      Day after day I witness.

      It would not really surprise me if ihe were a principal at a Catholic school.
      I agree on the importance of a truely Catholic education, and that is why I am so appalled at the CINO state of things today. It pains me that my children could not attend a Catholic HS as I did, but it also pains me that the school I attended is no longer Catholic except really in name only. My diocese newspaper continues to promote Catholic schools that are really just expensive private schools affordable to few. The Catholic HS near me has a “service” component that requires high schoolers to among other things be lectors. I see enough planned parenthood wreckage during the week, do I really need that at Mass?

    • Steven Jonathan

      Yes Thomas, tragically, it is very possible that someone like Adam could be a principal- what is surprising is that so few are horrified by such a thing. I went to a Catholic high school that was CINO and I agree with much of what you say- but I think you got that last part wrong- the Aristotle stuff is not pointless, but parents are a child’s first and most important educator- Catholic education is free at home with faithful parents- “Catholic schools” in this age are expensive and exclude many who would have a right to a good Catholic education, but in their present condition more private schools to teach anything of value anyway. So I wonder if you might agree with me that Catholic education is for everyone, but we must get our own houses in such an order that we as parents must recover our duty to provide that Catholic education. By the principle of subsidiarity and for some other very important anthropological reasons, parents have the primary duty to educate their young- we must get our houses in order indeed! Good comments, Thanks!

    • Thomas Sharpe

      I would go as far as to say that Catholic schools today are not only for the most part not Catholic they are contraceptive.

      I also think you and I differ on the meaning of the phrase catholic education. Parents have the first obligation to teach their children but that should also be accomplished in a larger community. And that community should be Catholic. We should share the burden together for educating all our children in the faith. It makes no sense to be educating a small group of persons and not educating universally. That simply would not be and is not Catholic Education.

    • Steven Jonathan

      In general Thomas I do agree with you, most Catholic schools are contraceptive and it is tragic. I believe that we do differ in our definitions and perhaps in our conclusions as well but it seems both of us would strive to have Catholic schools be faithful.

    • adam aquinas

      I have learned to reason, to think, to doubt, to challenge, to reject, to read wide and critical literature …. I have learned not to accept as fact that which some told me, I have learned to think for myself….it’s a skill which we need our kids to develop…to think for themselves not to regurgitate old nostalgic memes. You also should learn to doubt all because true belief comes from doubt. There are many sources of Truth…not only you and your RCC…besides all that you are a pretty nasty primate in your personal attacks.

    • Steven Jonathan

      Adam, I suggest quite reasonably based on your words that you are clueless about education and Roman Catholicism. You on the other hand return insult for reason. Calling me a “nasty primate” is an ideological attempt to dehumanize and makes you a hypocrite for accusing me and anyone who disagrees with your disordered thoughts of making personal attacks. If one points out the ignorance in your words it is not an attack on you, but on the disordered words you express, that is the whole reason for the combox, to discuss things. Your line “true belief comes from doubt” is pricelessly absurd- this is a contradiction because to doubt is to not believe. There is only one source of truth and it is not me silly Adam it is God. In all your raging against the machine you have no say over that.

      Perhaps the saddest thing about your thoughts is that you don’t think for yourself, you just repeat the disordered memes taught to you by public schools about what an education is, but you are so far off- Teach your kids the way you were taught in the public schools and they will be as ideological as you. If you imitate Christ and take your duty to be your children’s first educator seriously, maybe they will have a chance to experience truth, Christ, the arbiter and Creator of all truth, doubt that Adam at the peril of your immortal soul but you ought not to teach any children to doubt as you do, teach them to believe in goodness truth and beauty and to reject falsehoods and ideology.

      So Adam I pray your rage is quelled by the Holy Spirit, go in peace.

    • The great increase in literacy is surely to be attributed to modern schooling. There is no disputing that the compulsory matriculation of children in government schools, which originated in Prussia, has been successful. Its goal was to provide a literate proletariat to fuel the industrial revolution, not to provide persons with an education.

      I believe that Dawkins should be taught in every high school mathematics
      curriculum. His blunders in arithmetic would provide good illustrations of the
      distinctions he failed to understand. These include his mistaking (1) density for
      probability, (2) the factors of a product for the parts of a sum, (3) non-random mutation for random mutation, and (4) an increase in efficiency for an increase in probability.

    • DLink

      Adam: So much drivel and nonsense. Shows the bankruptcy of your agreement. All we are talking about is correct the manifest deficiencies in our education system today. Deweyism has morphed into state approved insanity, much like Orwell’s 1984 and the result will likely be similar.

  • Omg… I can’t imagine the horror of facing sexual abuse within the walls of the Church…
    (or the Church’s classroom!!!)

    I’ve never had to deal with inappropriate contact between me and clergy…
    and the mere thought sickens me… but if it happened, I think I could
    have easily turned to my parents and all would have been well…

    Maybe this is naive (since I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the shame one might feel)…
    I’ve spent my whole life trusting the goodness of the Church…

    It’s difficult growing up and accepting reality…