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Modern Education and Catholic Schools

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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