Thank you to the lovely Stacy Trasancos, at Accepting Abundance, for today's guest post!
Reason: “To think something through.”
I never knew what a parochial school was until our kids entered a small private Catholic school about six years ago. I had no idea about the history of the university and no clue what the “Ph” in Ph.D. really meant even as I proudly appended the title to my name. Then I became Catholic and my eyes were opened.
I grew up in Texas in the 1970s and 1980s and I remember that history class was a joke, usually taught by a coach with more important things to do, and although I loved learning, it seemed the ultimate end in all classes was to make good grades. Why? So you can go to college. Why? So you can get a job.
When I taught high school in Texas in the 1990s it was the same. Teachers had to submit lesson plans for specific state-directed objectives. Grading had to reflect a bell curve and students had to pass standardized exams. Funding and grades were the metrics to show that people were learning. Why? College and a job. The cultural message was also that women could be anything a man could be and so they should not settle for baking cookies and just being a housewife.
When my own daughter started Kindergarten in Pennsylvania, I began graduate school; I was living out the “get a job” mentality. I thought it was great that my daughter could get bussed off to school for “free” and I didn’t have to worry about anything. It was no different when my son started school in 2000 in Virginia. I even availed myself of the school lunches and after-school programs so I could work long hours at my VIP job, which I worked my whole life to achieve.
Then in 2004 I began conversion to Catholicism, and little by little life started making more sense. For one, I realized children matter much more than careers. We began homeschooling in Massachusetts and continued for four years. As I changed, I also started to understand learning and education in a new light, not as something to get a job but as something to complete yourself, to know yourself, to understand your world.
When my daughter wanted to go back to public school for her junior year so she could experience a senior year graduation, we let her. She took the state standardized tests and maxed out the score. She made good grades. She was even inducted into the National Honor Society, successful by all objective measures. Then in April, after she had nearly completed her whole junior year, an administrator called to tell us she could not graduate the next year because she needed 24 credits to graduate. They literally wanted her to go to high school for four years and graduate at age 20. Needless to say, she got her GED and quit. We pounded on the school board for two years and got the senseless rule changed, but that experience really landed home the idea that public school is not about learning, but about an over-reliance on numbers and money.
Eventually my son, weary of three baby sisters, wanted to end homeschooling. My husband suggested parochial school, and that’s when my eyes were fully opened. To enroll, the parents had to bring the student for an interview. The building was 100 years old and walking into it felt like stepping back in time, in stark contrast to the city’s new $50 million vocational high school that appears to be a glamorous shopping mall. Anyway…
When we met the principal, she showed genuine interest in my son and his spiritual development, in our family as a whole, and in introducing us to everyone else. The school was much like homeschooling, only in a bigger family. He started the next day because he said he wanted to, and so the principal even gave him uniforms from the recycled clothing closet to spare us a hasty trip to the uniform store.
Six years later we are preparing for the fifth child to enter that same school. It is a much fuller experience than what I experienced in four different states as a student, a teacher and a parent over the span of nearly 30 years. It’s not so much that it is a Catholic private school as it is the approach Catholics in general take towards education, wherever their kids go for instruction.
The education is basic, chalkboard style “learn-to-take-pride-in-your-work” and “you-get-what-get-and-you-don’t-get-upset” kind of stuff. It is practical, solid and no-nonsense, grounded in reason and wisdom. The children read the classics, learn to sing and dance, and being rude is a serious offense. Everyone is expected to take care of things, including the old building (which is paid for). The teachers spend as much time educating the children about moral responsibility as they do teaching them how to read, write and do arithmetic.
I’ve never known a single student who dropped out or graduated unable to read, and the teens actually look me in the eyes and open doors for me when I visit. They engage, and can speak about a range of issues. The baby in my arms is usually grabbed and passed around by giggling adolescent girls and curious boys.
Sure people will say that the school is excellent because it’s private and there’s lots of money. Nope. I dug up some numbers regarding the cost. The state spends four times as much to educate a single student as we do. It is worth noting that many students at our school are not Catholic or do not have the money for tuition. The Church welcomes them anyway with whatever they can afford, and Catholics share the rest of the bill.
In the US, Catholics educated 2.1 million students in the 2009-2010 school year with our own 10 billion dollars, thus saving the American taxpayer over $22 billion dollars in education expenses. The average cost per student was $4,800. The public schools spend over twice this much, $10,400 per student. And even though we educate kids at less than half the cost, Catholic education stands head and shoulders above every other form of education that we have in this country. The national Catholic school graduation rate is 99.1% of high school students. Of these graduates, 84.7% go on to college, compared to 44.1% of public school graduates.
Regarding the university, well, I’ve learned that is a Catholic idea too. In the words of Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, a university is a “place of teaching universal knowledge.” The word comes from the Latin word “universitas” which means community, corporation, totality – universality. Catholic means universal, whole, united, too. Catholics are big on wholeness and unity!
Catholics, in medieval times, started the first universities to pass on knowledge. The earliest universities were developed under the aegis of the Church in Western Europe. It was only later that the state took over education. Just like I’ve met impressive children with Catholic educations, I’ve met impressive college graduates, too, from traditional Catholic universities, at least half of whom are young women either happily raising a family or looking forward to it. The men and women are versed in the richness of history and the classics, and they present themselves with a sense of dignity and propriety. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Catholic-educated child refer to me by my first name.
As to philosophy, although most college students today don’t know what that word really means, the classical meaning of the word dating back to ancient Greece is a “love of wisdom.” In early universities, all reasoned discourse and knowledge was philosophy. Education is supposed to be about answering ultimate questions, the search for a worldview, the search to know the important things in life that we need to seek and to strive for as human beings. It is the development of the self in relation to what has come before, what comes after and all that exists in the present.
Comparing the truncated, superficial (and expensive) education in our country today with the ancient wisdom of the Church leaves me with the ominous sense that education in the US has experienced an eclipse of reason. I wonder how long it will take people to realize that, just like love, when knowledge is pursued without seeking higher transcendental ends where we are eternally responsible for our actions, the result is never satisfying or sustainable. An economic system can only sustain so many people making grades for the sole sake of getting a job, people who do not possess the foundation of understanding and wisdom to know why they should work in the first place, or what truth they are working toward.
“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.” Fides et Ratio