Genuine Catholic education appears to be a product which doesn’t sell itself.
That was a bit of a surprise for me when I was a freshly minted teacher. Naturally, I thought that an excellent school would flourish immediately. Word about the school would spread like an uncontrollable grass fire in the American South West or a brush fire through the Gamba grass in Australia! Before long the only problem such a school would face would be that of managing a lengthy waiting list of future students.
In my role as an admissions officer, I still daydream about contemptuously swatting away envelopes stuffed with cash from desperate parents seeking preferment for their dear children!
Someday I want to demonstrate my contempt for these paltry monetary seductions like Sir Thomas More did in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For all Seasons. So far I have never had the opportunity to prove my virtue in the same way.
I remember the naive optimism that a generous benefactor inspired in my breast when he enthusiastically endorsed me in building a small school devoted to Catholic classical education. He exclaimed,
Build it and they will come!
Well, I suppose “they” did come. But not quite with the force of the plural in that personal pronoun. It was more like “Build it and he will come” and “Build it and she will come.” “Build it and over the course of many, many years they will continuously trickle in.”
I have never seen a stampede.
Now I want to disavow any feeling of resentment or sour grapes here. I am not the least bit bitter. Sure, I will admit just a snippet of disappointment when I reflect on various schools that appear to offer an excellent Catholic classical education and yet appear to meet with something less than the kind of viral success that I think they deserve. But this mere smidgen of disappointment does not stymie my continued zeal for the cause.
No sir! I am still perfectly ready to entertain the illusion that we are at the very springtime of a new era in education.
Soon there will be a small Catholic classical school in every neighborhood!
But in the meantime, I have carefully reflected upon the causes that make Catholic classical education a tough sell in today’s educational market. Not surprisingly there appear to be only three!
1. Catholic education is a tough sell because it is Catholic.
The first reason why Catholic classical education is a tough sell is precisely because it is Catholic. And to the extent that a school is Catholic, to that same extent it is a tough sell.
What is it about Catholicism that doesn’t appeal to people?
Maybe the cross?
No matter which way you slice it, Catholicism is about the cross. And the cross is a sign of contradiction. Evidently, Catholics are supposed to concern themselves with building the City of God. Catholics are supposed to live in the world without being of the world.
Now if this is not a tough sell then what is?
Sure, you might argue that students at a Catholic school will be more joyful should they embrace this vision, but being counter-cultural is always a little tough, especially for youngsters.
So good luck trying to keep all those kids smiling as you enforce a reasonably modest dress code and yank away their Smartphones and iPods during school hours.
2. Catholic Classical Education is a tough sell because it is Classical
Classical education is code for liberal education.
Liberal education has always been a tough sell because it is about timeless perennial truth which does not appear to be good for much in the short run.
Liberal education is about perfecting the person as a human being. It is not about producing a doctor or an electrician or someone who will be an efficient and productive addition to the workforce.
“But it does produce good workers!” you respond.
Nonetheless, producing good workers is not the goal at which liberal education primarily aims.
Liberal education considers all else secondary to the goal of first perfecting the student as a human being.
In short, if one views education as primarily serving a practical or utilitarian end, then liberal education just doesn’t have an appeal.
3. Catholic classical education is a tough sell because it is education.
The third reason why Catholic classical education is a tough sell is because it is education.
Education is a long incremental process in which the results may not be seen for years.
Education is a mysterious inward spiritual thing and is often quite expensive.
There is no guaranteed product. Sometimes education does not seem “to take” in this or that student.
Education depends largely on the one that is being educated and to a lesser extent on those imparting the education – although the latter are enormously significant.
As a teacher, I will not denigrate or minimize my own significance in the formation of the minds of students. But experience has taught me too well the words of Our Lord when he says in Matthew,
and do not be called teachers…
No matter how hard I try, I cannot seem to make the students think or make them learn. To my endless frustration, the student’s own free will appears to have something to do with his learning.
It follows that the students themselves must be sold on the concept of genuine Catholic education before they learn.
Imagine that! Not only do we need to sell the idea of Catholic classical education to intelligent and experienced parents but we also need to sell it to their relatively uneducated children!
So there you have it. No wonder schools that concern themselves with Catholic classical education are ordinarily so small.
But when we consider the value of the product we understand how worthwhile the enterprise is.
The real effect of a Catholic liberal education is seen only in the long run. It is seen in those who hold on to their Faith over a lifetime. It is seen in the future children of our present students. It is seen after twenty and thirty years when our students have settled down as active citizens in a free republic. Or perhaps it is seen when they are serving the Church as ordained priests or consecrated religious.
The value of a genuine Catholic liberal education is seen in the interior beauty of those who have devoted a relatively small part of their lives to the formation of their souls in beauty, goodness, and truth. No matter how few there are who undertake such a pursuit, they are the leaven that the world needs.