Three Reasons Why Catholic Classical Education is a Tough Sell

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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“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.

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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!

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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.

About marklangley

Presently, the founding Headmaster of Our Lady of Walsingham Academy in Colorado Springs (see www., former headmaster and Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their children.
This entry was posted in catholic education, classical education, liberal education and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Three Reasons Why Catholic Classical Education is a Tough Sell

  1. Romulus says:

    Nothing to add here; the author pretty much says it all.

  2. Robert Baeten says:

    It was a tough sell. My wife & I both have graduate degrees and are adjunct faculty at the local state university. We have 7 children of which 5 are school age attending a Catholic hybrid homeschool. We are fortunate to have several Christian and two Catholic hybrid homeschool options in our area. We started some of their formal education in a typical Catholic parish school (early on we could afford to send the first two or three of them to our parish school (which had actual sisters teaching))…but my annual raises couldn’t compete with the cost of tuition with each new kid entering. For financial reasons we investigated various homeschool options. We both agreed we would try to avoid public school. We enrolled them at a Catholic hybrid homeschool whereby they attended class outside of our home, in a classroom, two days per week and we essentially did “homework” the other days of the week. It was a loving, holy environment and many of the teachers were well educated mothers (such as my wife) with a surprising number holding Masters & Doctorate degrees. My kids were enrolled their during one of the horrific mass school shootings seen on the news (nowhere near us), and I felt complete peace knowing that my kids were probably safer with this band of mother (bears) than in my own home. This school touted Classical education as “the way”. It encouraged kids to be free thinkers. The curriculum involved memorizing poetry and my children were certainly learning cool new prayers in Latin. Unfortunately/fortunately with my wife having an insider view as part of the faculty, it became apparent that what was lacking were strict standards. My “advanced” kids were appearing to slack off. My kids “at level” were falling, what I considered behind. The academics just weren’t there. The school touted that they were there to form the soul, which I embraced, but when 4th graders cannot read and junior high kids misspell common words on a regular basis only for it to be blown off with a sentiment, of “they will get eventually”. We just couldn’t continue. The days of lounging around like a Greek philosopher have passed. The stakes for a young man to obtain an education and feed his family (believe me, it is not cheap to raise 7 kids) are high. Although we are not of this world, we do live in it. Not all of us will have sons that are single men like St. Francis who can lead a saintly, virtuous life that may resemble that of a homeless person.
    So to wrap this up we were blessed with another Catholic hybrid homeschool option which has more focus on (for lack of a better word) modern education. My 12 year old is learning algebra, my 7 year old is learning basic fractions. I really wanted the Classical education to work, but in an age where most people obtain college degrees, the Classical approach was just too nebulous. As a bonus, they are still learning Latin prayers and my kids are continually teaching me things about our faith. I pray that my children consider the religious life as a “career”, but know some of them won’t. Either way, a robust education is paramount and I believe we have found a school that prepares both their soul and their mind.
    I applaud you for fighting the “good fight” and hope you enjoy increased enrollment. We have considered opening a branch of the school our kids attend on our side of town, as it is over a 40 mile hike across the city and have had confidence that “if we build it they will come”, thinking that many families in our zip code would be interested. Your sentiments of non-maximal enrollment are a little sobering. My wife has enrolled in an education doctorate program with thoughts that this could further prepare her to run a school. We will see where the Lord guides us. Thank you for your dedication to Catholic education.

    • marklangley says:

      Thank you Robert for your comment. I too am a little suspicious of schools that market themselves as “classical” but fail to deliver on this with a curriculum that does not challenge the students. Nonetheless, I would encourage you not to give up on the idea of classical education – especially as it is understood as preparing your children for an education that is delivered at a college like Thomas Aquinas in California. (and soon to be opening in Massachusetts!)

  3. In my experience, the problem has seemed to be that the kind of Catholic parents who can afford the expense of a Catholic education are also the typical American parents that are more interested in their children getting into a “good university” for the purpose of getting into high-paying career. Most of their circle send their children to public schools and they have bought into the idea that educational institutions must follow the modern secular progressive model to be successful. They like the idea of Catholic school for some personal reasons which may or may not include their children becoming fervent in the faith, but the idea of authentic Catholicism would likely seem to them as outdated and risk “ghettoizing” their children. This is obviously not always the case, because schools like yours have been modestly successful, and I have friends who have bucked the trend seeking out excellent but remote Catholic schools for their children. We began home schooling our children after a few years struggling with the local Catholic school and finding it nominally Catholic at best, but mainly heterodoxical when not merely secular.

  4. Mary Jo Coyne says:

    Dear Mr. Langley,
    I laughed out loud several times, especially picturing all those parents trying to buy their way into your good graces and school! I realized that I have not had big enough fantasy’s about my Classical Catholic Educational institution.

  5. Andrew says:

    Lively and highest-quality prose there at the beginning!

  6. Pingback: SATVRDAY CATHOLICA EDITION | Big Pulpit

  7. We have 8 blessings (ages 25-3) and have homeschooled them for the last 20 years with 15 more years to go! I’ll be in my mid 60s when our youngest graduates. Our days are permeated by our Catholic faith and yes, we educate for Heaven first and Harvard second. Mark 8:36 comes to mind: What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? In my opinion not all Catholic schools are truly Catholic and have fallen prey to using curricula that are protestant in nature and for this reason we have chosen to homeschool and will continue to do so no matter the sacrifice.

    The following was taken from an article I just read:

    St. Peter the fisherman. St. Paul the intellectual.

    Peter the rough working class man who speaks from the heart. Paul the man who speaks from his head.

    Peter the peasant. Paul the well-connected, well-educated Roman citizen.

    Peter the humble believer. Paul the professional religious man.

    Peter with the high school diploma. Paul who went to the Ivy League.

    God chose them both, but he made Peter preeminent. He chose the simple man to be the Rock on which to build the Church.

  8. Susan Taylor Brand says:

    Okay, this is interesting. My husband works in a Classical Catholic school and growth did seem slower than hoped, although the school was excellent in many ways until an administration change brought ill winds …

    But I digress. The question that might be asked about the small size of the Catholic Classical Education movement is the question my husband asked when he noticed that despite the school’s top test results no one from the diocese seemed to want to build any more classical schools. In fact, there was a rumor that the word had gone from the chancery office that one classical school in the diocese was too many.

    The question of academic standards is a serious one. I have been working in education now for 9 years and I will tell you: school leadership and teacher quality just can’t be monkeyed with or school effectiveness will decline. That’s across the board among educational operations. And also this: good teachers are not common. They’re not as rare as hens teeth, but they’re uncommon and the smartest administrators spend a lot of time recruiting and maintaining top teaching staff.

    Thanks for your interesting post.

  9. Collette says:

    I have been wondering about this forever. Are we sure that the human race is made up of rational animals? Why is truth only necessary if it makes you money? You’d think all men by nature would desire to know! (Truth… of course)
    Just throwing this out there but teenage suicide rates have skyrocketed in recent years and most stories that I have heard talk about the person’s feeling of lack of purpose, always an unanswered question on “why anything? There is no point.” In Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, when Boethius is bemoaning his tragic state in prison Lady Philosophy tells him that the cause of his despair is that he has forgotten who he is. He does not realize that his happiness lies outside of this world and is not intrinsically connected to material superficial success. She then reminds him of what it means to be a human person. The vast majority of children in our day and age go to public schools which are virtually devoid of real logic and truth about reality. Kids are never acquainted with the knowledge of who they are as humans except materially, and the projected “perfect person” / role model is the stereotype well paid doctor, lawyer, trained business man etc. who only is worth anything because they better economic society and therefore “make the world a better place. ” Well, that is not the sole worth or perfection of a human person and if kids are deprived of that knowledge no wonder they begin to despair.
    Also, just throwing this out there too but, newsflash, God is included in reality too and public schools don’t teach kids about the actual existence of the Loving Father who created them and the God who died for them. Religion classes are almost solely limited to what they probably would term “the study of ancient social customs and prescience superstitious beliefs of worldwide peoples.” Objective Truth is not the object of these studies. It should be, but it’s not. This leaves kids spiritually lost and does not lead to true virtue or goodness. That’s not okay. Jesus has a problem with leading kids astray. Something about millstones…

    3 cheers who lead people to goodness, truth and beauty!!!! 🙂 yay Catholic classical education!!!

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