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How many Catholic schools are really just public schools with a Mass requirement attached, plus an elective or two of theology? Many schools feature lots of Catholic talk on the website, but when it comes to the actual books assigned and knowledge tested, Catholicism pretty much disappears. English, history, civics, arts, math, and science courses look no different from the classes at the suburban county schools down the road. This is a sorry situation, and Catholic bishops, lay administrators, and educators are ultimately responsible for it.

The copycat approach was clear when Catholic dioceses adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) a decade ago. It was a remarkable step for the leadership to take, an act of submission to the ways of the 21st-century world and to non-Catholic experts. I worked on Common Core and remember the extraordinary push to get states and private institutions on board. Supporters claimed that this was The Next Big Thing, and offered money in exchange for participation. National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) received a $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2013 to promote Common Core, and the Obama administration made adoption of it a condition for receiving Race for the Top funds. 

Catholic leaders chose the Common Core for an additional reason, though: to avoid appearing behind the times, out of touch, and ill-adapted. Education is a field of trends and fashions—“cultural relevance” one year, “social emotional learning” the next year, CRT the next. And school leaders of all kinds are supposed to keep up. Nobody wants a reputation of benightedness, not ed school professors and not Catholic diocese superintendents. When Catholic scholars and critics of Common Core objected to the decision to use the standards, U.S. bishops responded by appealing to relevance—specifically, to timely coordination with the rest of the education system:

Catholic schools must take into consideration the horizon of the local, state and national education landscape and the influence and application of the CCSS. To ignore this would place our students at a significant disadvantage for their post-secondary education . . . the SAT and ACT assessments, as well as other standardized tests, will be geared to the CCSS.

And there, in stark relief, was the problem. Many Catholic bishops, administrators, and teachers bought the idea that if they didn’t adopt Common Core, Catholic schools would be out of step. They accepted the idea that education in the United States is a progressive game, and that to step outside the march of progress is to lose credibility, a virtue desperately sought in a period of declining enrollments. 

In truth, there was no empirical evidence that students would slip on standardized tests and in college freshman courses if they didn’t attend a Common Core school. And if pre-Common Core instruction in Catholic schools put students at a disadvantage relative to their public school peers, we never heard anything about it. No, this was a case of decision-makers accepting professional advice and lacking the knowledge and the confidence to question it.

The Common Core episode is just one instance of Catholic school conformity. At this point it is standard practice, most importantly in matters of personnel. What we now have in Catholic schools are too many administrators and teachers who have been seasoned in secular institutions and conceive of their practice in conventional liberal terms. They have adopted “diversity” and “relevance” and other progressive ideals as the proper way of formation. In American history courses, they don’t assign Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope. Instead, they assign, for example, the politically-correct Give Me Liberty! An American History, by the leftist Columbia professor Eric Foner. Canonical authors remain on the syllabus, but they are given an au courant edge—for instance, Emily Dickinson is often cast as a suppressed lesbianLittle thought is given to how Catholic doctrine should guide the study of the arts, humanities, and social sciences. It doesn’t even occur to our practitioners to think that way.

For those interested in the issue, here are a few sketchy guidelines.

  • The Catholic sense of beauty demands that educators maintain a clear distinction between high culture and everything else. In arts and humanities classes, the masterpieces must dominate.
  • In history classes, let no Whiggish or progressivist notions of time and change enter. They frame the past as inferior, and Catholics rightly understand history as ever a mix of gains and losses.
  • “Diversity” and “inclusion” are but soft names for identity politics, and sow resentment, not fellowship, poisoning children’s minds with tribal suspicions. Never use those terms.
  • The call of “relevance” should be resisted, as should the drift toward contemporary readings. It’s a presentist impulse that matches too closely the world’s norms. As a rule, the old is better than the new.

Those are just a few counsels. At bottom, Catholic schools must start with one sweeping action: disengagement from education orthodoxy. They must ignore the advice of conformists and shrug at the prospect of appearing out of step. Given the performance of public schools in recent decades, warning bells should ring in a Catholic bishop’s or educator's head the moment he hears the idiom of edu-speak come out of someone’s mouth. 

And if he wants to observe a much better system in process, he should look at what’s happening in the small but fast-growing network of Catholic schools enacting a vision of classical liberal education. In fact, this is the most vibrant area of Catholic education at the present time, and the numbers are inspiring. To our Catholic school leadership, please: Stop listening to the mediocrities and half-hearted Catholics, and go with the true believers and dedicated souls.

Mark Bauerlein is a contributing editor at First Things.

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