Last week the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education (ICLE) held its annual conference at Duquesne University. Pittsburgh was humid and smoky—the Canadian fires were bad—and much of the campus was a hectic construction site, but the panels and keynotes presented inside by institute speakers and invitees did exactly what they had done in previous meetings I'd attended.
There were tales of failing schools transformed into successful and happy sites, of new schools opened by a passionate few who found that once their doors opened they could not keep up with the demand, of administrators who proclaimed their Catholic commitment without a whisper of compromise or doubt (Mary Pat Donoghue's dinner address was a rousing delight).
Attendees strolled the halls with smiles on their faces, not the dour looks you find at meetings of humanities professors—which I attended for twenty years before the abysmal atmosphere became too much. Tables manned by Classic Learning Test, Memoria Press, and other organizations dedicated to Western civilization, the liberal arts tradition, and Catholic study offered materials blessedly free of the negative politics and rhetoric that fills the discourse of the National Education Association, the ed schools that train teachers, and all too many school boards. The air in Pittsburgh was joyful, the genial confidence of the teachers and principals in attendance palpable. In my own talk on liberal education and multiculturalism, I didn't have to over-push a point or coax a response—the audience brought enough enthusiasm into the room to carry the discussion forward with momentum and humor.
The reasons aren't mysterious. Catholic liberal education has a positive vision of past and present, inquiry and tradition, man and God. The 1619 Project, which has spread widely in the public schools, trades in accusation; it doesn't like patriotism and it suspects the churches; nothing about it is entertaining or witty (identity politicians don't like jokes). Catholic liberal education highlights truth, beauty, and virtue: the grandeur of Chartres cathedral, the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, Newton's experiments in light, and Shakespeare's romantic comedies. It reveres masterpieces, distinguishes right from wrong, truth from falsehood—no relativism in those classrooms. It orients kids toward transcendence and values prayer and humility.
That's the internal difference, the superiority of a Catholic vision to the secular progressivist vision of schooling. There's another difference, too, an external one. In higher education, the natural home of liberal education is the humanities. How wonderful it is, one would assume, to spend one's time with Chopin's music, David's canvases, and Milton's words. Mingle with the profs in those fields, however, and pessimism comes up again and again. It's a matter of numbers. One stat says it all: In 1970, one in twelve bachelor's degrees was granted to an English major. Now, the rate is less than one in fifty. The humanities used to be the center of undergraduate education. Today, for most students, they are negligible.
No wonder the professors in those fields are depressed. They know they are unloved. ICLE attendees smile because they know the opposite is true for them: They are loved. Here is what Elisabeth Sullivan, executive director of ICLE, told me over lunch. In 2017, the organization claimed only four schools. In summer 2023, it has 225 schools and 60 dioceses. In Pittsburgh, 412 people showed up to attend the talks, while another 1,000 attended through the livestream. The numbers speak for themselves.
In chats with various attendees from schools far from one another, I heard the same story of rising enrollments and swelling waiting lists. Schools that started with a handful of students have become, sometimes within a few years, busy institutions that need more teachers and more administrators.
The power of parents, as expressed in their choice of schools, confirms the value of Catholic liberal arts and sciences perhaps more effectively than any other factor when it comes to the public sphere and education debates. They have strong moral meaning among politicians, who know that parent choice affects budgets and resources. The choice itself is weighty, for what indicates a parent's duty more than the selection of which institution shall guide and discipline a child for seven hours a day, 180 days a year?
What has happened right in front of us in so short a time is a declaration of faith. That's how we should understand the growth—as a trust placed in the schools and in the Church. As the 2023–24 school year starts next month, and we promote, espouse, and celebrate the education that will unfold each semester, our affirmations are unnecessary in light of the ever-larger classes of new students lining up in the hallways.
Mark Bauerlein is a contributing editor at First Things.
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