In the world of classical education, including the Catholic sector, the challenge is logistical. We have institutional models such as the Chesterton schools, which opened sixteen new sites last September. Lots of donors are out there, too, angels who recognize the needs and understand the long-term impact of multi-year formation in the Catholic tradition. Most of all, we have parent demand, which confirms the adage “If you build it, they will come.”
The challenge is to find enough personnel to meet the demand and justify the donations. We need administrators and teachers trained in and committed to the Catholic way. Last fall I toured schools in a diocese out West, invited by Church figures interested in “classi-cizing” the curriculum. At one point, I sat down with a dozen English teachers to talk about literature, Gen Z, and the works they assigned. It was a dismaying conversation. The teachers sounded competent and conscientious, dedicated to their work—no problem there. But in their descriptions and professions, only a few times did they distinguish themselves as Catholic pedagogues. Most of the time, they sounded no differently than public school English teachers would in a similar sit-down. I expected to hear something about Cardinal Newman’s vision of liberal education, or a word about Catholic poets from Alexander Pope to Gerard Manley Hopkins to Dana Gioia, or what Flannery O’Connor might mean to screen-addled teens—anything to signal a Catholic orientation. It didn’t happen, and it boded poorly for the conversion of the school to a classical frame.
But let’s not fault the principal of that school for hiring casually-Catholic instructors. She may have had no choice, there may have been no boldly Catholic candidates in the applicant pool. If she and hundreds of other Catholic principals looking to fill posts found a half-dozen boldly faithful ones among the aspirants, they’d make the right selection.
We need a bigger pipeline. Secular education has a gargantuan network of schools of education, state certification requirements, teachers’ unions, and mega-funders such as the Gates Foundation, which ensures a pipeline the size of the Ohio River. I have written about successful efforts by the Institution for Catholic Liberal Education to spread the news and coordinate the growth of the field. ICLE has recently created an alternative to the state licensure program so that Catholic teachers needn’t undergo training that contradicts their faith. And the University of Dallas has a master’s program specifically aimed at classical education, offering online courses during the year and in-person classes over the summer so that working teachers needn’t interrupt their teaching lives while earning their degree.
Another program has been announced. Starting in August, Belmont Abbey College will enroll students in a master’s program in classical and liberal education. The CIRCE Institute and ICLE are partners in the project. Lots of content in the formation—theology, history, literature, philosophy—and not so much method and theory (which schools of education emphasize and which produce little evidence of usefulness). Courses include Faith and Reason, Rome and Romans, Democracy in America, and The Quarrel Between Poetry and Philosophy. Students in the program also take two classes on the Trivium and one on the Quadrivium. All of it follows a principle laid out by ICLE: “True Catholic education should place Jesus Christ, the Logos, at its center; so too with its teacher formation.”
I visited Belmont Abbey last week and spoke with the leaders about the project. Provost Joseph Wysocki told me that within days of the announcement a dozen inquiries came in, and he expects dozens more as summer approaches. Great books, ideas for the ages, eloquence and rhetoric, the beautiful and the sublime, all wrapped in the faith—it’s a curriculum that has a value in itself, not just a path to a certificate. Students aiming to teach or administer at Catholic schools know they’ll get better training there than they would at the school of education at the flagship public university in the state. That program’s website says nothing about tradition but has lots of chatter about “equity” and “global skills,” “community” and “empowerment.” With the growth of classical education, we should add, students will have a half-dozen job offers one month before they receive their degree.
Belmont Abbey, University of Dallas, CIRCE and ICLE, Chesterton . . . keep growing, keep building. These schools are not competitors; demand exceeds supply, the system can’t handle the inflow, and waiting lists are long. The leaders of these institutions are overworked, the institutions themselves understaffed. And this is a very good thing. It is a blessing to be overwhelmed by requests for one’s product and offerings of support. The numbers are a rebuke to secular objections to religious institutions for the young. Classical education doesn’t need to justify itself anymore, though it exists in a frequently hostile environment. We should expect more silly hit jobs such as this one and take those sallies as signs of triumph, not threat.
Belmont Abbey and the others are doing exactly the right thing, taking the preparation of teachers and administrators out of the hands of unfriendly parties. I have heard conservatives for a few decades insist that we should stop battling liberals for a little space in their institutions. Instead, we must create our own institutions, build separate pipelines, control our own destinies. They were right, and now the project is really happening.
Mark Bauerlein is a contributing editor at First Things.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.