Friday, October 25, 2013

The failure of Catholic education

Imagine if I began a blog post by quoting some writer who expressed some negative thoughts about homeschooling in a post that also talks about how awesome public schools are and how excited the writer is for his children to board that yellow school bus.

Now imagine that I said the following:

If you want to use the public schools because you think these schools will suit your children well and they will benefit from it, then God bless you.

If you have to use the public schools even though you don't want to because you have no viable alternatives at this time, then God bless you even more.

If you are going to use the public schools because you have been stewing in a steady stream of sensational horror stories about homeschooling and homeschoolers, because you've been convinced you're not smart enough to homeschool, because you are convinced that all Catholic homeschoolers are secret wannabe Amish-like end-times preppers and you would never do anything that would keep your kids from fitting in with the mainstream, or because your children are still so undisciplined that you break out in hives at the thought of spending more than a few hours a day with them and because you're still trying to teach them basic civilization (let alone reading, writing, or math) and think you're doing pretty well because so far you've managed to postpone sibling cannibalism, please think again.  Good decisions are not born of terror and disgust and disdain.

It wouldn't be very fair of me to say any of the above, would it?  It wouldn't be very nice or very just for me to assume that many or most of those Catholics who send their kids to public schools are doing so because they hate and fear homeschoolers and homeschooling, would it?  It wouldn't even be nice of me to assume that there are enough Catholics who send their kids to public schools who think this way to write a scolding, warning, nagging sort of blog post about it all, would it?

Well, would it?

If you clicked on that link and read Simcha Fisher's post, you'll notice that she's using Matt Walsh's piece here as her jumping-off place.  I don't know much about Matt Walsh, but having read through the piece I see a passionate criticism of public education of the sort that I see all the time, even from people whose kids are currently enrolled in public schools.  There is nothing wrong with deciding that the system is broken; there is nothing inherently incoherent in deciding the system is broken and yet that in your small town or relatively sane state the damage done by federal education mandates and weird educational ideologies has been kept to a minimum.  Both may be true, and if the second is true than your decision to make use of the local public schools is perfectly logical, if that's what works best for your family. 

However, the fact that Catholic bloggers are even debating whether the Little (Weird) Town on the Homeschool Model of Catholic Education or the Lord of the Flies Public School Model of Catholic Education (with supplements by the parish religious ed. department) is better is proof of one big truth that tends to get overlooked: neither of these models would be necessary were it not for the sad failure of diocesan Catholic education in our times.

When I was a sophomore in high school, my parents committed an act of great sanity and lucidity by pulling all of their children out of our Catholic schools and commencing upon the grand adventure called Catholic homeschooling.  They did this for one simple reason: as good Catholics, they had been brought up to believe that Catholic kids went to Catholic schools, full stop.  Even with the rising costs of education, even with several moves across and around the country, even with a family that eventually grew to include nine children, my parents made tremendous and even heroic sacrifices to educate our family in the Catholic schools--only to learn, at a rather late date, that the schools in question were no longer authentically Catholic at all.

We didn't learn history or literature from a Catholic perspective.  Religion class was weak and spotty, sometimes scheduled less frequently than gym.  Our school Masses were few and far between, and we went whole years without being offered the chance to go to confession in our schools.  Our science courses were taught from a secular humanist perspective that crossed the line from pure science into ideology all the time (some texts poked open fun at the "ancient" people and their "superstition" that a Divine Force was involved in setting the mechanisms of creation going).  Our high school health class included lessons on how to use contraception and what kinds to buy--and when a few of us actual Catholics objected, the "Catholic" teacher snapped, "This is health.  Take that stuff up with your religion teacher."

And for all that, my parents were doing without on a shoestring, one-income budget; and their money invested in "Catholic" education was fraudulently swindled away from them by these hucksters and harridans who handed out scorpions and screamed at us to call them bread.

I didn't choose to homeschool because I hate and fear public schools.  I chose to homeschool because I take my duty as a Catholic parent to provide my children with a Catholic education very seriously.  Perhaps Catholic schools are improving (though the stories I hear from those who use them aren't encouraging), but they remain ridiculously expensive where I live.  Had I chosen, instead, to make use of the public schools my life would be harder, as I would have felt the need to create my own supplements to give my children a Catholic perspective in the humanities as well as supplemental Catholic ethics (especially in high school) to combat the dehumanizing sex education and the forays by the science texts into areas that properly belong to philosophy and about which science ought to keep its arrogant mouth shut.  And that's before we even talk about the necessary entanglements with parish-based religious education programs, a subject which makes some Catholics weep openly and gnash their teeth, but which is properly saved for another blog post.

So for me, the easiest, simplest, best and most affordable way to make sure my kids are getting a Catholic education (not just an "education") was to homeschool them.  Other people will choose the "public school and supplement" model.  Still others may have actual not-horrible not-heretical Catholic schools in their areas to choose from,  whose tuitions don't require Mom to stash the youngest kids in day care and get a full-time job in order to be able to afford the price.  It's just not fair, though, to admit on the one hand that public schools are hardly perfect, are not a panacea, and do not fulfill, on their own, a parent's serious obligation to provide his children with a Catholic education, and then to insinuate on the other hand that many or most Catholics who homeschool make the decision out of disdain, disgust, and fear.  Most of us are making that decision for the same reason the public-school families make theirs: the Catholic schools have failed us, and in the vacuum left behind, we're all still scrambling for workable solutions to the failed, but once-great, model of diocesan Catholic education.


Steve Kellmeyer said...

I wrote a book that describes, in detail, how we got here.

L. said...

"...whose tuitions don't require Mom to stash the youngest kids in day care and get a full-time job in order to be able to afford the price."

Ooooooh, neat, you managed to work in a dig at working moms of small kids! BAZINGA!

Erin Manning said...

Nah, L., as you can see from the context I'm talking about women who want to stay home with their kids but have to work to afford pricey Catholic schools. Moms who don't even consider staying home weren't a part of this particular conversation, as they don't fall into the parameters of this discussion. Not that that's ever stopped you before. :)

Barbara C. said...

Walsh wrote his blog post in response to negative e-mails about homeschooling that he received from his radio show.

Simcha just doesn't care for him. His writing style annoys and offends her (as a writer), even when she does occasionally agree with him. She made this clear even before Walsh wrote his homeschooling post.

Homeschooling also did not work out for Simcha's family, and she has turned against it. I love Simcha and a lot of her writing, but when it comes to homeschool discussions she inevitably makes really negative remarks about it.

We put our oldest in the local parish school last year after homeschooling. Thankfully, her school is under the care of the Nashville Dominicans. The Catholic identity is really strong. And I have high hopes for the 8th grade teacher (confirmation year) when we get there. She has a reputation for cracking down on the students for religious irreverence, and I used to see her teenage daughter at Adoration often (of her own free will).

We are considering putting our next daughter in there the next year for third grade. I love homeschooling and dreamed of homeschooling them through high school, but I am becoming more and more aware of my own personal limitations given my particular circumstances. I am having to let go of my dream a bit to do what I think is best for each individual child at this point.

The cost is not cheap, though. (Even though it is one of the cheaper schools around.) Tuition, uniforms, school supplies, and fundraising all add up. We probably could not afford it if we didn't have grandparents to help share the cost.

L. said...

Red, exactly -- you're disparaging the choice of families who are confronted with the difficult choice (for them) of their children getting a Catholic education, over all of their children having a full-time stay-at-home mother for all preschool years -- and they decide that the Catholic education will take priority. I doubt any of these parents believe they're "stashing" their kids in daycare, anymore than the parents who decide that homeschooling is not the right option for their children are "stashing" their kids in public schools.

No, I didn't think you were talking about mothers like me. I'm not representative of any of the parents you mention. :)

Deirdre Mundy said...

This was my response to Simcha:

(Snarky, not serious like yours)...

One thing I've noticed is that my friends who do the school thing have a lot less time... the driving and lunch-packing and random projects and demands and PTA meetings and mommy-politics just leave them worn out.

My one worry is what we'll do for lab science in HS. The nearest CC that offers those courses is 45 minutes away.... But other than that, I'm pretty happy with Kolbe for the 4th grade and up crowd, and doing my own thing for the little ones.....

And, to be fair, there are some families who homeschool out of fear... and their kids ARE pretty miserable, because to be a good homeschooler, you have to LIKE teaching your kids at home. Otherwise, you just pass on the idea that kids are miserable burdens.... and that's not a very Catholic lesson....

But the 'homeschool from fear' families generally don't keep it up very long either. I guess, like all vocations, homeschooling needs to be about running TOWARD something, not running away from it....

Geoff said...

We didn't learn history or literature from a Catholic perspective.

This is an interesting observation that I'd invite you to expand on a little bit. What exactly does it mean?

Do you exclude those parts of history that might portray Catholicism in a bad light, like the actions of the Inquisition against the conversos? Or does it mean that you present events like, for instance, the Crusades with a Catholic "spin", without necessarily taking into account the perspective of, say, Muslims in the Levant or German Jews?

Our science courses were taught from a secular humanist perspective that crossed the line from pure science into ideology all the time (some texts poked open fun at the "ancient" people and their "superstition" that a Divine Force was involved in setting the mechanisms of creation going).

As someone with a passing interest in the history of science, I'd be the last person to poke fun at ancient beliefs, no matter how bizarre (and if you read some of the pre-Socratics, you'll find some truly bizarre beliefs). But on the other hand, there are a lot of beliefs about the physical world that I would consider incidental to religious belief, but that Catholicism staked its reputation on, that turned out to be wrong. The heliocentric model is only the most well known of these.

I guess what kind of alarms me about your post is that it seems to me that there is an objective truth out there, about past events, about the nature of the universe, and that it is a truth that we can divine through empirical methods.

So is that what your reaction is against? Are you trying to teach your children an epistemology based on religious authority rather than empiricism? Because if that's the case, I think you do your children a disservice. One, moreover, that may bring some of them to resent religion as they grow older.

Erin Manning said...

Geoff, what I'm talking about is a bit simpler than that. To give an example, some history books out there talk about the founding of America without ever mentioning the different religious groups that came here seeking religious freedom or why those groups were unable to practice their faiths in their home countries; some books pretend that there was never any anti-Catholic prejudice in America, etc. I steer clear of any "triumphalist" histories that try to present Catholics as always in the right, but at the same time I'm driven to frustration by books (especially for the younger grades) which say things like "The Pilgrims came to America seeking freedom," without ever discussing what sort of freedom they thought was important. The thing is, you can't discuss history without getting into religion quite a bit, but many secular textbooks downplay the role of religion (all religion, not just Catholicism) generally in historical events while focusing on economic and political aspects of those events. When religion is brought up, it is usually as a negative thing that causes wars (which explains why so many educated people today are astonished to learn that in terms of sheer numbers far more people in the 20th century perished at the hands of atheism than of religion).

As for science, the Catholic Church has no trouble with science doing what science does, and neither do I. The kinds of books I had a problem with were the kinds that said things like "Because we now know that the universe was not created, science has given people a better understanding than the ancient people with their superstitious beliefs had..." etc. It is science's job to figure out *how* the universe came into being from a material perspective, but that's it. It is NOT science's job to dismiss the idea that there is a Creator, or to dabble in philosophy, any more than it is science's job to analyze poetry.

(And if the Church was really hung up on geocentrism to the point of "staking its reputation" on it, why did they have no problem at all with Copernicus?)

MK said...

I find it fascinating that some of the biggest cheerleaders of closing down the Catholic schools that are left are Catholic homeschoolers. Don't worry Erin, you will get your wish sooner rather than later.

Elena LaVictoire said...

I read Steve Kellmeyer's book and it is excellent. I totally agree with his premise that Catholic Schools won't make it simply because by current design they simply can't.

Erin Manning said...

I don't want Catholic schools to close, MK. I want them to reform. I want them to kick government mandates to the curb and go back to offering authentic Catholic education, which used to be academically superior to what the public schools offered. I want them to figure out new, creative ways to offer this education in an affordable way so that Catholic schools won't just be ritzy private schools "in the Catholic tradition," which means almost nothing in terms of imparting faith and morals. And I'd like to see, instead of lists showing percentages of students who go on to receive four, six, or eight years of college education, lists showing how many students remain Catholic. That's one metric no Catholic school dares to share: the percent of graduates who are still Catholic within ten years of graduation. I have a feeling it's dismal.

scotch meg said...

I truly believe that God has given a blessing out of a disaster. Homeschooling is not simply what I do because I don't have a good Catholic school available to me. In fact, I do have several good Catholic schools available to me. They're not very affordable - I would have to go back to work to send my youngest child to school now (in grade 8), and this path would have been impossible at an earlier time in our lives. But homeschooling has created a world of faith, friendship, and creative education for our family. Rather than spending time driving and fundraising, I spend my time with my children, and they spend their time with each other. Even with only one child at home, we see distinct advantages to home schooling - an ability to feed the interests of individual children, access resources, and make commitments to projects that would have been abandoned were the children in school.

mrsd said...

Catholic schools cannot and will not kick the federal mandates until they stop taking federal funds and perks. I too would like to see reform. I have fond memories of my first few years in Catholic school.

Geoff said...

They had no problem with Copernicus because what Copernicus was doing was seeking to create a more accurate calendar, which has liturgical significance. Copernicus didn't actually seek to overturn the Aristotelian model as a reflection of reality, but rather said "Here's something that might be a bit more accurate than Ptolemy and all those epicycles (in the event, he was wrong, because his model posited circular rather than elliptical orbits, but I digress).

I certainly see your point, and I suppose must express some surprise at the degree you say religion was written out of the curriculum. Maybe it's because many of my most formative years were spent in Canada, where people seem (or seemed at the time) rather less interested in axe-grinding of this type, aiming to prove things either wholly secular or wholly religious, when, of course, it's quite clearly both.

I attended a Catholic school in Wisconsin from the 1st through the 5th grade back in the '70s and don't really recall these sorts of problems. We had Mass once a week as a class, and religious education mostly focused, IIRC, on preparation for the Sacraments, Reconciliation and First Communion at that age. I can't remember how often we went to Confession off hand, but it seemed frequent enough. I was also recruited as an altar boy, so I got more frequent Masses on top of that, mostly at 6:50 AM, before school, which frankly, I didn't much care for (I've never been a morning person).

We didn't have separate History classes, but I do remember discussing many of the early French explorers of Wisconsin like Jean Nicolet and Pere Marquette, and the involvement of the Church and the Jesuits in particular in the early exploration of the state was, IIRC, the subject of some quiet pride.

I do recall some basic health classes talking about reproduction, but the teacher would immediately place that in the context of Catholic teaching (this is only for when you become married, no mention of contraception, etc., etc., though this was geared towards a 4th grade audience, and as I recall, much of it kind of went over my head).

So I guess this is a long and roundabout way of saying that I'm kind of surprised that things seem to have changed so much. That really wasn't my experience. Though on the other hand, this was some 35 years ago and times may well have changed.

Carrie C. said...


Simcha Fisher said...

Boy, I'm sorry my post was so misunderstood. I tried to make it really clear that I wasn't actually saying anything good or bad about home schooling or public schools. What I was saying was: make sure you have your facts before you make your choice. I was terrified of public schools for many years, because I listened to stuff like Walsh's blog, who say that all public schools are, by definition, bad. But when we actually started attending public schools, it turned out that the things I was afraid of didn't happen, and lots of good things did happen. Is that true for the public school in your area? Who knows? You'll only know if you look into it and find out. That was my one and only point.

Barbara, what was the "negative remark" I made about home schooling?

Erin Manning said...

Simcha, all due respect, but my point was simply to remind Catholics that even if you have the best, most amazing, sweetest, one-room-schoolhousish public schools imaginable in your area, they are still a *distant* second choice to a Catholic education when that choice is possible. Catholic homeschooling has made that choice possible for lots of us who were priced out of diocesan Catholic schools, but that reality--that many Catholic schools are priced so that average families can't afford them--is a bad thing, and not at all the ideal of what Catholic education is supposed to be.

Catholics used to know this; in fact, Catholics used to have to get permission from their pastors to send their kids to a public school. Now, there's a vibe out there that Catholic schools are nice if you can afford them, but public schools are just as good (and maybe better!) and homeschooling is for weirdos. I hate that vibe, because public schools cannot do the one thing really necessary for Catholic kids: provide them with a Catholic education. And, again, no matter how stellar your local public schools are, they won't teach your kids faith or virtue because they're not in the business of doing either, and it's not even constitutional for them to do either.

Which means that parents who send their kids to public schools, even terrific ones, will *still* have to teach their kids at home when it comes to the Catholic stuff (with a little help from the local parish), in addition to correcting any non-Catholic stuff they might happen to get taught in a secular setting (and boy, does that happen). So the question for people who can't afford or don't have Catholic schools isn't "Will you homeschool?" but "Are you going to homeschool full-time or part-time?" And I'd like to see that addressed honestly.

Shadowfax said...

"Catholics used to know this; in fact, Catholics used to have to get permission from their pastors to send their kids to a public school."

Just to confirm this anecdotally: my grandmother told me when she had young children, the priests in her area told parishioners it was a mortal sin to send your children to public school when there was a Catholic school available.

She regretted believing them for the rest of her life, as it turned out her sons were being abused (physically and psychologically, not sure about sexually) by the brothers who ran the boys' school. It caused lasting damage in both, and one of them left the Church permanently over it.

I'm glad the days of believing something just because a priest said so are long gone.

Simcha Fisher said...

Yeah, I was responding more to Barbara than to you. The fact is that we looked into our local parochial school, and did a stint at a private Catholic school, and we realized that STILL we'd have to be the ones in charge of our kids' religious education. In the parochial school, the academics and the religious education were third rate. In the private Catholic school, the kids were learning how to be cynical about their faith. So in our case, public school really is the best option. We can't be the only ones for whom this is true.

My one and only point is that it's dumb to say what Matt Walsh was saying: that public school is designed to corrupt kids, and that all kids to attend public school will be corrupted. That's just . . . dumb.

sdecorla said...

Red, I enjoy your blog and a normally agree with you, but I honestly think you have a huge blind spot when it comes to public schools. I completely disagree that public schools are a “distant second choice to a Catholic education when that choice is possible.” Public schools are just one valid choice among many. Whether they are better or worse than Catholic schools or homeschooling depends on the situation. I am a lifelong practicing Catholic who attended public schools my entire life and never left the faith. I can honestly say I never encountered anything hostile to my faith at public school. And anything that’s even remotely controversial in public schools – like sex ed – parents can opt out of.

I agree that Catholic schools should be more affordable, though I’m not sure what can be done about that. You can’t force people to give more money to the collection. You say “Catholic homeschooling has made that choice possible for lots of us who were priced out of diocesan Catholic schools.” That’s fine, if homeschooling works for your family. But what about those of us who can’t afford Catholic schools *and* can’t afford to have a parent at home full-time to homeschool? For that matter, what about couples who can afford to have a parent home full-time, but just don’t want to homeschool or wouldn’t be good at it? Not everyone is a good teacher. To be perfectly honest, homeschooling sounds awful to me. I would be miserable and wouldn’t be good at it at all. My kids would not get a good education. I agree with Deidre that in order to be a good homeschooler, you have to like teaching your kids at home. I would hate it, so I don’t do it.

Since we can’t afford Catholic school, and we live in one of the best school districts in the country (where both my husband and I attended public school), and we live in an orthodox diocese that is unlikely to teach kids anything unorthodox in CCD, public school is the best choice for us. In fact, it was a no-brainer.

(As an aside, I can’t imagine how Deidre’s friends who send their kids to school have LESS time – to me that’s like saying going grocery shopping takes *more* time than growing all your own food).

sdecorla said...

One more thing: I think it’s crazy to require couples to get their pastor’s permission to not send their kids to Catholic school. I have never heard that, and I’m glad that’s not done anymore. To me it sounds like getting permission from a priest to use NFP to avoid pregnancy, which some Catholics seem to think you have to do. Just like no one knows whether or not they should have another child better than the couple, no one knows whether public school, Catholic school or homeschooling is best better than the couple.

Erin Manning said...

sdecorla, let me clarify just a bit.

Most people agree that breastfeeding is (speaking in the abstract) *much better* for a child than bottle feeding, for reasons related to nutrition, bonding, child development, and so on.

And yet, if a woman is not able to breastfeed for some reason, she should be at peace about that; she can't change her *individual* situation in order to breastfeed, so for her infant, for her family, bottle feeding is a perfectly legitimate choice.

But that doesn't suddenly change the abstract idea that breastfeeding has certain real benefits. Those benefits are demonstrable and real.

Too often, we tend to personalize these things. I try not to do that. When people talk about the benefits of large families, I agree with them, even though God gave my family only three children. I'm grateful to have them, and yet I can see certain things big families have that mine will not (such as the familiarity with babies and smaller children that the older kids get, which I personally benefited from as the second oldest of nine).

So, when I say that public schools do not do anything at all to help Catholic parents provide their children with a Catholic education, that is a statement of fact. Public schools approach education as if there are two categories of learning: that which encompasses scientific and empirically provable facts or mathematical principles, and that which is merely subjective and relative. "Truth" means what you can prove according to the first category, but rarely involves the subject matter of the fields in the second--that is, you may know an author lived during a certain time period or that a battle took place on a certain date, but you can't really know anything "true" about literature or history because the "truths" are relative, will change according to the observer, and have little to do with one's life anyway.

From a Catholic perspective, this can't help but be a stunted approach to knowledge. To take one obvious example, secular discussions of history tend to commit the fallacy of "progress" as the driving force in history. Ancient people were stupid and primitive, each age saw advances in science and technology, and now we're at one of those sci/tech pinnacles that makes life really good--but we have to keep going forward into things like transhumanism to get even better. Catholics reject this view of history; the "progress model" of history has no room for revelation or God's purpose, and it also ignores things that people like Pitirim Sorokin pointed out (which is that history is a lot more circular than we sometimes think, and earlier ages often fell from relative "progress pinnacles" back into ages of barbarianism and savagery, which could very well happen to us, too). This is too much to discuss in a blog post, alas, but the point is that the very approach to learning that sees learning as a merely secular and morally relativistic enterprise is, from a Catholic perspective, deeply flawed.

Now, you can make the argument that our Catholic schools of today, in accepting government mandates and using secular textbooks, are nearly as bad as the public schools anyway--in fact, this is an argument I have made. But I don't just reject public schools because I fear them and have unfounded bad opinions of them; I reject them because their philosophy of education is at odds with and even inimical to mine, and I can't see spending all my time undoing the damage they do as being a better use of that time than homeschooling.