Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Andrew Seeley, director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and professor at Thomas Aquinas College.(Actually, not so recently now. It was back in October, but with teething and John Marie’s disdain for naps lasting longer than 30 minutes, this post has been in the works for a while). Dr. Seeley and I discussed the history of Catholic education, the role of Catholic schools today, and the advantages of what he calls a “liberal” education or one that is “ordered toward making men free” (instead of a vocational or technical education). He also articulated the most fair and least pugnacious critique of Common Core that I’ve come across.
He started with an evaluation of the Common Core standards themselves: “If you just read what they say they are trying to do, it’s very much Dorothy Sayers. It’s ‘we really want to stop trying to teach to the test in these particular subject areas. Instead we want to form much more general habits of mind that make for good thoughtful readers–critical readers who can articulate what they understand.’ That’s what Dorothy Sayers was all about.” (Here I must note, though, that in one of his most recent articles published December 13th, Seeley seems to have developed a more nuanced view of the standards. In it, he takes issue with the Common Core’s focus on critical thinking, rather than learning by heart, for the youngest students. He writes “though the CCSSI [Common Core State Standards Initiative] proposes some excellent works be introduced to the young, learning by heart seems to play no role. The Common Core intends to make critical thinking, embodied in literary analysis, the focus of every grade level. Sayers strongly warns against this approach.” See the article here.)
So, though Seeley most recently has found fault with the methodology of the standards, their goal seems, at least at the surface, to be in line with Dorothy Sayers. The implementation, however, is wherein the quandary truly lies. “What I hear from people who have experienced [Common Core] is it can be very, very onerous,” Seeley says. The standards are cumbersome, they’re a headache for teachers and administrators, and they stifle excellence, Seeley explains. Plus, he points out, though the standards themselves may present one idea, people who are going to be implementing them at the local level, and those who are going to be writing the tests and the textbooks don’t have the same mindset. “What it’s going to do” he says “is bring about a very low level of mediocrity; and it’s going to throttle excellent schools.”
And for Catholic schools? We can do much, much better. “We’re Catholics,” he said “we set the tone for education. We’re not going to be following the secular schools, we’re going to be showing them what truly excellent education is and they can learn from us.” He’s right. That is what Catholic educators need to be focusing on. Why would Catholic schools take up the Common Core standards when we can do anything else? We don’t have to pander to politics or rely on test scores and state funding. Let’s get out of Common Core and instead of meticulously documenting and testing the standards we are teaching, let’s focus on actually teaching. It’s a luxury that private schools have, that public schools couldn’t dream of. We don’t have to prove our excellence to the government through numbers and data, we just have to be excellent.
So, if Catholic schools are not about test scores and standards, what are we about? “It’s a good question,” Seeley said. “We as Catholics really need to be thinking that out and most of us don’t know.” According to Dr. Seeley, the identity crisis comes in part from the shift during the 60s and 70s from Catholic schools run by priests and nuns, to schools run by laypersons. The laity didn’t have the same religious formation and most received their teacher training from secular programs. They did the best they could to provide a religious education, but their faith didn’t necessarily inform the schools to the extent it had in the past.
The question is, Dr. Seeley asks, is Catholic education any different from a Catholic football team? “Being a Catholic doesn’t help you to win the football game and all your training is the same kind of training that a secular team is going to go through…You might pray together, you might do retreats, but it’s all around; It doesn’t affect what you do as a football team.”
According to Seeley, this should not be the case for Catholic schools. Catholic education should be seen, “not just as being done in a Catholic atmosphere, but as helping students understand and appreciate the great traditions of Catholic culture, of our theology, our philosophy, our understanding of the human person, our understanding of how Catholic doctrine and practice affects our personal politics and formation of communities.” The content itself should be Catholic and all subjects should be informed by theology. For Seeley, mass once a week and daily religion class doesn’t make a Catholic school.
In the Middle Ages, said Dr. Seeley, theology was known as the “queen of the sciences.” The theologian had to know basic principles of and be familiar with all the other sciences because he had to use them to better understand theology as well as use theology as a lens to inform studies in other subjects. As universities began to be more secular, they lost this theological grounding, to the detriment not only of theology as a field of study, but also to study in all of the other sciences. It’s the same in K-12 schools. According to Dr. Seeley, we need theology as an integral part, not only of religion class, but of all the other sciences too.
As Catholic schools are losing the integration of theology across the curriculum, many practicing Catholic parents are looking outside of diocesan schools to homeschooling or starting their own schools. They do not see diocesan schools as the authentically Catholic education they want for their children. So, connected with the challenges catholic schools face concerning a loss of their Catholic identity, they are facing also a drop in enrollment. So, what can we do to save Catholic education? “Pray hard,” Dr. Seeley says. “It’s a good time for Catholic schools to rethink what it means to be Catholic educators.”
Seeley says we can also look to a book written by Archbishop Michael Miller called The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools. In it, the Archbishop points out five benchmarks that Catholic schools can use to evaluate what they are doing. These are that the school is: 1) inspired by a supernatural vision, 2) founded on a Christian Anthropology, 3) animated by communion and community, 4) imbued with a Catholic worldview, and 5) sustained by the witness of teaching.
According to Dr. Seeley, Catholic schools should be focusing on, not getting students a job or helping them pass a test, but rather asking “how is this going to help my students to become more active citizens who are spreading the gospel and are comfortable with being Catholics and with making the whole of Catholic heritage, their heritage.” Also, we need to ask, “how is our education helping to form Christ in [our students]?” As for curriculum, Catholic schools need to consider the actual texts we are using. “Are we just grabbing secular textbooks which, either in commission or omission, are presenting a flat or distorted view of the subject?” Lastly, our teachers, he says, need to be actively growing in and living out their faith in order to be witnesses to their students. Basically, it is imperative that Catholic schools set themselves apart from what public schools are doing. We need to be different.
So, providing a Catholic education means moving beyond job training and even beyond a mere intellectual education of our children. Catholic education requires an integration of Catholic heritage and theology throughout the school. For Dr. Seeley, Catholic schools are more than just Catholic football teams; our Catholic traditions must actually affect the way we play the game.
Want to hear more from Dr. Seeley? Listen to his October Theology on Tap talk here.