Catholic education: Social or human advocacy?

I live in a crazy state. At least that is what the rest of the country says about California. Yet California is a many-faceted state. Our town is much like the Midwestern town I grew up in—a place with agricultural roots, neighborliness, and common sense. An hour south is Hollywood, or as my kids used to call it, Hollyweird. If you have driven along Hollywood Boulevard, you would understand why they called it that. The rest of the state is similarly diverse in culture and values.

I can understand the differences, to a point. What I am challenged to understand is how this variety of values from the politically and socially shifting attitude-of-the-week come to affect our Catholic schools so radically. We have all seen it—the latest politically correct or incorrect moniker being used to differentiate a school from the others—some cringe, some applaud.

This fall, Mercy High School of San Francisco announced it was going “back to our roots.” The school touted changes in its academic vision, moving to a “Social Advocacy Based Learning” model as it opens the 2017-18 school year.

While Mercy is to be lauded for a Christ-centered mission statement, one has to be concerned about a movement in its educational model that outdoes Common Core in its rejection of higher ends for education—especially in a Catholic school. Social Advocacy Based Learning is a unique take on the Project Based Learning model, which is based on achieving practical solutions to a smattering of problems rather than forming human beings.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia guides us to a proper learning model in his new school year column. “Catholic education starts with a simple principle: Facts and achievements are empty, or worse, unless they’re embedded in a pattern of meaning. The deepest hunger of the human heart isn’t for knowledge but for purpose. This is why Jesus’s words in the Gospel of John (8:32) have always had such power: ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ Truth organizes reality. It gives meaning and direction to life, and in doing so, it sustains hope.”

Two concerns derive from this shift we observe in Social Advocacy Based Learning. The first is a political concern, wherein our schools are moving from their proper role into agents of political change. The second is an educational concern, setting aside proper educational goals which derive from our nature in favor of lesser goals or ends of the educational pursuit.

The first concern, then, is simply the political tone of “social advocacy” as the basis for a Catholic school educational vision, when our vision is supposed to be centered on a Christian anthropology and restoring Christ as Logos to the center of our education.

A concern for social advocacy can have roots in a Christ-centered view of the world, but it can also be far from it—many who promote social justice or social causes do so out of a political sense of trying to solve all human ills from a mechanistic worldview which forgets the inherent God-given dignity of man.

The temptation for schools concerned about declining enrollment is to find a quick fix. The common result is to grab a headline and market your school on the latest “issue” of the day. We see them in the newspaper, hear them on the radio, and are inundated with them on the internet and television: green, diversity, technology, gender identity, inclusivity, racism, etc. Too often schools and organizations latch on to these words and try to address them as academic goals.

A Catholic school, however, has her roots in real solutions to these problems—problems which are symptoms of a world that lacks love and Christ-centered principles. A Catholic school should be forming life-long disciples by shaping the hearts, minds, and souls of their students in the time-honored goals of wisdom and virtue—a fundamentally human education. When we do this, our graduates will work for true and lasting justice when they go into the world. Build the ship soundly in the harbor, according to the principles of the nature of a ship, then she will be able to withstand all the sea throws at her. No shipbuilder would try to weld a hull while being buffeted by waves.  Educate the person, then they can become a saint. This “human advocacy” will result in a “social advocacy.”

Regarding the second concern, simply looking from an educational perspective, one must be cautious about the new fads and models of education that tempt us. Schools must really look to their roots in order to evaluate such models.

In this case, Mercy High School’s new Head of School, Scott McLarty, said in a recent interview with San Francisco Catholic, “We are going back to our roots as a Mercy school, back to the innovative techniques that were prevalent 30, 40 years ago at the school using the technology of the day in ways that helped prepare young women for the world that they were entering.”

Yet, it is the “technology of the day” attitude that has kept educational success seemingly slipping for the past 40 years. How many more educational experiments can we endure? New Math? Values clarification? Goals 2000? Should not every Catholic school remember Augustine’s poetic “ever ancient, ever new”? The Catholic intellectual tradition offers thousands of years of “roots” from which we should derive real and rich fruit from our educational endeavors.

Truth does not change. Nor does human nature. Our manner and matter of education should derive from these two postulates. However, many things do change and it is this that Mercy High School, I am sure in all good will, is attempting to meet. Yet the school would be better served, the girls in their charge would be better served, indeed, our world would be better served if they hearkened back to their true roots. It is OK to look back 30 and 40 years, but read that in the context of 130 years before, and even 1,300 years before. Look to the roots of Christian education. Look to the roots of the Sisters of Mercy itself, which can be summed up in the words of their founder, Venerable Catherine McAuley: “The good of souls is what the sisters shall have principally in mind” (The Rule and Constitutions of the Religious Called Sisters of Mercy, pp. 4‐16).

And how does one accomplish this educationally, pedagogically? First, as Catherine McAuley so passionately taught, be an example. All teachers must be profound living examples, as Christ was. She wrote, “The first means which the saints have recommended to render us most useful to others is to live in sanctity…. The way to virtue is shorter by example than by precept” (Mary C. Sullivan, RSM, ed., The Correspondence of Catherine McAuley 1818-1841, p. 209).

Secondly, be mindful of the principles of education which permeated McAuley’s intellectual world, a world of a sound education based in Christian anthropology. In other words, an education that understood that men and women were to be educated as rational beings with imagination, reason, and a dignity worthy of heaven. That education was ordered toward truth, virtue, and wisdom. That education was about the highest and best things. That education was about the good of souls! A byproduct of the greatness of that education was untold advances in government, science, and elevation of more and more people into a world of greater equality and health than the world has ever known.

So, while the new advertised vision of Mercy high school is interesting, forming the young women according to their nature will equip them far better truly to live a life of “intellectual depth, determination, and daring action to improve the world,” as the schools Mission states.

McAuley certainly lived this mission, but she did so from a burning passion for sanctity for herself and all children of God. She did not do it in order to meet each burning issue she saw or to create a project to answer any single need. She lived to raise people to their inherent dignity by treating each and every person as Christ, every day, no matter what the problem or circumstance. God willing, Mercy High School will, above all else, educate as their mission states, “enlivened by the gospel of Jesus,” as understood in the many roots they have as a legacy of the Venerable Catherine McAuley and the Catholic intellectual tradition.

MICHAEL J. VAN HECKE, M.Ed., a seasoned headmaster and educational speaker, is also the founder and president of The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and the Catholic Textbook Project. In their spare time, he and his wife farm avocados.