Cleveland’s clarion call

The Diocese of Cleveland conducted a groundbreaking and massive grassroots survey to take the pulse of its Catholic school system. Kudos to Christopher Knight and his office for creating this productive “Thought Exchange Survey.” The number of responses was impressive. The results give the diocesan office of education, the new superintendent, and the new bishop much fodder for thought and action.

In reviewing the results, it is heartening for those of us calling for a broader permeation of Catholic identity in schools to see parents 1) commending the Catholicity that is in the schools and 2) calling for even more. Surprisingly, the ubiquitous STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) curricular programs were not as high on the list of priorities for those surveyed as one might imagine.

STEM programs have become dominant in the education industry, and unfortunately, they are overshadowing the humanities more and more. Even when softened by adding in “Arts” or “Religion and Arts” (STEAM and STREAM), the aim is really to leverage STEM into a school’s programs. Today, a preponderance of financial resources and time get poured into STEM programs, in-services, and curricular materials. This means there is less time and money going into formation of faculty in the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Yet, as we saw in a related article outlining Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi’s five keys to Catholic education, faculty formation in the spiritual life and intellectual traditions of the Church allows true and full teaching to occur. (Versaldi is the Cardinal Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education.) This is what makes Catholic schools unique and great in the function of preparing future citizens for our country and loyal members of our Church; it is also what serves each individual human best, because it is the one educational philosophy that derives from the very nature and purpose of mankind.

STEM shows up regularly in the Cleveland survey, understandably, because it has a huge PR machine behind it and therefore is one of the most common key words when discussing education today. A US News and World Report article states that “for more than two decades there has been a hefty investment in [STEM] education in the United States. There is no question that this investment has, at the very least, brought the positives derived from better STEM education practices into the national conversation.” It is no surprise that people respond to any mention of it. We are conditioned to do so by media, politicians, and educators in all sectors of education. Don’t misunderstand the point here: Science and math are essential elements of a sound and complete education and should receive much attention, but not to the point where the humanities, religion, and proper development of the human person suffer.

That all being said, there is hope for our schools when we dig down and look into what the numbers say in the Cleveland survey. Where does STEM fall in importance relative to things like faith-based education or faith and values in our schools? In the section concerning consideration about the future of the Catholic schools, preserving and improving “faith based education” and “maintaining faith and values” received 1,077 and 757 stars, respectively. These two combined come just a few stars under the concern of affordable tuition, which captured the top number of votes in this category. STEM concerns garnered 593 stars.

In the next section regarding “things you appreciate” about the Catholic schools in Cleveland, “faith-based education” was the number one item at 3,849 stars. When combined with “maintain faith and values,” the Faith garnered over 6,000 stars! Certainly, the faithful are looking for sound Catholicity. They are clamoring for a return to the historical mission of education, rooted in over two millennia of educational philosophy and profound success. They intuitively know that Catholic education derives from the nature of man as being created in the image and likeness of God, and that our education needs to reflect this noble end.

There was one other major category of questioning having to do with what people thought were the greatest challenges the schools face. STEM shows up with a mere 39 stars, compared to the concern to maintain the Faith achieving nearly 1,000 stars! While financial elements top the list, again, the faithful feel strongly that the Faith needs to permeate the schools more fully. Unite this with a call for hiring and retaining high-quality teachers (over 1,300 stars) and we have an important call for re-thinking the nature of our teacher training programs.

Maybe mission commitment is where this all points. Maybe we need to rethink and recommit our schools, our programs, and our hiring. Maybe we need to re-tool to be more mission based, forming our programs and policies in Catholic schools around our philosophy of education, our heritage of learning instead of the latest fad in secular models put forth by state boards of education or wonks lost in data mines.

Why not hire liberal arts grads who have wonder and who love learning, knowing and inspiring? Why not hire a young, on fire Ph.D. in English to be superintendent of a diocese—a woman in love with the Church, our culture, and real learning? Why not consider jettisoning “credentialing” in favor of diocesan or other Catholic formation programs in education philosophy with the correct end of education: virtue, wisdom and the love of God? These things are already happening in dioceses around our country, though not broadly, yet. Where they are happening, enrollment is positive, testing is positive, and morale is spiking. Maybe, more importantly, principals are free to say something like, “This is bigger than building enrollment. It’s about building disciples”—as did one principal at a school in Kansas City, who has committed to a new (yet old) form of education.

Cleveland’s findings seem to point to the fact that if we want to renew and build our Catholic schools, we need to get back to our true mission. Maybe these findings will help the navigators in Cleveland adjust their sails and begin to turn the ship. It seems that the call of Cleveland’s Catholic school “customer” is asking the diocese to staff its schools with young men and women who are educated in a broad spectrum of courses, in the best information, and in a knowledge of the history of mankind such that they become multidisciplinary and lovers of wisdom, truth, and goodness. It is worth a try, isn’t it?

Teachers received this training for centuries, and education was great. It gave us our civilization. The great advancement of now having education available to everyone should not mean we have to compromise the collective wisdom of the ages. Teacher formation programs need to prepare teachers to infuse the Catholic mind in any and all areas of the curriculum.

One way to judge your school, teachers, policies, et al., is to hold it up against Archbishop J. Michael Miller’s exhortation in his important little book, The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools, when he says, “Catholicism… must permeate the entire curriculum.” Does it?

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.

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