The Core of Catholic Education
As the author of two books laying out a new Catholic philosophy of education based on the traditional liberal arts (Beauty in the Word and Beauty for Truth’s Sake), I have mixed feelings about the Common Core. The Common Core grew out of a report on American education called “Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts” in 2004. This found that employers and colleges are demanding more of high-school graduates than in the past and that graduates are simply failing to measure up.
They lack essential skills and knowledge in both math and English language — regarded as the two key areas for success in future life, involving skills that would enable these graduates to “compete in a global economy.”In 2009, the National Governors Association convened a group of educators to “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.” The document that was produced defined not a curriculum, but a set of standards to which all K-12 schools are supposed to measure up. A total of 45 of the 50 states in the United States are now members of the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
A group of 132 Catholic scholars, led by Gerard Bradley of the University of Notre Dame, has written to the U.S. bishops, protesting against the Common Core on the grounds that it aims too low. It does not maximize the potential of the students, the letter said. Furthermore, it is oriented entirely towards the pragmatic and utilitarian concerns of government economists, and thus shortchanges “the central goals of all sound education and surely those of Catholic education: to grow in the virtues necessary to know, love and serve the Lord, to mature into a responsible, flourishing adult and to contribute as a citizen to the process of responsible democratic self-government.”
The academic group judges Common Core “to be a recipe for standardized workforce preparation. … Common Core adopts a bottom-line, pragmatic approach to education. The heart of its philosophy is, as far as we can see, that it is a waste of resources to ‘over-educate’ people. The basic goal of K-12 schools is to provide everyone with a modest skill set; after that, people can specialize in college — if they end up there. Truck drivers do not need to know Huck Finn. Physicians have no use for the humanities. Only those destined to major in literature need to worry about Ulysses.”
This is where the philosophy of education comes into the picture. I am not opposed to setting standards that give schools something to aim at, and, indeed, the actual standards we see in the Common Core are not objectionable in themselves (except as far as they represent federal interference in schooling at the local level, which is another argument).
But if those standards and methods of assessment are defined and imposed in a way that presumes a secular worldview, it is obvious that Catholic schooling is in some degree under attack. There must be a way to achieve a balance — to set standards, but at the same time to maintain a Catholic ethos and philosophy of schooling.
So what is this Catholic philosophy that we need to maintain in the face of the Common Core? The fundamental idea, drawn from the tradition of the liberal arts that goes back to ancient Greece, is that schooling is not primarily designed to churn out efficient components of an economic machine, able to “compete in a global economy,” but to nurture human beings and to free the soul from the forces that hold it enslaved. Not to impose faith, but to liberate the mind in such a way that it becomes able to make an objective judgment about faith for itself — not one dictated by the newspapers or social media, for example.
The three fundamental elements of the liberal tradition of schooling are Memory, Thought and Speech (corresponding, as I show in my book, to Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric). Once these three elements are fully developed, a Christian ethos will be present in the school, because the ethos depends on belonging to the tradition of faith (Memory), on thinking intelligently about faith (Thought) and on forming a community in which this faith is lived and transmitted “heart to heart” (Speech).
The subjects studied and the standards applied to measure success are, in a sense, secondary. The standards of the Common Core may even be applied, but this should be in the context of the three fundamental human skills that I have mentioned. The details of English and of math are best studied when priority has been given to Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric (in their expanded forms). This implies a sense of unity, too, which tends to be lost in modern schooling.
By this, I mean unity across the curriculum and between subjects — even subjects as diverse as algebra and ethics, geography and geometry. Unity in the curriculum is based on the reality of the Logos, who is “before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). We do not have to be Christians to know this, but Christianity reveals the Logos in a fuller way than any other religion, let alone science. The Logos is that principle of unity on which all worldly truth, beauty and goodness converge. This sense of convergence is precisely what a good curriculum must try to cultivate — both by the content of the course and by the way it is taught, which is why a good teacher is essential.
The Common Core is not necessarily a disaster. It contains much that is useful. But it has a darker side as well. Political authorities are always trying to take control of education away from parents and to direct it for their own purposes — to make all children grow into servants of their economic machine. Such attempts should be encouraged to fail, not only because parents have the ultimate responsibility for their children, but because education has another and a deeper purpose. The purpose of education can be discerned only by those who know the nature and purpose of a human being — that is, to grow into a lover and knower of God.