A number of articles have been written of late detailing a noticeable shift among Catholic schools in the nation. With the advent of common core, more and more parents, teachers, and administrators have recognized that there really is no difference between so-called public and secular schools on the one hand and catholic schools on the other. Both use the same curriculum, the same approach to classroom management, the educational structure, goals, and understandings, but one may have pictures of saints in the hallways and a religion class; that’s about the extent of the difference. And catholic parents, teachers, and administrators are wanting more.
And it is here that we’re seeing a mass shift among catholic schools toward the renewal of classical education that’s been experiencing nothing short of a renaissance over the last three decades.
Catholic parents are recognizing more and more that Common Core is not merely an educational gimmick or fad or program; Common Core is in many respects a thoroughly modernist secular approach to education, that re-envisions educations as data acquisition; it turns the school into a ‘fact factory’ and the student into a what we might calls a factoid. It is thoroughly rooted in the notion that facts are value neutral, they’re true from everybody regardless of their value system, and whatever values you want to impose on facts, those values are by definition specific to you; they’re purely subjective, personal, or private.
Classical education shatters this fact/value dichotomy by teaching all subjects in light of the three grand cosmic values of T, G, and B. We have to remember that in the biblical account of creation God created a world that is good; right? Every time God creates something, he ascribes to that thing an objective value or goodness, and what’s interesting here is that THAT goodness has an order to it; in other words, while all things are good as God created them, he created an economy or order to that goodness. You will notice in Genesis that when God creates mankind, it’s the first time he said, ‘And it was very good.’ Notice the superlative: all things in creation are good, but humanity is very good. And so what classical education sought to do was align the affections of the student into a harmonious relationship with God’s economy of goods. This is what’s known as the ordo amoris, or the ordering of loves. So, for example, it is good to love a baby, and it is good to love a ham sandwich; but if both the baby and ham sandwich were falling off a ledge and I rush to save the ham sandwich, that’s a bad; something has gone wrong with my loves. The order of my loves has been dislodged from the economy of goods that God has created.
This is the true Common Core; this is what characterized education for centuries, cultivating within students what we might call right affections, teaching them to love what’s truly lovely and desire what’s truly desirable and hence experience human flourishing.
And so what we’re seeing among catholic schools is a mass shift towards rediscovering anew the ancient or traditional way of approaching education. And so, recently, an entire diocese of schools in Michigan have rejected Common Core and are now returning to the Catholic educational tradition once exemplified by the Jesuits, a distinctively Catholic liberal arts education. And so, since 2014, the entire system — nine different grade schools — has been transitioning to the classical-education model,
And what more and more catholic schools are finding is that as they make this switch to classical education, as they turn away from modernist secular-based schooling to a enriched and vibrant classical liberal arts curriculum, schools are actually beginning to reverse the trend of decline and are going through their own revitalization. One school in particular, Our Lady of Lourdes Classical School, was told by its diocese that it had a year to demonstrate that it was economically feasible, lest it would have to close up. It had dipped to below 90 students, and was basically falling apart. And then thy turned to classical education and began to adopt a classical approach in its curriculum and classroom, bringing back Latin instruction and emphasizing theology and truth, goodness, and beauty in all of its courses, and what do you know, enrollment jumped to 130 the first year, and as of today the student population is nearly 200.
And so, now we’re seeing the development of networks and organizations such as the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and annual conferences that are providing the professional development necessary for a vibrant faculty and administration.
And this of course is contributing to the explosion of classical Christian education in general. According to the Association of Classical Christian Schools membership statistics, there were 10 classical schools in the nation in 1994, today there are over 240. Since 2002, student enrollment in classical schools has more than doubled from 17,000 nationwide to over 41,000. But this only factors ACCS affiliated schools; some experts estimate that there are currently around 500 schools, and the number of students receiving a classical education may be as high as a quarter of a million.
And so as we read about more and more catholic schools closing throughout the nation, in many respects we’re seeing the rejection of secular modernist educational approaches which were so unfortunately adopted by Christian educators over the last century. By contrast, catholic schools that are rediscovering a distinctively Christian liberal arts education are bursting to life and growing and thriving. Students are once again learning about the glories of Western Civilization, they’re once again reading classical the classical texts and great books, reciting epic poetry, studying the classical languages, developing comparable music literacy, worshipping through traditional liturgy, and writing and orally defending theses. And through it all, they are rediscovering what it means to be truly human, particularly as our humanity has been restored in the redemptive work of Christ. In short, they are rediscovering the distinctively Christian conception of the educated person.
The revitalization of classical education represents nothing less than the future of education; it is indeed the new old way, or the new ancient way of cultural revitalization, and it does appear that as more and more Christian communities discover and embrace the classical model of education, it will be perhaps the church’s most important contribution to a revived Christian culture throughout the Western world in our time.
For more on baptism and the Apostle Paul’s vision of a sacramental society, see my book, The Ritualized Revelation of the Messianic Age: Washings and Meals in Galatians and 1 Corinthians, available here.