Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Catholic Education in Transition

Darwin Catholic offers an insightful post on the cultural forces both within the Church and without that have changed the way Catholic schools relate to the communities they serve. He cites changing demographics within cities, the disappearance of explicitly Protestant culture from public schools, and the shrinking numbers of vocations in teaching orders as highly significant factors.

Having  experienced secondary-level Catholic education from both sides of the teacher's desk, I think he is correct in identifying these as reasons why schools struggle to compete with public schools for students and why they find it increasingly difficult to keep their budgets in the black. Costs go up as fewer religious are available to teach, and more electronic "bells and whistles" are perceived as necessities for education both public and private.

In addition to facing difficulties with enrollment and budgets, the cultural crises within the church can alter the culture of schools as well.  Catholic education was originally meant to serve Catholics for a reason:  parents wanted their children to be instructed in the faith as well as in the core subjects.  Catholic schools provided a place for this. It was especially necessary because public schools were once more influenced by anti-catholic segments of Protestant Christianity.

In communities where there are high numbers of serious Catholic parents, catholic schools have little difficulty maintaining their identity.  It has been my observation that in local communities where there are few serious Catholics, it is much easier for schools to shed their Catholic identity and emphasize their academics instead, as a way to attract enrollment. Parents who are not dedicated to living out the faith in their everyday lives do not usually catechize at home, and often react badly if schools expect students to take the Faith seriously, even to the point of expecting the school to let it slide when students openly violate the school rules and the moral teachings of the church by, say, repeatedly turning in plagiarized work or even showing up drunk at prom, or worse.

As with many questions the Church faces at present, the question of the direction of Catholic education is largely going to be answered by families. Strong Catholic families produce vocations to the religious life, making more priests and religious available to serve in schools.  They influence schools to provide clear catechesis and a strong community of faith for their students. They reinforce this catechesis at home by living out the faith in the daily life of their little "domestic church".

Unfortunately, the Church has not been immune from the general decline of the family in our culture, and many Catholic educators and the institutions that employ them find themselves fighting harder and harder in an uphill battle to maintain themselves, as do the families they serve.  There are no easy answers here, and even the hard answers remain incomplete or elusive.

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