Heading into the new school year, my home state of Minnesota made national news with some cutting-edge “innovations” in education. In a grand progressive gesture, the Minnesota Department of Education began distributing a “transgender tool kit” throughout public schools, urging teachers to ask all students about their preferred gender pronouns and to stop using terms like “boy” and “girl,” which are apparently “controversial.”
It was about as silly as one would expect and raised the appalling prospect of children being urged to reflect on their “gender identity” even before they understand how babies are made.
I’m a St. Paul mother with four children to educate. Some nonlocal friends asked me whether I and my Catholic friends were upset by the new regulations. Would this be “the last straw” for us? Were we planning a counteroffensive?
For most of us, the answer is: “No.” It’s an eye roll, not a crisis, because most of us have already given up on the public-school system. Some of us home school our children, while others have turned to Catholic schools for a reasonable alternative to a state system that is obviously hostile to our beliefs and way of life. My own children attend a wonderful parochial school where the Vatican colors fly high and proud.
As a convert and public-school graduate, I’m a novice at Catholic school, but I love it. This is somewhat unexpected for me, because at one time, I had rather a low opinion of Catholic schools in general. As an undergraduate at Notre Dame, I knew plenty of Catholic-school graduates who showed no sign of ever having cracked a Bible or opened a Catechism. The young Mormons I grew up with knew far more about our faith, and we all went to public schools.
It didn’t seem likely that the Catholic-school flunkies would all have ended up at Notre Dame, so I concluded that the schools themselves must have failed to provide adequate faith formation. What was the point of them, I wondered, if they didn’t teach students about Catholicism?
Upon entering into parenthood, my husband and I assumed that our children’s faith formation would overwhelmingly be our own responsibility. Obviously the children would receive their sacraments through the parish, but we wouldn’t make the mistake of expecting institutions to form our children in the faith.
In many ways, this was a healthy attitude, which demanded both research and creativity. Since my husband and I had no personal experience of Catholic childhood, we had to think very consciously about how to celebrate feasts, which prayers needed to be taught, and so forth. I still remember planning the baptismal party for my firstborn, feeling stressed by every detail. Did I need to send pretty invitations? Would people think me gauche for serving Sam’s Club cake? I’d been Catholic for several years, but Catholic motherhood felt like a whole different ballgame.
By the time we reached the school years, we were no longer fretting over pastries. We had realized, however, that our children’s Catholic upbringing would probably be rather eclectic, if left entirely to us. That’s not necessarily bad, especially considering that we wanted to raise countercultural kids. But we also want them to feel at home in a broader Catholic community, and in that spirit, it seemed desirable to give them a more robust connection to one. We came to appreciate that Catholic institutions might still have real value, not as a replacement for parental guidance, but as a supplement.
In light of the scorn I once felt toward Catholic schools, it’s been both surprising and humbling to find myself learning things about my own faith from my kids’ homework. St. Agnes is quite different, I’m sure, from most of the parochial schools where my less-devout classmates spent their formative years. Still, it’s good to be reminded that there are significant gaps in my knowledge that a fancy philosophical education has not filled. It’s beautiful to learn some of these things (children’s prayers, unfamiliar saints and local Catholic customs) together with my children.
Those experiences reinforce the wonderful sense that the school is working with my husband and me toward the common goal of raising faithful Catholics.
Sometimes it’s the little things that make Catholic schools stand out. (One son’s teacher starts the year with a note mentioning how she regularly prays for all of her students. Another gives the students plastic rosaries for a special occasion, and they come home demanding to know why we don’t pray family Rosaries more often.) Other times, it’s big things, like the annual “Passion Play” that the grade school presents during Holy Week. Throughout the rehearsals for this performance, my first-grader kept asking questions at home about Good Friday and the Stations of the Cross. The experience obviously had a deep impact on him.
I love the fact that my children regularly go to weekday Masses at school. This has certainly had a positive impact on their Mass behavior, and it’s beautiful to hear them discussing the things that Father said in his homily.
In a time when public schools are increasingly unreliable (especially in blue states like Minnesota), schools like St. Agnes must increasingly be seen as a precious resource. In that light, I reflect often on the relationship between Catholic schools and home schooling. I don’t oppose home schooling, and I know scores of families who do it. (I also know many happy, well-adjusted adults who were themselves home-schooled.) Of course, there are many motivations for educating your children at home. Not everyone has access to a faithfully Catholic school, and even if one is available, some families can’t afford it. There are also many traditionalists who are deeply committed to home schooling for philosophical and personal reasons.
This sentiment is thoroughly understandable in an age when people have strong reasons for mistrusting schools and other institutions. Of course, all parents rightly have a point past which the welfare of their own children becomes the priority.
I have no desire to start a shame campaign against home-schoolers, but I do think a dose of “school positivity” might be in order among some Catholics. Good schools can be a wonderful resource for Catholic families.
If such a school is within reach (geographically and financially), parents should prayerfully consider whether they are called to serve their children and their community by investing in that institution. There’s nothing shameful about being true to your school.
Rachel Lu, Ph.D., teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.