There are many similarities between Catholic schooling and its public K-12 counterpart, but the two also have profound differences. In addition to providing students with the academic knowledge and skills they need to prosper, Catholic schools have a unique spiritual and moral mission to nurture faith and prepare students to live lives illuminated by a Catholic worldview.
The Common Core national standards have been adopted by hundreds of Catholic elementary and high schools. But a new study published by think tanks Pioneer Institute and the American Principles Project found that the second part of the mission of Catholic education makes the standards, which were devised primarily for public schools, unsuitable for a traditional Catholic education.
Realizing that combining humanities and the arts with religious instruction aids spiritual development, Catholic schools have traditionally provided a classical liberal-arts education that generations of grateful parents and students have prized. Through tales of heroism, self-sacrifice and mercy in great literature such as Huckleberry Finn, Sherlock Holmes and the works of Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton, Dante and C.S. Lewis, they seek to impart moral lessons and deep truths about the human condition. The moral, theological and philosophical elements of Catholic education that are reinforced by the classics have never been more needed than they are in this era of popular entertainment culture, an opioid epidemic, wide achievement gaps and explosive racial tensions.
Common Core, on the other hand, takes an approach that is contrary to the best academic studies of language acquisition and human formation. It drastically cuts the study of classical literature and poetry and represents what Providence College English professor and Dante scholar Anthony Esolen calls a strictly utilitarian view of mankind, “man with the soul amputated.” It eliminates the occasions for grace that occur when students encounter great works that immerse them in timeless human experiences. Instead, it offers morally neutral “informational texts.”
The basic goal of Common Core is not genuine education, but, rather, training workers to participate in an economic machine. We see this in the reduced focus on classic literature and in woeful mathematics standards that stop short of even a full Algebra II course — giving students just enough math for their entry-level jobs. The goal is “good enough,” not “excellent.”
As 132 Catholic scholars wrote in a letter to the U.S. Catholic bishops, Common Core is “a recipe for standardized workforce preparation” that dramatically diminishes children’s intellectual and spiritual horizons. Rather than triggering imaginations and nourishing souls through the wonder of sustained encounters with works that have inspired generations, Common Core’s method of having students read informational texts with no introduction transforms literacy into little more than a content-empty “skill set.”
Common Core lowers expectations for all children. Even when its appendices include great works of fiction and poetry, the standards encourage reading excerpts rather than complete works. In math, even supporters concede that Common Core prepares students only for community college-level work.
As the influence of religion diminishes, it becomes more urgent to find ways to provide children with the fundamental intellectual, spiritual and moral ideals necessary for humans to flourish. But Common Core moves in the opposite direction. Sterile informational texts and workforce training will not help children learn how to be good human beings. And no free society can survive for long without cultivating character and competence in its citizens and public servants.
The introduction of Common Core comes at a difficult time for Catholic education. Since 1990, 300,000 students have been displaced from Catholic schools and an additional 300,000 or more could lose their schools over the next two decades. In 1965, 5.2 million students attended Catholic schools. Today that number is closer to 2 million.
The reason for the decline is largely financial, not because Catholic schools aren’t delivering adequate college preparation.
Catholic schools also provide a safe environment that is a refuge for many children who lead otherwise chaotic lives, sometimes in violent neighborhoods. Furthermore, the schools offer moral and religious education and discipline. Those characteristics don’t just appeal to Catholics; fully 20% of students in Archdiocese of Boston schools aren’t Catholic.
Despite difficult circumstances, Catholic schools are still making the American dream a reality for thousands of families by providing a quality education to those who can’t afford private-school tuition or a house in the suburbs. Few Catholic-school students come from families who can afford the full cost of tuition. Many can’t pay anything, but the schools still raise money to accommodate as many needy students as possible.
Catholic schools certainly face no shortage of challenges. But they must resist the Common Core “solution” that would rob them of the distinctiveness that attracts families in the first place. Catholic schools should continue to maximize the intellectual and spiritual potential of every student. Each child deserves to be prepared for his or her God-given life of the imagination and of the spirit, one that provides a deep appreciation for knowledge, goodness, beauty, truth and faith.
The classical Catholic understanding of human flourishing is too precious, and great literature, drama and poetry too intertwined in the academic and moral underpinnings of a Catholic education, to be sacrificed. American Catholics should understand what’s really at stake.
Raymond L. Flynn is a former three-term mayor of Boston, and Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Both are former U.S. ambassadors to the Holy See.