Parental leverage in our Catholic schools is but a dream

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  • August 24, 2011

In an address to young university professors during his World Youth Day visit to Spain, Pope Benedict XVI warned against the cult of technicalism engulfing education.

“At times, one has the idea that the mission of a university professor nowadays is exclusively that of forming competent and efficient professionals capable of satisfying the demand for labour at any given time,” the Holy Father said.

“One also hears it said that the only thing that matters at the present moment is pure technical ability.”

Pope Benedict reminded his listeners that a university is not merely a repository of utilitarian proficiency but a home for those seeking  “the truth proper to the human person.”

“We know that when mere utility and pure pragmatism become the principal criteria, much is lost and the results can be tragic,” he said.

Teachers, he added, fulfill their role when they transmit love of reason and faith.

“Always remember that teaching is not just about communicating content, but about forming young people. You need to understand and love them, to awaken their innate thirst for truth and their yearning for transcendence… the path to the fullness of truth calls for complete commitment: it is a path of understanding and love, of reason and faith,” he said.

His words are both inspiring and a benchmark against which to measure academic institutions and the life of scholarship. Sadly, any who’ve had any reason to brush up against current North American universities know only too well that the vast majority of them fall woefully short of that mark.

There’s even more bad news in a major study just released by Cardus policy institute, the Hamilton-based think tank where I am a director (though I had no involvement in this particular research project.) The Cardus Education Survey (online at cardus.ca/research/education/) shows that Catholic Kindergarten to Grade 12 schooling, at least in the United States, has the perverse effect of actually diminishing the faith of its students even while preparing them for admission to elite universities.

The purpose of the study was to report the overall outcomes of Christian schooling — Protestant and Catholic — for students. Its first phase, released in mid-August, was limited to U.S. private schools since our American cousins do not publicly fund  denominational schools as we do in Canada. A second phase next year will examine the Canadian experience. A third phase will compare the effect of the two educational systems on Christian life and faith.

A primary finding is that pupils attending private Protestant elementary and high schools in the U.S. remain deeply committed to both the practice and the precepts of the faith post-graduation. However, they are far less likely to go on to advanced degrees than either their Catholic or public school counterparts. They are even less likely to be selected for admission to the best universities in the U.S. Finally, they tend to avoid significant leadership positions in their communities.

Catholic graduates are the flip side of their Protestant peers.

“(Our) research finds Catholic schools are providing high quality intellectual development but at the expense of developing faith and commitment to religious practices in their graduates,” the study authors write.

“The moral, social and religious dispositions of Catholic school graduates seem to run counter to the values and teachings of the Catholic Church.”

Divorce rates and failure to either attend Mass or take leadership positions in the Church, to take just two examples, are no better for Catholic school graduates than for public school graduates and, in fact, worse than for graduates of non-religious private schools.

If those results are troubling in an American context, they are prospectively terrifying for Canadian Catholics. The U.S. schools are private, meaning parents pay tuition, meaning they have significant leverage over results.

Where is there similar leverage for parents of children attending “publicly” funded Catholic schools?

As we have seen in the Ontario government’s bullying on issues surrounding homosexuality and in the Quebec government’s abusive insistence on forcing even private Catholic schools to teach a “values neutral” religion course, such parental leverage is a dream.

Without anticipating the results before the Canadian portion of the Cardus study is even begun, the news looks very much like it may go from bad to worse. Or worst, which might not be so bad after all.

Perhaps seeing the reality of Catholic education will renew our faith to return it, inspired by Pope Benedict’s words, to what it once was and truly should be.

(Peter Stockland is the Director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal in Montreal.)

Peter Stockland

Peter Stockland is publisher of Convivium magazine and a senior fellow at Cardus.

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