Peter Jesserer Smith, writing for the National Catholic Register, reports that 100 out of 195 American dioceses have adopted the Common Core National standards for K-12 education in their Catholic schools. Debate over this most recent educationalist fad is heated, the division stark, and in essence revolves around a simple question: is the Catholic heritage in itself sufficient for educating our children in the modern world?
The answer to this question often proceeds in typically modern fashion, by looking at the current society and planning education backwards in light of that “real world” that our children need to be prepared for. Not only is this method of answering the question not Catholic, as opponents of Common Core would argue, but it is also not actually realistic, humane, practical, or truly formative.
St. John Henry Newman would have us answer the question with a different method, one that is centered on the “real world” of the child, and his or her capacities as a human being made in the image and likeness of God. To reduce the “real world” to a socially engineered educational program based on the current make-up of society and politics ignores this deeper “real world” of children and humanity. It also fails by its own standards, since it is not in fact based in true reality. Ever since John Dewey championed this kind of educational thinking in the early 20th century, his system has been doomed to a fatal flaw: the current “real world” of society and politics is inherently unstable, constantly changing, and therefore a curriculum based on it will likewise become unstable, prey to fads and fashions, always shifting and never centered on anything of lasting value, and ultimately damaging to the young minds it claims to serve.
Newman’s starting point is not “what is of practical value in today’s world,” but “what is true,” “what is good for the child’s mind, his or her human nature,” and “how can the child’s mind be opened to the beauty of God’s creation?”
In pursuing these questions, Newman lays out very important first principles in the Idea of a University, to which the reader is heartily commended. Here are some of his most important points relevant to this discussion of younger children:
- Knowledge is its own good. To seek knowledge is self-justifying, it is intrinsically good, and does not need some other value or practical application for its justification although these may arise in their turn.
- All knowledge is connected. Knowing about God’s good creation means understanding “facts and their relations.” To know one part of the created order leads one on to other parts, and to a bit of the whole.
- Since God is the Supreme Being, All-good, All-knowing, Eternal, Perfect, Love, etc., study of God – Theology – is at the center, is the glue, of all knowledge. If knowledge of God is left out of a curriculum, all other disciplines of knowing, physics, history, math, poetry, etc., will be damaged and diminished. The Creator must be at the center of learning about his creation, and study of Him is essentially connected to study of everything else. Interestingly, Newman thinks this is true in a purely Natural sense, and that even secular schools should require Natural Theology, or at least study of Christian history.
- The Catholic Church is the ultimate and sole authority of Catholic education; it is not sufficient for a Catholic school to only teach Catholic truth; but to truly be Catholic, a Catholic school must be actively guided by the living apostolic authority of the Church, and to let her spirit animate every part of what it does. (cf. Ex Corde Ecclesia, St. Pope John Paul II)
- Liberal education, by which Newman means “cultivation of mind” or acquiring a “philosophical habit of mind;” in other words, learning how to think, requires formation of the whole mind, not just parts of the mind that might be of pragmatic service to some temporal authority. This is why, for example, many even in the secular world are arguing that sciences and humanities should be valued equally.
This might seem like a tall order for our day. The solution is challenging, but in philosophical terms, simple: cultivate well-formed students with sharp minds, through the personal influence of well-formed instructors. Perhaps the Common Core or other systems for government standards seem attractive because we lack good examples of excellent instructors and engaged students, and out of a sense of hopelessness think we are better off having government machinery do the work for us. Big Government standards appear comprehensive on paper and feel easier, as if a lot of hard-work has already been done.
The real substance of education is much more challenging, and much better: a highly knowledgeable instructor, with an attentive eye, warm spirit and personal presence, holds a student accountable for attaining real knowledge and understanding of the subject matter. This personal cultivation of a “discipline of mind” is not only our Catholic heritage, but is also in tune with human nature, the family, and is far more practical—it is the only education that really works.