tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Catholic education book raises thoughtful points

As the father of three children in Catholic school, I was intrigued by the publication of Steve Kellmeyer’s latest book, “Designed to Fail; Catholic Education in America” (Bridegroom Press, 2005). Although I am fortunate to have the opportunity to send our children to a very sound local school, I know most parents who want their children to receive a good Catholic education do not have that opportunity. Such parents typically spend a lot of money on parochial school tuition but receive only marginally Christian, largely secularist teaching for their children.

Kellmeyer’s book goes a long way toward describing why that is. He lays out the history of the parochial school system in the United States. It is, unfortunately, largely a reaction to the public school system. So rather than getting a truly Catholic education, most Catholic schools simply offer the same fare as the public schools, with a religion class added to the curriculum.

Kellmeyer makes a lot of interesting points. He says that the institutional school model was started in Prussia, largely to turn independent-minded farmers into soldiers who would take orders. Most of the rest of the world copied that model in order to fuel the industrial revolution. First in England and then in the United States, industrialists promoted a school system that would produce docile employees who would show up to work on schedule and do what their bosses tell them.

He also notes that the Catholic Bishops made a huge mistake turning to religious orders to provide teachers. Bishops have little control over most orders yet nuns from these orders were given free reign to teach what they wanted in the schools. Sometimes that was Catholic, but a lot of times it wasn’t. As many of the religious orders fell away from the teachings of the Magisterium, they began to fall apart themselves. Bishops could no longer rely on inexpensive teaching labor from committed religious who saw their role as vocational; the Bishops turned to professionals who needed a living wage, further mirroring the secular model. This move has hopelessly raised the cost of Catholic education to the point today where most Catholic schools are a drain on parish resources while still carrying tuitions that many parents find difficult to pay.

Perhaps most serious, however, is the charge Kellmeyer makes about the way bishops inserted themselves between parents and children as the child’s rightful teacher. Catholic teaching always clearly has stated that parents are the first educators of their children. Kellmeyer asserts that the American bishops somehow forgot that teaching and took such responsibility away from the parents. Most Catholic parents would say they are delegating certain teaching authority to the teachers at the Catholic school, not turning over the responsibility entirely. Nonetheless, Kellmeyer’s charge has got me to thinking about the seriousness of my role as the primary educator for my children.

While Kellmeyer raises several interesting points, the book has shortcomings. The main problem is he never really proposes a solution. The closest thing he offers is that parishes should close their schools and use that money instead to fund weekly seminars for adults conducted by professional speakers. It isn’t a very practical suggestion and it lacks credibility given Kellmeyer’s own status as a professional speaker.

I also think Kellmeyer is unduly hard on the American bishops, and I think he has romanticized the agrarian era in this country. He claims that pre-industrial America was a time when people learned to read on their own and everyone learned a profession by apprenticeship. This strikes me as exaggeration; I don’t think he fairly considers the numerous hardships that went along with rural living pre-20th Century.

People who are seriously interested in Catholic education will find this book worthwhile, but I think casual readers will find it tedious and hopeless. Nonetheless, I would encourage people to work through the book’s 221 pages and think about the major points Kellmeyer raises.

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