Catholic Schools and the Common Good

by Anthony S. Bryk, Valerie E. Lee, Peter B. Hollard

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.

I went to high school in Florida at Rosarian Academy. I had teachers who wanted to teach their students. They were lovely, strong and committed to the Catholic Church. They taught us religion with joy and devotion to the doctors of the Church. Moving forward, I became a professor at a liberal arts Catholic College in Chicago. One of my duties included observing and supporting high school teachers as they student taught. The breadth and width of the work was exciting and empowering. As the authors of this book concur, they combine scholarship with a mission. The scholarship in this book is a rare blend of case study, number crunching, and rumination in social and intellectual history. The book was published in 1993 by Harvard Press. One of the authors stated that the nation’s public high schools need to mimic their Catholic counterparts. They have some insights that I am sure are practiced today, however, the culture has changed with an astronomical speed. Lets look at their insights.

The authors argue that Catholic schools are elitist, searching out students who are easier to educate and leaving the remainder to the public sector The evidence presented in this book, contradicts this claim. Although it is true that many of the nation’s poorest citizens increasingly cannot afford to attend Catholic schools and that others would not even if they could, a broad cross-section of Americans in terms of race, social class and even religion now attend these schools. In addition all available evidence suggests that if greater levels of support were available for the education of the disadvantaged, Catholic schools would welcome the opportunity to educate more of these students. Although the discretionary resources of religious orders and dioceses have dwindled. Over the last several decades, both continue to allocate disproportionate share toward keeping inner city schools open and accessible. The commitment to urban Catholic schools is matched with in-kind contributions from individual lay teachers who by accepting very modest salaries, forgo considerable personal benefits in choosing to work in these schools.

On the academic side, students in Catholic high schools demonstrate a relatively high level of achievement and this achievement is distributed more equitably than the public sector in regard to characteristics such as race, and special class. Individual Catholic schools are also significant institutional resources in many urban communities that over the last two decades have been ravaged by the loss of numerous organizations that support communal life. In the public sector parents are increasingly free to choose among mathematics and scienc academies; among schools that focus on fine arts, drama, modern languages, and among a diverse array of pedagogical alternatives such as open classrooms and Montessori. In the realm of moral vision, however, freedom is constrained. The choice offered by the Catholic school is apparently not appropriate. Yet the important social purposes served by this continuing prohibition are not obvious to us. Are there good reasons why freedom should not prevail in this domain too? To us, the contemporary Catholic high school looks more like a renewing force in our society than something to fear.

More modern democracies have affected a greater accommodation between the secular and religious school, and between the moral and instructional realms in their society. Than has the United States. As America looks to expand the resources for their children, these comparative experiences cause us to question whether the exclusion of religious schools from public support advances the common good. Increasingly, we look abroad for guidance as we grow uneasy about falling behind at home. The experience of Catholic schools both here and elsewhere provide many lessons we need to ponder.