Catholic Schools Must Resist the Common Core ‘Solution’

Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from the preface by Ambassadors Raymond Flynn and Mary Ann Glendon to After the Fall: Catholic Education Beyond the Common Core, published by the Pioneer Institute and the American Principles Project. For more about this important review of the Common Core State Standards in Catholic schools, see our report here.

“You can get all A’s and still flunk life,” wrote the great 20th-century Catholic novelist Walker Percy. The authors of this paper have done Catholic educators and families a tremendous service by explaining precisely why the secularized Common Core national standards, which were devised primarily for public schools, are incompatible with and unsuited for a traditional Catholic education.

There are many similarities between Catholic schooling and its public K-12 educational counterpart, but the two have fundamental and 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. It is that religious focus that makes the Common Core standards particularly ill-suited for Catholic schools.

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, opioid epidemics, street-gang violence, 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 is devoid of any attention to “the true, the good, the beautiful.” It eliminates the occasions for grace that occur when students encounter great works that immerse them in timeless human experiences. Instead, it offers stones for bread in the form of morally neutral “informational texts.”

The basic goal of Common Core is not genuine education, but rather the training and production of workers for an economic machine. We see this in the reduced focus on classic literature, and in the 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 academically “excellent.”

…Catholic schools certainly face no shortage of challenges. But they must resist the Common Core “solution” that would cause them to lose the distinctiveness that attracts families to them in the first place. Catholic schools should continue to maximize the intellectual and spiritual potential of every student; in fact, they must carefully re-evaluate the education they provide to ensure that it adheres to the best of Catholicism’s timeless principles. 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. It is to be hoped that the present study will help American Catholics to better understand what’s really at stake.

Raymond L. Flynn is a former three-term Mayor of Boston and a former United States Ambassador to the Holy See.

Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and a former United States Ambassador to the Holy See.

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