Newman Society on Ave Maria Radio: ‘Unified Approach to Education’ Is the ‘Genius of Catholicism’

In a radio interview that aired Monday with Al Kresta of Ave Maria Radio, Cardinal Newman Society Director of K-12 Programs Dr. Dan Guernsey shared the good news about the Newman Society’s Catholic Curriculum Standards that were released last week.

Dan Guernsey, Ed.D.
Dan Guernsey, Ed.D.

The Society composed the new standards as part of its ongoing mission to promote and defend faithful Catholic education. The Catholic standards provide guidance to help educators assign or develop materials and choose subject matter that serves the unique mission of Catholic education.

The Catholic Curriculum Standards were released just one week after the publication of a scholarly report on the problems with using Common Core Standards in Catholic schools, primary written by Guernsey.

The Society’s standards are not meant to replace what is already being taught in Catholic high schools, Guernsey explained in the interview. Instead, they are meant to encourage deeper questioning and thinking.

“Science is great at answering questions about measurement, but when we get beyond a question of measurement into a question of meaning we have to leave science to do its own thing and bring in theology, philosophy, history, anthropology to complement that and guide the discipline.” This “unified approach to education” is the “genius of Catholicism,” Guernsey posited. “If we live and move and have our being in Jesus, how are we going to live and move and have our being without bringing Jesus and God into [education]? It just doesn’t work.”

This approach complements what is already being taught in Catholic classrooms, according to Guernsey: “Many Catholic educators are already doing these types of things, but they’re kind of doing them without the clarity and focus that putting them into standards language allows.”

A partial transcript of the interview follows:

Al Kresta (Ave Maria Radio): Let’s talk about the curriculum. This is a creative and constructive approach to the Common Core controversy. In a nutshell, why were you motivated to work on this project?

Dan Guernsey: From the very beginning, we knew that the Common Core was insufficient for Catholic schools. I mean, that’s really no surprise. But what Catholic schools didn’t have the time to do or didn’t have in place was a set of concrete responses to the Common Core. So we know [the Common Core] is insufficient, but how? We know it’s not completely a guide for Catholic schools, but what would a complete guide look like? What more are we missing? What do we need to do?

The first stage of the Common Core battle was to sound the alarm bells and say, “Hey this thing isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.” Even on a secular level, it’s got issues. But, certainly at a Catholic level, it’s insufficient. So we worked for about two years with Catholic scholars and doing research to try to better articulate, first of all, what is it that Catholic schools are supposed to be doing, and then, how would that impact the curriculum? How might we teach history, science, math or literature differently or more completely in a Catholic school? That’s what we’ve been working on for over two years. We have a first articulation out there. It’ll be exciting to see what kind of response we get and how we can better help Catholic schools think about their mission.

Al Kresta: Now these Catholic Curriculum Standards are available at The Cardinal Newman Society website, is that right?

Dan Guernsey: Yes.

Al Kresta: And who will use them? In other words, will they be used by principals, by teachers, by homeschool parents? Who uses them?

Dan Guernsey: It’s open to anyone who wants to think about Catholic education and what we’re trying to accomplish. These aren’t top secret items that we just created on our own. What we did was simply scanned the tradition, and then worked on articulating what we do differently. The first step we [took] at The Cardinal Newman Society [was] we did our own research by reading books on liberal arts, Catholic thinkers, the purpose of Catholic education according to Church documents. Then we gathered our initial sense of where we should be headed.

Then we convened study groups of some leading Catholic scholars at the university level, people like Fr. [Robert] Spitzer, [S.J.], at the Magis Institute, Anthony Esolen from Providence College, Joseph Pearce, and said, “What do you think we should be doing in Catholic education?” Then we started to pare it down and articulate it in words that Catholic practitioners might understand.

We put it into what we call “standards language.” So the concepts are universal, and then we worked on tweaking them so that curriculum designers and principals at normal Catholic schools who are used to educational bureaucratic language could understand [them], and then they could then be translated into that world. What we are doing is “boundary spanning” between the tradition and between the modern educational jargon, but keeping the purity of what we’re trying to do in each discipline.

Al Kresta: Now, you’ve got these four approaches, general standards, intellectual standards, writing standards and dispositional standards. Could you give me a quick definition of each of those?

Dan Guernsey: Well, I’m not sure how helpful that would be, Al, when you get down to what do you do with the curriculum designers and the internal metrics of it. What is really the difference between when you say that “students will analyze works of fiction and non-fiction to uncover authentic truth,” which is what we want them to do, and that “students will share beautifully told and well-crafted works looking for unity, harmony and radiance within them?”

Those are actually two different levels, when you get down into the specific jargon, but for most of us, for most teachers and practitioners, we just look at those things and say, “Oh yeah, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing,” and, “How can I, when I’m reading this story with my students, when I’m reading Shakespeare at the high school level, how can I focus on the beauty, harmony and radiance coming out of that sonnet?” As opposed to just saying, “What does Shakespeare mean? What does this word mean? What is the purpose of this phrase?” That’s a different approach. So what we’re trying to do with all of these standards tend to involve more on the affective and dispositional [outcomes], how we want them to think and approach a particular discipline, as opposed to strict content standards.

Of course, we’re not saying, “Get rid of the content standards.” Obviously, if you are teaching science in a Catholic school, you better be teaching those students about the scientific method, you better be teaching them about atoms, and evolution and everything else, but you’re going to be doing so with a disposition toward seeing God’s goodness and providence at work. With a disposition towards seeing that science is great at answering questions about measurement, but when we get beyond a question of measurement into a question of meaning, we have to leave science to do its own thing and bring in theology, philosophy, history, anthropology to complement that and to guide the discipline.

It’s this unified approach to education which is the genius of Catholicism because it’s the nature of reality, right? All reality comes from God. If we live and move and have our being in Jesus, how are we going to live and move and have our being without bringing Jesus and God into [education]? It just doesn’t work.

Al Kresta: Absolutely. I look at these Catholic Curriculum Standards and Dispositions for English Language Arts 7-12 and see one of the objectives is to “display the virtues and values evident within the stories that involve an ideal and take a stand for love, faith, courage, fidelity, truth, beauty, goodness and all virtues.” So this is an example of not just learning the content of the story but applying it in some way that empowers you or enables you, equips you, to take a stand.

Dan Guernsey: Exactly. The purpose of the standards is to complement and expand upon a normal set of academic standards. The Common Core is problematic. Here’s a typical Common Core standard: It would say, “Analyze how complex characters develop over the course of a text through interactions with other characters.” Okay, nothing wrong with that. The Common Core is not evil insofar as it says to do that, but what the Common Core doesn’t do is go into those deeper questions of analyzing it in terms of, “What is the human ideal?”

Our standards would say — the Common Core wouldn’t go any further — “Analyze it in terms of a Catholic worldview. Analyze it in terms of ‘is this moral or not?’” I use the example, “Is Macbeth a good husband?” In order to answer that, you have to know what is a husband, and what is good, and what’s the nature of marriage and all of these other questions. You can’t just leave it at, “Analyze Macbeth’s interactions with Lady Macbeth.” There’s much more going on than just getting to that surface level.

We’re reading Macbeth not because we’re trying to train them to read. We’re reading Macbeth because we’re trying to get them to become more human and to think deeply about what matters and that’s what we’re doing with these standards. We’re pointing the way right. “Look over here. Move over here. Don’t just stay over here.” Because our teachers are coming from by and large secular colleges of education, which aren’t reminding them to do this stuff. So it’s really easy to get trapped in a classroom with an anthology which is asking these surface level [questions] and missing what’s most interesting.

Al Kresta: I think this is really a great opportunity for us to take advantage of what we can do [that] the state governments cannot do. We can approach questions of values. We can ask questions about preternatural evil in the witches that begin Macbeth that you won’t find in your secular high school. There’s so much more that a Catholic education can do to flesh out all aspects of reality and this is something to be celebrated.

Dan Guernsey: Absolutely.

Al Kresta: We’re not just trying to defend ourselves here. We’re trying to grow robust minds and faithful hearts in a way secular high schools cannot do.

Dan Guernsey: Absolutely. This is our competitive advantage. This is what we need to be offering. If we are going to charge $10,000 or $15,000 a year to come to our institutions, we better have a better sale than, “Hey, we do the Common Core better than public schools. Look at our test scores.” What parents really want is their child, not only to obviously be successful in college — if you’re going to spend $15,000 they better be able to get into the college that they are qualified for — but, really, they want to maximize their child’s potentiality, see their child come fully alive and flourish in a world of darkness and be a point of light.

We just wrote a paper on the Common Core which came out last week called After the Fall published by the Pioneer Institute and American Principles Project, which lays out the whole story of the Common Core and ends with this idea of, “Let’s press forward.” The table has been set. There are hungry people looking for a response, and the good news is we have it in Catholic education. We’ve always had it. Many Catholic educators are already doing these types of things, but they’re doing them without the clarity and focus that putting them into standards language allows. What the standards do is allow you to say, “Oh yeah, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing,” or, “I’ve always done that, and now I can see how that fits in the broader scheme of things.” When you put it within a normal set of standards like the Common Core you can now say, “Oh yeah, that’s right, I’m evaluating characters as they interact with other characters, but I’m doing it for a different end.”

We’re also working on producing a complete set of standards. These standards that we have are just auxiliary standards; you add them to your English Language Arts standards that you’re already using. But we are also trying to identify the best English Language Arts standards out there and infuse them to supply a more complete package. We’re working closely with [Dr.] Sandra Stotsky on this who’s a content expert in ELA.

Al Kresta: Beautiful. When do you think that project will be done?

Dan Guernsey: Probably about this time next year.


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