Secular Resources Can Be Dangerous to Catholic Education

There are many popular academic programs and resources available to Catholic educators, but most are secular, designed primarily for public schools.

Does “secular” mean that they are unsuitable for Catholics?

So long as the content does not oppose Catholic teaching, it may seem appropriate to use secular materials and programs. Catholics do not hide from the world. There is no conflict between the truths of our faith and the truths of science, math, history and other human studies. We are not afraid to explore every branch of knowledge, and we respect the methods appropriate to each academic discipline.

Still, there is more to consider when evaluating secular resources. Do they positively advance the mission of Catholic education? Does their use crowd out authentic Catholic formation and learning? Do they implicitly teach relativism and falsehood?

These are questions addressed in The Cardinal Newman Society’s reviews of secular resources including Advanced Placement courses, the Common Core State Standards, the International Baccalaureate program, the Habits of Mind program and secular character development programs.

Recently, we also published Policy Standards for Secular Materials and Programs in Catholic Education, an overview of Catholic principles and recommended standards for Catholic school policies.

“Catholic educators teach and do more,” write the Newman Society’s Dr. Denise Donohue and Dr. Dan Guernsey. “This means they must ask more of any material or program imported into the educational environment and be ready to heavily adapt it toward a greater end.” They also must recognize that “some resources will be woefully insufficient, and others may have elements that actually work against the Catholic mission.”

Three missing elements 

Secular education is never complete and can be dangerous, if not enlightened by our Catholic faith. It always lacks three things of the greatest importance:

1) Secular education refuses to admit the insights of Catholic teaching. An education that ignores God withholds understanding from its students.

The lack of catechesis is only part of the problem. Secular education restricts understanding in every course of study by eclipsing the light of the Church’s teachings, and it allows distortions and falsehoods to creep into every classroom. While subjects can be taught without reference to God, the approach is backward and narrow, deliberately limiting a student’s understanding of reality as fashioned by God according to His reason. Ignoring the truths of our faith implicitly denies the unity of knowledge, and it prevents a truly integrated education with God as the common thread.

Concerning the role of theology in education, St. John Henry Newman asked, “How can we investigate any part of any order of knowledge, and stop short of that which enters into every order? All true principles run over with it, all phenomena converge to it; it is truly the First and the Last.”

2) Secular education also lacks a sure moral and ethical foundation. An education that ignores God’s law withholds wisdom from its students.

While natural law and common sense allow people of very different religious faiths to come to some agreement on moral values, these are often skewed by personal biases and manipulated into ideologies. Today public education is dominated by moralistic claims that are often false or lack foundation in a true understanding of human dignity.

Again, according to Newman: secular education has the tendency of “throwing us back on ourselves, and making us our own center, and our minds the measure of all things.” The best scholar can “become hostile to Revealed Truth” and an “insidious and dangerous foe” of the Church. Therefore, while religion may not be essential to studying many subjects, nevertheless a true moral perspective rooted in Catholic teaching is necessary to preserve the “integrity” of education and the human person.

3) Secular education lacks the ecclesial mission of Catholic education, tied to the Church’s mission of evangelization and man’s purpose of seeking full communion with God. An education that ignores God withholds assistance toward sainthood.

Secular materials and programs in math, literature and even virtue development may appear suitable to Catholic education, because they include much of the same content. But mission drives Catholic education before content. Catholic education forms young people to use their unique human gifts of reason, free will and selfless charity toward the end for which they were created.

Whereas secular education helps students accumulate information and perhaps even develop skills of reasoning, Catholic education “ascends” above knowledge toward transcendental reality—another Newman insight—to better understand and appreciate God’s truth, goodness and beauty as found in creation and in the Church.

Ultimately, then, the gulf between secular and Catholic education is much wider than it may first seem, and secular resources are never as suitable as those designed with an authentic Catholic perspective. Only a faithful Catholic education can integrally form young people in both mind and soul, as God intends.

It is important that Catholic educators remain confident in the superior formation that a faithful Catholic education provides. Secular programs and materials should be examined cautiously, with a preference toward resources that are built upon a Catholic foundation.

Habits of Mind 

An example of the dangers of secular programs can be found in the Habits of Mind program, which is popular in public schools and is making inroads in Catholic schools. Developed by Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick, Habits of Mind teaches 16 intellectual behaviors to help students make productive choices, especially when faced with dichotomies, dilemmas or uncertainties.

Catholics will find much to like in the program. “Many of the Habits of Mind correlate to moral virtues, such as: taking responsible risks (prudence), finding humor (affability), thinking interdependently (circumspection), remaining open to continuous learning (docility), managing impulsivity (temperance) and persisting (fortitude),” explains Dr. Denise Donohue in the Newman Society’s review.

Nevertheless, we have serious reservations about the program. It attempts to brand a set of virtues that have been promoted since ancient times, and it can tend to overshadow other and even more important habits that should be central to Catholic education, such as the Beatitudes and other Christian dispositions such as humility, gentleness, patience, faithfulness, goodness, godliness, joyfulness, modesty and love.

With regard to intellectual virtues, the Habits of Mind have a limited focus on problem-solving. They are less helpful in developing the “philosophical habit of mind” that St. John Henry Newman proposes as the aim of education. A graduate of Catholic education should be able to “ascend” above knowledge to seek truths that are foundational to reality and larger than experience, as in contemplating the natural and eternal law. The Habits of Mind, designed primarily for public schools, are focused on observation and experience but not transcendental truths leading to God the Creator. They also neglect the development of sound reasoning in support of a thesis and respect for authoritative sources, including the Catholic Church.

A good Catholic education should have no need for a program like Habits of Mind. In a Catholic curriculum, virtues overlap and occur throughout all levels and types of student formation. More than problem solving, Catholic education teaches truth and forms students for a lifetime of inquiry that leads to Truth Himself.

We offer recommendations for adapting the Habits of Mind program to Catholic education, but it would be better to adopt to the Newman Society’s Catholic Curriculum Standards. Our review of Habits of Mind includes a “crosswalk” to show how each of the program’s virtues are already included in the Catholic Curriculum Standards—and so much more.

Common Core

The Common Core State Standards are another secular remedy intended to improve public education yet adopted by many Catholic schools. Their focus on college and career is inadequate to serve the evangelical mission of Catholic education.

In 2013, the Newman Society’s Dr. Dan Guernsey offered 10 Critically Important Adaptations to the Common Core for Catholic Schools—an important aid to schools attempting to work with the new standards. But Guernsey warned that such adaptations ultimately fail to address “the fundamental conflict” between the Common Core and the “integral formation of students.” Catholic education teaches truth, goodness and beauty across the entire curriculum. “And, since the object of every academic discipline is truth, the Catholic curriculum should be based on the conviction that all truths ultimately converge in their source—God.”

Other Newman Society analyses helped clarify concerns about the Common Core. Guernsey and Donohue found that the standards’ “close reading/new criticism” approach to literature is contrary to Catholic education’s emphasis on the “real, rich and wonderful world outside the text.” The standards suggest that “the value of literature is not so much what it teaches us about how to live well, but that it teaches us how to read well (e.g. Just tell me what’s in the report, Johnson!).”

Guernsey was lead author of the Pioneer Institute’s 2016 report, After the Fall: Catholic Education Beyond the Common Core, which celebrates “the tremendous insight the Catholic intellectual tradition has always offered into the wonder, value, and glory present in all of God’s creation. Authentic academic inquiry and a fuller understanding of the human experience are completely fulfilled in the Catholic educational experience.”

Today many dioceses are still using the Common Core, part of a tradition of adopting state standards. As states shift to new standards, it is a good time to consider an alternative like the Newman Society’s Catholic Curriculum Standards, which fully embrace the mission of Catholic education.

International Baccalaureate

Recently it seems the International Baccalaureate (IB) program has been making inroads into Catholic schools, if the IB ads in Catholic publications are any indication. But when the Newman Society published its review of the IB program last year, Catholic schools were only about 2 percent of the 1,800 American schools adopting the program.

The Geneva-based program says it “aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.” Specialties include its college-directed “diploma program” in the last two years of high school and the foundational Theory of Knowledge course.

According to the Newman Society’s reviewers Dr. Denise Donohue and Dr. Dan Guernsey, the IB “takes a relativistic approach to truth” and “insists upon the exclusive use of the constructivist learning approach to the exclusion of other proven instructional methodologies.” This can encourage a constructivist philosophy, suggesting “that man constructs his own knowledge—even of reality —and that nothing exists that is not constructed in one’s own mind.”

Like other secular programs, the IB can crowd out more fully Catholic education. For instance, it requires schools to adopt its learner profile: “All IB learners strive to be Inquirers, Knowledgeable, Thinkers, Communicators, Open-Minded, Caring, Risk-Takers, Balanced, Principled, and Reflective.” But Donohue and Guernsey warn that these can be limiting and fail to incorporate many Christian virtues that are essential to Catholic formation.

The Newman Society recommends that schools not adopt the IB program. But for those that already have done so, our review recommends many steps that can be taken to adapt the IB program to be more suitable to Catholic education. These changes to the program are extensive and may conflict with IB resources and teacher training.

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