How Catholic Are the Catholic Schools?

In an effort to compete with public schools, Catholic schools are flirting with apostasy by adopting modern education methods, which are intrinsically materialistic and disordered.

We know that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions—but how often do we realize, with great chagrin, that we ourselves are the laborers, paving the road that slowly declines to the wide and easy way?

While flagrant apostasies easily grab our attention—such as Catholic schools sporting rainbow flags and hiring heterodox catechists—we must remember that the devils we don’t see pose a greater threat than the ones in plain sight. In an effort to compete with public schools, our beloved Catholic schools are flirting with apostasy by far more subtle means: by adopting modern education methods, which are intrinsically materialistic and disordered.

Of course, in order to provide families with a first-class education, the solution is not to embrace the materialistic methods of modern education but, instead, to return to the rich orthodoxy of authentic, Catholic education. These two approaches to education cannot coexist or integrate because they are founded on mutually-exclusive first principles. When Catholic schools adopt modern methods, it is not the methods that are redeemed but the schools that are corrupted. If we do not purge our beloved Catholic schools of this invasive infection, we will lose them to sepsis.

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John Dewey—who is widely praised as the father of modern education—set out with the ulterior motive of annihilating Christian and Aristotelian understandings of reality and the human person from education in exchange for his own metaphysics, which is essentially reminiscent of Hegel and Marx. Perhaps the most ubiquitous artifact of Dewey’s influence is outcomes-based education (OBE), which was coined by William Spady in 1988. Since then, OBE has saturated the entirety of modern education, corrupting even an otherwise classical education with material reductionism.

Outcomes-based education is based on the principle that all education and knowledge can be reduced to material, measurable results. Thanks to OBE, teachers are taught to give assignments with arbitrary requirements (e.g., write five paragraphs, mention x, y, and z, memorize such-and-such, etc.) so that the students have clear, measurable criteria for success or failure. Likewise, the success (or lack thereof) of a given student, teacher, or school is determined by standardized tests. By making everything concrete and measurable, it opens the door for an allegedly “research-based” approach (i.e., scientism).

At first glance, this doesn’t sound all that bad: modern sensibilities tend to favor things that are research-based. We like being able to rely on empirical evidence. Perhaps above all, we want answers to those persistent questions, “Am I doing this right?” and “Is this working?” OBE claims to answer these questions with evidence (test scores), which ultimately results in the reduction of education to animal behaviorism. Of course, our goal ought not be to condition our students like Pavlov’s dogs but to lead them in the cultivation of virtue.

There are times when it is appropriate to seek immediate, material feedback. Imagine that you are a pianist preparing for a recital: it is helpful—actually, it’s necessary—that you make sure you are playing the right notes at the right times when you are learning the music. You are either playing what Bach wrote or you are not, and your ears tell you with certainty the moment the note is played.

Now, what about when you’re in the concert hall performing your recital? You walk on stage and sit down at the piano, and you begin playing the music you’ve been practicing for months. Again, you ask yourself the question, “Am I doing this right?” But instead of focusing on your own performance, you peer over the rim of the Steinway into the audience, checking to see who is weeping, grasping for tissues, or falling asleep.

It doesn’t take a genius to know that “the number of tissues used by audience members” fails to measure both the excellence of the musician’s performance and the audience’s reception of it. Furthermore, focusing on such patently absurd metrics not only draws our attention away from the very things we ought to focus on, it also further leads us into gross misattribution. If your goal is to simply increase your audience’s tissue usage, you’ll reach your goal far more easily by blowing pollen into the concert hall.

How much more outlandish is it to measure the cultivation of virtue in young souls by standardized tests and material outcomes? Education is fundamentally a matter of cultivating intellectual and moral virtue. While this does, without a doubt, bear its fruit in due season, it is not something that can be measured by specific “learning outcomes.” Worse yet, teaching that is ordered toward maintaining and reaching specific “learning outcomes” will not only fail to be liberating, but it will actually cultivate vicious habits.

OBE serves to corrupt our relationship with truth itself. We begin to believe that knowledge is purely material and merely instrumental. It teaches us that we ourselves are gods, bending the world to our will, rather than pointing us with wonder toward the true God and conforming our will to His. It teaches us that truth does not exist objectively but that it is constructed through human experience. Outcomes-based education serves to corrupt our relationship with truth itself. We begin to believe that knowledge is purely material and merely instrumental. Tweet This

Thanks to OBE, education is no longer about conforming the mind to reality through an encounter with Truth but, rather, about meeting arbitrary criteria for measurable, standardized success. It’s not about writing something which is true—it’s about writing five paragraphs and using certain sentence frames and the right variety of synonyms. Thanks to OBE, education is no longer about being; now it is about seeming. Appearances are elevated above reality. The sophists and swindlers would approve.

On the other hand, when we learn the authentic liberal arts, we learn to navigate the objective rational order of things, which frees us to engage in the intellectual life. This goes far deeper than memorizing a list of facts or learning to use sentence frames and write formulaic, five-paragraph essays—it is a matter of cultivating the virtues of knowledge, wisdom, understanding, and prudence. We begin to love the Truth in such a way that we desire to know it and make it known. We don’t simply seem better, we actually become better. 

This is rendered impossible with an outcomes-based approach. When we force the liberal arts into the procrustean bed of materialism, we strip them of the very things that make them liberating. They are reduced from arts to skills, no longer leading us to inexhaustible mysteries but to dead, material information. Candidly, our children’s time would be better spent memorizing the back of a cereal box—at least this does not dally in their souls and blunt their receptivity to truth.

So, how can we know if our local Catholic school is following the Catholic tradition or if it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing? Here are a few of the primary methods by which misguided Catholic schools serve the secular humanist agenda:

Accreditation from NEASC and other regional institutions—The New England Association of Schools and Colleges accredits most independent schools in New England, including Catholic schools. A large part of the accreditation process includes demonstrating materialistic, “research-based” educational techniques, not to mention so-called “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” By seeking accreditation from institutions like NEASC—let alone doing the necessary things to receive it—the school pinches apostatic incense to Caesar.

MAP Standardized tests from NWEA—NWEA works with 1,900 Catholic schools across 84 dioceses, and their program centers around standardized testing (MAPs) three times a year. Of course, because the data provided from such tests is largely arbitrary, it can only serve to fail ever more disastrously in proportion to its perceived success.

Boasting of “academic rigor” through STEM programs is another cause for alarm. Essentially, if the school shows any attempt to follow state standards or mimic the “rigor” of public schools, rest assured that they are missing the point. Furthermore, if they are using the language of being “research based” or using the “current scholarship,” they are almost certainly steeped in secular humanism.

As Catholics, we are called to be radically different from the world around us. Our Catholic schools must be equally untainted by the materialistic methods of modern education. As St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, a little leaven ruins the whole loaf. Our Catholic schools cease to be Catholic to the extent that they allow the use of modern education methods such as OBE. Materialistic, modern education methods cannot be baptized, nor can they be redeemed—they must be eradicated from our Catholic schools.

Whether by malice or by ignorance, the Church is suffering dearly from the lack of fidelity in her schools, and we must pray and work tirelessly to purge the infection of modernism in our own souls and in our beloved Catholic schools. We must strive to ever more fully realize St. Paul’s exhortation to the Church in Rome: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).


  • Joshua Long

    Joshua Long is an adult convert to the Catholic Church, as well as a teacher and musician.

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