On Catholic Education (Part 1)

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This time of year is usually set aside to honor Catholic Education and to encourage families to send their children to Catholic Schools. A lot of schools register students for the next school year in March, so publicizing Catholic schools a month or so before is a reminder to parents to register their children.

I thought that now would be an appropriate time to reflect a bit on Catholic education. I’m not trying to offer a sales pitch for Catholic schools, nor am I railing against them. Rather, this is an attempt to be realistic and balanced.

I begin with the disclaimer that I am a product of the Catholic school system, for the most part. I entered the system when I was five years old and entering kindergarten. I attended my parish grammar school.  When I went to high school it was at one of the Catholic schools in the area. I attended a State college (public school) for my undergraduate degree and eventually received a master’s degree (behavior science) from the University of Guam. So, my initial college education was outside of the Catholic system. However, a few years later I returned to graduate studies and earned another master’s degree, a canon law degree and eventually a Doctor of Ministry degree, all from Catholic educational institutions and all dealing with various aspects of theology. As a parent, my children have attended a mix of Catholic and public schools. I have also taught at both at public and Catholic colleges, though mostly at Catholic colleges.

Catholic education is almost as old as the Church. By the second century Christian communities were organizing religious education programs for their members. This included the Doktrina, type religious education programs with which we are familiar, as a way of passing on the faith to their children, as well as early RCIA programs for adults who wanted to come into the Church. The quality of these programs varied widely depending on the size of the community, the resources available to the community, the support of the local bishop and who ran the program.

For example, Alexandria, Egypt was one of the major cities of the Roman Empire and a cultural center with a long tradition in education. The most extensive library in the empire was located there and there were many schools and academies affiliated with the library. If you wanted the best education, that’s where you went. Several highly respected scholars, who were also Christians, lived and taught there. Eventually, they got the support of the bishop of Alexandria to start a school. It began as an off shoot of RCIA but soon expanded into a training program for ministers, sort of an early seminary. This school soon had some of the greatest Christian theologians and teachers on its faculty, including Origin, who is considered the Father of Theology. This same pattern developed in other major cities of the empire with large Christian populations. There were highly respected Christian schools in Rome, Antioch, Milan, Tours and Palestine, as well as Alexandria. Over the next few hundred years, if you were a bishop or theologian in the church, you were probably a graduate of one of these schools.

These catechetical schools flourished in the first few hundred years of the church, becoming well respected and recognized theological schools as Christianity became the state religion under  Constantine. Men such as Augustine, Jerome, John Cassian, Gregory Nazianzius, Basil, and John Chrysostom were associated with these schools. As the Roman Empire began to fracture under the pressure of barbarian invasions, the schools in the western part of the empire fell upon hard times.

Education became more focused on the practical tasks of preparing the children of the elites for political leadership once they became adults and educating the clergy. The setting for such education were monasteries and cathedral schools. Both settings were primarily boarding schools, one run by religious orders and the other by the secular clergy under the leadership of the local bishop. The schools provided a basic education in the classics of the Roman educational curriculum, which was a mix of philosophy, logic, literature, language and practical science. Skills in the arts, finance, medicine and the use of arms were taught to those whose educational path would require such knowledge. Most of these schools would be the rough equivalent of contemporary Catholic high schools. 

Some schools had better reputations than others and over time developed into what would become university centers. Alcuin was the headmaster of a monastery school in York, England around 800AD. This was about the time that Charlemagne united much of western Europe and established the capital of his empire in Aachen (in contemporary Germany near border with Belgium and the Netherlands). He was impressed with Alcuin’s reputation as an educator and invited him to Aachen to establish a school. Charlemagne wanted something more than just a cathedral school. His idea was for something closer to the academies still found in the Byzantine empire. Alcuin was charged with making this a reality.

What he produced was a prototype of the universities that would soon be established throughout Europe. Over the next few centuries universities were established in Bologna, Italy; Paris, France; and Oxford, England. These universities were strongly influenced by the Church, as was almost every European social institution, but their sponsorship was secular, usually the King and private donors. These schools provided the basic curriculum but also conducted research and were famous for the quality of the faculty that they attracted. They were also innovative and introduced new fields of study. For example, the University of Bologna was the first of these schools that offered certification in canon law as a course of study.

Over the next few centuries the number of schools increased throughout Europe and access to higher education expanded beyond the ruling elites. Education was accessible to the growing middle class and even basic literacy education and Sunday School level catechetics to the average person. The emergence of the Franciscan, Dominican and Jesuit orders helped to make this expansion of educational opportunities possible.

This was further fueled in recent centuries with the emergence of parish schools as part of the Catholic landscape. As secular governments began to require at least basic educational opportunities for most citizens, Catholic elementary schools provided an alternative to secular schools. They provided the basic educational content required by secular governments, while also offering formation in Catholic belief and practice.

The contemporary Catholic educational system, with its elementary, high school and university structure, reflects the long history of Catholic education. It is an educational structure that continues to undergo change, as it responds to the challenges of changing societies and educational resources. It is to these challenges and changes that I will turn in the remainder of this reflection.

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