by Chris Canniff
This week all across the nation, Catholic schools are celebrating their heritage as part of the annual National Catholic Schools Week. I have been in the system, so to speak, for nearly my entire life, and I owe just about everything that I am to my Catholic education.
I first walked into a classroom in September of 1995, at the age of three. In just a few short months at the age of 22, I will walk into Alumni Stadium to receive my diploma from Boston College. Nevertheless, my journey through the halls of Catholic academia will not end there. I will be returning to BC in the fall for a master’s program in
theology, which will take me one year to complete, giving me a grand total of twenty years of Catholic schooling. And yet, that won’t quite be the end either. I plan to become a theology
professor one day, so doctoral work certainly lies ahead of me, and given my academic discipline, that means more Catholic schooling. Furthermore, it is quite likely that I will then teach at a
Catholic college or university. From where I stand now, it seems that Catholic education will be the defining feature of my entire life.
My story of reflection on Catholic education begins when I was in 9th grade. At that time, my older sister was in 12th grade at the same Catholic high school. Just after her graduation, she received a gift from a family friend. He has quite a sense of humor, and as a Jew who grew up in predominantly Catholic Boston, he understood the stereotypes surrounding Catholic education. The gift he gave to my sister was a black t-shirt, which read in white lettering, “Catholic School Survivor.” My sister was going on to attend the University of Rhode Island, and so she had indeed “survived” her time in Catholic education.
But my sister never wore the shirt. She’s always been a bit too fashion-forward for t-shirts, especially ones that aren’t in pastel colors. I, however, thought it was funny, and so she gave it to me. On my very last day of school in 12th grade, I wore that t-shirt. A teacher or two gave me odd looks. Classmates laughed when they read it. And in the afternoon as I walked out of the building one final time, heading for my car which I always parked on a side street near the far end of the campus, a man in a truck who was sitting at a red light rolled down his window to call out to me that he liked my shirt.
The irony was that I was heading to Boston College that fall to begin four more years of Catholic education, having already “survived” fifteen years – two years of preschool followed by kindergarten through 12th grade. I know of only one other student here at BC who has been in Catholic school for as long as I have.
I value Catholic education very highly, or else I would not be planning to devote my life to it. However, the question that I often find myself contemplating is “Why do so many who go through it think of themselves more as survivors, like the t-shirt says, rather than as proud recipients of a valuable and precious gift?”
First, much of what people think of when thinking of Catholic education is an outdated stereotype, even though their actual experiences may differ radically. Yet, many of them will still feed into the perpetuation of this stereotype to such a point where they will tell others about it as if the stereotype had been true. Notable stereotypes include the presence of curmudgeonly habited nuns and the constant and almost obsessive hammering away at the notion of “Catholic guilt.”
In my nineteen years of Catholic schooling, I have encountered neither of those realities in any of my classes. I have been taught by a few nuns (and priests as well); all have been pleasant, and none wore habits. And as far as guilt is concerned, I think it should have been talked about a great deal more, for I can recall no concrete memory of being taught about guilt, which after all is the sign of a properly functioning conscience.
My second point is contrarily a problem that is specifically incumbent on the schools themselves. Many no longer offer an education that could be distinctively called Catholic. The religious component is relegated strictly to religion classes, which are notoriously the least academically demanding of a student’s many subjects. In particular, I think back to my 12th grade courses. I studied Latin, English, calculus, physics, psychology, and theology; each was either an honors or Advanced Placement class.
In Latin, I read Vergil’s Aeneid. In English, I read such works as Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Huxley’s Brave New World. In calculus and physics, I learned all sorts of equations of differentiation, integration, etc; I could calculate the rate of increase in the volume of conical piles or the relation of two objects in motion, one free-fall and the other projectile. In psychology, brain chemistry was explored and social and behavioral patterns were discussed. In theology, we sat around and smiled at each other.
Our theology books contained nothing as complex as Latin poetry in the original language or Shakespearean verse or single-variable calculus or whatnot. Instead there were pictures of flowers and people having fun together, and as for written substance, there wasn’t much. The Catholic intellectual tradition is no shallow flash-in-the-pan ideology. Rather, it is a two thousand year tradition of serious thought and reflection. Why are students not exposed to the likes of Augustine’s Confessions, Aquinas’ Summa, Dante’s Commedia, or John Paul II’s Theology of the Body? If students can handle weighty works in all of their other courses, why are they not presented with the best that Christianity has to offer?
Despite these deficiencies, what makes Catholic education so wonderful is the dedication of the teachers who work tirelessly for their students, earning far less than their public school counterparts. They believe so strongly in the mission of Catholic schools to educate the whole student that they sacrifice the pay to further that mission. Whatever may be lacking in specific religious education is often compensated for by the example of these dedicated men and women.
When my last day of class comes this year, I likely won’t wear the “Catholic School Survivor” t-shirt. Even though it may get some laughs, rather than fan the flames of stereotypes and general discontent, I will set aside time to thank God for the opportunity I have had to receive such a fantastic education and for the special educators who helped to shape me by their teaching and their Christian witness.