Matt C. Abbott
February 4, 2014
A response to 'Catholic Education, the Common Core and the New Evangelization'
By Matt C. Abbott

The following open letter, written by Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg, is addressed to Dominican Sister John Mary Fleming, executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Click here to read the National Catholic Register's Jan. 27, 2014 interview with Sister Fleming, to which Mr. Rummelsburg is responding.


Open Letter to Sister John Mary Fleming

By Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg

    In accord with the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which they possess, [lay people] have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and they have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful, with due regard to the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward their pastors, and with consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 907)
Dear Sister John Mary Fleming,

I write to you today as a Catholic educator striving for unswerving fidelity to Christ. It is truly my intention to share my expertise in an act of charity, not as an assertion of my rights as a Catholic parent, nor as an artifact of the duty incumbent upon me as the primary educator to my children, but to participate in this conversation for the sakes of millions of Catholic school children, their parents, and the common good that ought to grow as fruit out of well-ordered Catholic schools.

Sister, I believe that American Catholic education is in crisis. As Aristotle explained, "A small error in the beginning is a great error in the end." Years ago the parochial schools in America left the path of wisdom by allowing the secular humanist educational agenda to have an influence on the Catholic schools. While at first it may have seemed prudent to integrate Catholic schools with society, it has ended in corrupting what used to be the best education in the land.

I am very troubled by several statements and pressing problems concerning Catholic education in America revealed in the article "Catholic Education, the Common Core and the New Evangelization." As the executive director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat of Catholic Education, your pronouncements are tied to weighty consequences, which make urgent the need for clarification of some persistent key issues.

To begin, for the sake of clarity, I wish it to be understood that my positions are undergirded by the following three demonstrable facts:
  1. There has never been a better or more comprehensive form of education than an authentic classical Catholic education – one undergirded by a properly understood Catholic identity, elucidated by magisterial documents, Church doctors, and, most importantly, by Christ.

  2. The public schools are irretrievably bankrupt, partly because they have been untethered from moral and divine agency for generations. The standards-based educational programs, pioneered by secular humanists, produced corrupted pedagogy through dehumanizing curricula, with the final goal of social change. The methods and standards used by the public schools are anathema to all true concepts of education. It is morally and intellectually impossible to reconcile the secular humanist educational agenda with an authentic Catholic identity.

  3. The Catholic schools in America that have adopted state standards and seek state accreditation have left the path of wisdom and are in dire need of a return to an authentic Catholic identity and a properly understood Catholic philosophy of education.
Sister, you rightfully state that we are in dire need of articulating a "correct understanding of the philosophy of Catholic education." Pope Benedict XVI, in an address to Catholic educators in April 2008, had this to say about the philosophy of Catholic education:
    Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News. First and foremost, every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth (cf. Spe Salvi, 4). This relationship elicits a desire to grow in the knowledge and understanding of Christ and his teaching. In this way those who meet him are drawn by the very power of the Gospel to lead a new life characterized by all that is beautiful, good, and true; a life of Christian witness nurtured and strengthened within the community of our Lord's disciples, the Church.

    Teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. This requires that public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church's Magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution's life, both inside and outside the classroom. Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual.
"Public witness to the way of Christ" seems at odds with contributing "to the general welfare of society." St. Leo the Great commented on Acts 3:6, that time when St. Peter had no alms for the crippled beggar but instead said: "Silver and gold is not mine, but what I have that I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise and walk." Leo the Great remarked, "What more sublime than this humility? What richer than this poverty? St. Peter, who gave not Csar's image in a coin, restored Christ's image on the man." This is the mission of the Catholic school – not to extend the governmental corrupted idea of welfare, but to restore Christ's image on all His children. If this is what you meant by "contributing to the general welfare of society," than please forgive my misunderstanding.

As Monsignor Ronald Knox said: "We are here to colonize heaven not make things better on earth." Our beloved Catholic schools seem to have blurred the line between first and second things. Pope Benedict elucidates the first things that concern Catholic schools. First things are permanent things: charity, Christ, Church doctrine, principles of truth, and the virtues. Second things are temporary: material goods, contributing to society, and committing to action.

The reason that a Catholic education must not focus on improving conditions in society is best explained by C.S. Lewis, who said, "When you put first things first, second things are not suppressed, but increase." Improving material conditions in society is a second thing that follows the first thing of a well-ordered character, especially a character conformed to Christ. C.S. Lewis further explained that "when you put second things first, you lose both first and second." A proper philosophy of Catholic education is concerned solely with the first things as is demonstrated by Pope Benedict's clear statement; the second things, like societal welfare, will take care of themselves.

Along these same lines, all those beautiful things you listed for the new evangelization belong properly to parents and parish and for the most efficacious results, new evangelization efforts ought to be directed properly and full time at the students attending the schools. First, by removing all secular humanist agendas, materials, ideas and curriculum and second, by making a swift return to an authentic classical education grounded in an authentic Catholic identity.

In 1983, the Department of Education delivered the report A Nation at Risk. It confirmed that our public schools were in a dire state of degeneration. Diane Ravetich made the chilling assertion that America's sworn enemy could do no more to destroy us than to foist upon us our current system of public education. Things have only gotten worse!

There are even many secular humanists speaking out against the Common Core, such as Sandra Stotsky, James Milgram and Ze'ev Wurman, several of whom worked on developing and approving these standards. Add to that the commentary of the highly esteemed 132 Catholic professors who wrote a sobering letter to the bishops speaking plainly about the blatant deficiencies of Common Core and the dangers of adopting this secular agenda in parochial schools and it seems unconscionable to recommend further damage be done by adopting Common Core to any degree.

An understanding of the history of the public schools ought to dissuade all Catholics from considering an alliance to any form of secular education. Dr. Daniel P. Coupland, associate professor of education at Hillsdale College in Michigan, wrote a very informative article, a brief history of the Common Core evolution. It includes:
    Horace Mann is known as the 'Father of the Common School Movement.' In the late 1800s, politicians and social leaders looked to the schools to solve pressing social needs brought on by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Many leading education theorists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century – including John Dewey, William H. Kilpatrick, G. Stanley Hall, and others – developed or promoted progressive solutions to these pressing social needs. For the first half of the 20th Century, progressive theories – such as child-centered pedagogy and practical/work-related curricula – dominated much of the education landscape.
It is a sacred duty to our children to protect them from the soul damage caused by the bankrupt public schools. Adopting state standards and, worse still, the Common Core, can do nothing but harm to our Catholic children. The results of this damage are already painfully obvious in our graduates and the precipitously deteriorating quality of our parochial schools

California Catholic schools began to adopt state standards in the 1990s. In Kansas, some dioceses adopted the standards as early as the 1950s. Most Catholic schools in all the states have adopted state standards. This has had a devastating impact on the souls of children and the families that send their children to parochial schools. Decades ago, Bishop Fulton Sheen said, "If you want [your children] to lose their faith, send them to a Catholic school." There has been no improvement since that disturbing statement; in fact, things have deteriorated at an alarming rate.

In closing, Sister, I would like to think for a moment about one of your final statements. You say, "It would be irresponsible for us to ignore the Common Core and not evaluate what our children will be up against in terms of content and testing." Sister, you also stated, "Standards have been a part of the educational landscape for quite some time." That this is true is no reason to continue, but to look back and examine the dangers inherent in having our parochial schools mimic the failing public schools. A clear view ought to incite us to reverse course and return to an authentic Catholic education. The argument that our Catholic children will not be prepared to participate in this world if they don't have Common Core is a dangerous notion and patently untrue. As Christ said, "For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his immortal soul?"

In light of all the magisterial documents on Catholic education, it would be irresponsible to consider orienting any of our questions about education towards what the state is doing. There is a clear cut choice and what lies at the heart of the direction we go is our definition of success. If we are concerned with material success through our education, then by all means have at the public school agenda which is exclusively focused on the political/material world. But if we seek to spread the Gospel message, and to teach the whole person to conform to Christ, than the secular influence must be eliminated. Our Lord Jesus Christ said, "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other." Our beloved Catholic schools cannot serve the state and God.

An authentic Catholic classical education is no more just one of many equally viable educational alternatives than the Catholic Faith is only one of many equally viable religions. Just like Holy Mother Church is the One True Church, classic Catholic education is the one true form of education because it meets the true ends of the human person according to the Christian anthropology. The truth is that students learn differently in the same way that different fields in different climates are farmed differently. Though a few techniques and practices may vary from place to place because of climate and soil type, the seeds, sun, water, and goal of producing fruit are universal. Just so, the human soul was made for virtue and an education without the virtues is no education at all. The public schools and especially the Common Core are devoid of virtue.

The problem is that the Common Core does not lend itself to the "good life," in fact God is purposefully cut out of the education process and the main means of thinking encourages reference to self, not to truth. It is built on the seven vices and standards based education encourages idolatry, not the cultivation of virtue. The Common Core agenda is diametrically opposed to an authentic Catholic education. The notion that a Catholic school can adopt and sanctify the Common Core is a grave error, akin to planting thorn bushes and believing that one can produce apples, or putting just a little gasoline in water and believing that the water will remain potable.

Sister John Mary Fleming, I beg you to allow me to take part in this conversation and I invite you in the spirit of good faith and charity to challenge me to elucidate, clarify and expand upon any one of the points I have made in this letter. As well, I invite you to correct me where you believe I have erred. This is a complicated set of issues further obscured by many years of slightly increasing disorder that has now mounted into a real threat to our Catholic school children – not to their material success, but to their souls. I pray that the light from the Lord shines on our path.
    Yours in Christ,

    Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg
(Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Catholic convert and teacher with over 20 years of experience in the classroom. He graduated in 1991 from the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a degree in history. He writes and speaks on education, culture and religion, and is catechist at his parish.)

© Matt C. Abbott

 

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Matt C. Abbott

Matt C. Abbott is a Catholic commentator with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, media and theatre from Northeastern Illinois University. He's been interviewed on MSNBC, NPR, WLS-TV (ABC) in Chicago, WMTV (NBC) in Madison, Wis., and has been quoted in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. He can be reached at mattcabbott@gmail.com.


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