Jan. 25-31 is Catholic Schools week in the United States, celebrated with the theme “Catholic Schools: Communities of Faith, Knowledge, and Service.”
One might think of Catholic Schools as only a personal religious choice in education that parents make for their children, but there is a significant civic contribution that Catholic education makes to our community, beyond the savings in public taxes that would otherwise be expended to build and operate more public schools. The values, behaviors, attitudes and habits formed in students through the Catholic school curriculum are intentionally designed to form better workers for the economy and better citizens for our neighborhoods and world.
Being private, nonprofit organizations, Catholic schools rely heavily on a spirit of community building and volunteerism. Community building and volunteerism are worthy values and habits in themselves, but they also teach students the related skills of team work and collaboration. This is an example of what social scientists call social capital, and it is understood that social capital, the trust and willingness to collaborate with others, is what builds and maintains healthy functional communities.
Catholic education emphasizes the use of both reason and faith as modes of learning — metaphorically speaking, both the head and the heart. Looking through life’s challenges through the twin lenses of reason and faith provides a more nuanced, empathetic, compassionate view of life and it’s many complexities, whether they be in personal, professional or public realms of one’s life. Such a nuanced view of life’s complexities should allow for a more nuanced reaction to life’s complexities.
Human dignity, empathy and respect for others are public attitudes taught in Catholic schools. Such attitudes facilitate tolerance in public life and empower community building in cities and neighborhoods. To respect the human dignity inherent in each individual is the civil starting point in public discussions about any law or public policy.
Catholics are called to view life as sacramental, to find God in all things. Such a world view is an optimistic one about human nature and society. It posits that even in the messiness of public life, most profoundly messy in a democratic society, that there is possibility, even perhaps probability, that if we are inclusive, act with justice, collaborate with others, we can build a good society. A sacramental world view is constantly challenged by our weaknesses, failings and stupidities as people, but it is a world view that provides hope.
Catholic education is recognized for stressing moral values in and outside of the classroom, developing in students a moral optic, that is, seeing situations, institutions and behavior expectations with a moral tint, while at the same time recognizes that all human beings and therefore all human institutions are fallible and imperfect. Through a moral optic public behaviors and public institutions are held to higher standards. For example, could a moral optic trained on the risky financial products and services in play at the time averted the financial crises of 2008?
Catholic school education is much more than a personal choice parents make. It is a brand of education that intentionally and diligently works toward forming good people and good citizens, strengthening the social fabric of our communities. During Catholic Schools Week 2015, let us congratulate and thank all faculty, staff, administrators, parents and students in our Catholic schools.
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Steve Neiheisel, Ph.D. is founding director of the graduate certificate in nonprofit & community leadership at the University of Dayton.