We talk a lot about how Catholic schools offer an advantage to urban minority youth and help close the achievement gap, one of the main problems and injustices in the American education system. We talk a lot about how they have high graduation rates and send kids to college with incredible success. But the real Catholic school advantage is something quite deeper, I think, and bigger. It stems from the vision of what Catholic education is all about, and I think it is something of fundamental importance to American society, and something we need more of.
The full purpose of Catholic education is not only to produce able and employable workers and college graduates, though Catholic schools are exceptionally good at this. The full purpose of Catholic education is not only to form engaged, generous and responsible citizens that participate robustly in society and the democratic process, though Catholic schools are the best in the business at doing this as well. Catholic schools are about doing both of these things, but they are about something bigger and I think, of more fundamental importance.
Catholic schools are able to embrace a vision of education and a vision of the human person that is broader than a merely economic and political vision. A true education should be oriented towards the formation of the human person towards the fullness of life, towards the good, the true, and the beautiful, towards God. Education, to be full and real, must cultivate children towards the highest calling and the broadest vision of what it means to be human, towards the full realization of the good life. If we neglect the higher purpose and the higher calling of education, it is stunted and breeds a stunted society. It is impossible to engage in an education of this ideal kind without considering the fundamental questions of humanity. Questions like: What is the good life? What is the purpose of life? How should the good and just society be ordered? What is my responsibility within society? Is there a God? How can I be truly happy? How can I be truly free?
Catholic and faith based schools are able to engage fully in these deep questions and orient themselves explicitly towards this loftier ideal of forming children as whole human beings. It is, I suspect, perhaps even their secret sauce. Our faith informs our morality. Our morality informs our understanding of civic and social responsibility. Our faith and our morality inform our vision of ourselves and others, which in turn helps determine our goals for life, both academic and professional… and tangentially, as a by-product of this secret sauce, we send kids to college and form responsible and engaged citizens. But first and more importantly, Catholic schools form human beings and they orient children towards a more just and perfect vision of life, society and beyond. This, in the end, is of paramount importance. This is the real Catholic school advantage.